All Pastor Dale Hulme wants is a functional heating system to warm his Minneapolis church. But for the past three years, he’s been grappling with a complex dispute over its gas bills, a finicky boiler and temperature fluctuations that at times required worshipers to wrap up in blankets.
“I call it the problem du jour, the problem of the day,” said Hulme, of St. Olaf Lutheran Church in north Minneapolis. “Last Sunday we had a leaking pipe and I had to go to Menards and buy a pipe repair kit and fix it. This week, I forgot to turn off the radiator in our office, because if we don’t, it gets so hot that it will fry your computer. So it was 80 or 90 degrees when I got in.”
“They didn’t teach us about this in seminary,” he added.
St. Olaf’s struggles point to a common headache — and sometimes crisis — facing older churches across Minnesota during this frigid time of the year. With increasingly tight budgets, and often shrinking membership, they’re striving to both pay for heat and maintain their half-century-old heating systems generating it.
In the floor below their lovely old sanctuaries of stained glass and rich woodwork loom clunky metal boilers the size of small cars. They’re the lifeline to both worship services and community services. And at St. Olaf, that means meeting space for a North Side hockey program, a meals program, sewing club and social events for a diverse congregation.
St. Olaf’s temperature troubles are particularly unusual. It started with a 2015 foreclosure of a nursing home next door associated with the church that left dozens of unpaid bills that directly or indirectly impacted the church, said Hulme.
Last fall, the church’s heat was cut off because it couldn’t pay a $23,000 bill related to the foreclosure, said Hulme. After a news report shared photos of Sunday worshipers huddled under blankets in the pews, the church received donations that reduced the bill to about $12,000, Hulme said.
But after the heat was turned back on in November, the boiler malfunctioned. The temperature in the sanctuary soared, and it wasn’t from a heated sermon.
“We went one extreme to another,” Hulme said.
This year started out with the usual boiler problems, with Hulme and the custodian troubleshooting. But in the midst of the polar vortex this month, the thermostat in the sanctuary broke, releasing a tropical heat wave.
“We had a large funeral and sweated through that,” Hulme said. “On the following Sunday, it was 90 degrees in the organ loft.”
“Then a radiator pipe started leaking,” he said.
This week, the church received notice from CenterPoint Energy saying it would cut off the gas for the hot water in the building, but not for the heat. No hot water is a problem for the staff offices, said Hulme, and for the kitchen facilities in the fellowship hall. Those facilities are used by St. Olaf groups as well as a church that rents space from St. Olaf’s and provides some revenue.
CenterPoint issued this statement: “Our customers are important to us and CenterPoint Energy is working closely with St. Olaf and its counsel to reach a resolution of the issue on the account. We expect to reach a mutually agreeable resolution shortly.”
Hulme, meanwhile, is still facing the mega heating bill from the nursing home closing and isn’t sure what his next steps will be. The 145-year-old church, he said, welcomes any donations.
The pastor still tries to be positive about the travails of winter, noting that the church runs a hockey and figure skating program and now is organizing a downhill ski trip to Wild Mountain.
He sees parallels between St. Olaf’s financial struggles and that of the community it serves. Like its neighbors, he said, the church will continue to forge ahead despite the challenges in front of it.
“We exist by the grace of God,” said Hulme, “and are at least able to address a few of the difficulties people in north Minneapolis encounter in their daily lives.”