It's a story that is becoming familiar, even in a church-filled city such as Abilene.
A congregation dwindles over time, one day deciding it no longer can support a large campus. They can merge with another church or relocate. Or close.
Brook Hollow Christian Church, which in 2019 saw its sister church, First Christian, move about 7 miles from downtown Abilene to across from Wylie High School, chose to move.
To a shopping center.
A church replanted
For a time, a merger between those two Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregations was considered. First Christian faced a timeline, having sold its downtown site to First Baptist Church.
The two congregations "dated," if you will, but did not "marry." Each was too engaged as a congregation to want to blend.
"It became obvious that God was calling both congregations to do different things," said Chesna Riley, a co-pastor of Brook Hollow with Penny Biddy.
She said all three Disciples congregations in Abilene are cheerleaders for each other.
Brook Hollow did take in First Christian's mother's day out program during that church's transition to a standalone site, a former church building, on Antilley Road.
"We have held each other through (recent changes)," Riley said.
Brook Hollow, with the east-facing window in the shape of a fish at the corner of South 23rd and South Willis streets, now can be found at the east end of Woodhaven Shopping Center.
Near Hobby Lobby.
On Sunday, the Brook Hollow congregation will celebrate its first Easter in its much smaller space. Nine round tables were set up for Lent, and there's a TV screen on which song lyrics are shown.
There is an altar, with two small stained-glass windows from the former church leaning against a wall at each side.
There's room for a piano, not an upright, and a folding chair for Downing Bolls to strum his guitar.
It seems a bit temporary, but it's the new Brook Hollow for the next three years.
As Easter represents a new day for Christians, this is a new day for Brook Hollow.
"It's like that old saying, bloom where you planted," longtime member Susan Robinson said. "In this case, it's bloom where you are transplanted."
FYI, look for BHCC
It's advertised as BHCC.
Not to be hip, perhaps like University Church of Christ that now is branded UCC.
First, the 20 letters of the church's formal name wouldn't fit.
Second, have you see the price of signage lately?
"The BHCC and the chalice should give it away that we are here," Riley said.
Three women involved in the move laughed about that. Their humor and spirits remain high after a tough decision to move from the corner of South 23rd and Willis streets. The first service there was in September 1959.
Now, the congregation of fewer than 30 members meets between WNC Guns and Star D, a sewing shop.
Recently, members of local car clubs rendezvoused in the shopping center's large parking lot and, just as morning worship at BHCC ended, roared off to Hooters on the other side town.
Brook Hollow has entered life in the fast lane.
The road to fruition
The moving process began close to five years ago, longtime church board member Debbie Bolls said. She was board chairperson during the church's transition.
"We were looking at our budgeting on a year-to-year basis and every year we'd say, 'We can't continue,'" she said. Give or take $10,000, the church was $41,000 each year. "It was a situation we knew was not sustainable.
"We didn't want to come down to the last dollar and lock the doors and walk away."
In fall 2020, with a pandemic making the church's challenge more challenging, it was decided it was time to take a step toward the future. Looking at the 2021 budget, and another deficit, the congregation saw no other way.
Robinson took the role of transition team chairperson.
Her task was to see "what the congregation wanted to do and how we would manage going forward," Bolls said.
Team members included those who had been invested in Brook Hollow for years and had served in various leadership roles.
Debbie and Downing Bolls, for example, were married at Brook Hollow in 1978 and "settled in" as members in 1984.
Robinson joined in 1978. She believes she went to the Bolls wedding
"The first question I asked them was 'What do you see Brook Hollow being?'" Robinson said of her plan for the congregation. She gave members quiet time to consider that goal.
The conversation, she said, was "gut-wrenching and heart-breaking," Robinson said.
Be realistic. Be forward-thinking.
"So much of what we did was tied to the building," she said. "We knew we were going to have to turn that upside down."
Three committees were formed and tasked:
► Property, to sell the Brook Hollow campus and finding a new home.
► Communication, to make sure everyone knew what was going on.
"We wanted to make sue we brought everyone along with every step we took
► "Looking Into the Future," a group named by Robinson to study a new church's structure and programs could be offered at a new facility.
Robinson said the same goal was reached: Let's stay together as a congregation and "move somewhere we could function efficiently."
"They wanted to stay together as a family. We are small enough to be family," Robinson said. "I consider everyone in the congregation family. "
Vote to move
When it came to a decision to sell the property and relocate, 28 members voted. Thirty-two letters had been mailed.
That's down from about 200 in the 1980s.
Riley said small congregations are not uncommon these days. That's what they were told in seminary, that most would be 100 people or fewer.
"And the majority of those are under 50," Riley said.
Her ties to Brook Hollow go back not quite 20 years. She was the organist before she was, in her words, "trapped" into youth ministry. It was an interim role that never went away. She had plans to move out of the country and was asked to help until she did.
Riley never moved and five years ago, became co-pastor with Biddy.
"And it has been a wonderful experience and you wouldn't trade it for anything in the world," Robinson ribbed her pastor.
"Sure," Riley said, laughing.
Robinson said Brook Hollow made a commitment to support both women to complete their master's degrees and then to support them in their church roles.
"This is the reality of ministry," Riley said. "If you can't help a church through transition, that limits the kind of church you can serve. That's across denominational lines. For Penny and I both, we had been with this church long enough and grown with it."
What she saw rise above the decline in membership was the discipleship of those who remained.
"Let's talk about how people showed up and were the hands and feet of God for each other," she said.
Biddy graduates May 6 from Abilene Christian University with two master's degrees - Master of Divinity and Master of Arts and Oriental Christianity.
Riley will finish her ordination process in December, graduating from Phillips University (Okla.) with her Master of Divinity.
Riley and Biddy knew transition was coming. Both were good with being involved with that challenge, she said. If Brook Hollow could support them through their education processes, they could support Brook Hollow.
"We can help do this unknown thing," she promised the members.
Searching for a new home
So, where would Brook Hollow land?
First, they didn't want to move into a space that required the same amount of maintenance that Brook Hollow required.
Bolls said sites were studied, and a building on South Leggett Drive was considered a front-runner. The congregation didn't want to go south because there now are two in the Wylie area (the other is Wylie Christian Church, at the corner of Buffalo Gap and Antilley roads). They are about a half-mile apart.
The Leggett site wasn't chosen because not all the boxes of Brook Hollow's needs lists were checked. For example, it didn't have a kitchen.
It also needed work. And because Brook Hollow's future has yet to be fully mapped, the congregation didn't want to invest time and resources at perhaps a temporary home.
Then came the Woodhaven site, formerly BlueSprig, a therapy service for children that was associated with nearby West Texas Rehabilitation Center.
It had a large open space for worship, two restrooms ... and a kitchenette.
There are small offices for each pastor and space for some storage. There is a place for youth classes, too.
The older members can hear better than in the former sanctuary, where the sound was lost in such a big space.
It's fully accessible.
And, there's a drive-up coffee stop, Fox Coffee, that's open Sundays.
"It was God inspired that we were given this location at the very end," Robinson said.
The space is functional so "that we could make changes when we needed to," she said.
They wanted a one-year lease but three was required.
And that was OK. No one wanted to move in and then consider another move in short order.
"I attribute that to God saying, 'You don't want to do this again immediately,'" Robinson said.
The Brook Hollow site has been purchased by Beltway Park Church. Its zoning request to renovate the campus to create a neighborhood daycare and counseling facility has been approved by the Abilene City Council.
The first Easter
Brook Hollow moved in Thanksgiving Sunday.
Christmas came, and now it's Easter.
"We just want to celebrate as a group," Riley said.
A combined Sunday school, with all groups together in the worship room, was being considered.
"Before we go into big Easter worship," she said. "We're finding new music and new ways to make lots of noise."
Robinson said the new space has heightened the pastors' creativity.
"They are so excited," she said.
"Nothing's bolted down," Riley jumped in.
Some things have worked well, other things not so well.
"And that's great because we are getting to try it," Riley said.
Plans already are being made for Easter 2023.
How about a sunrise service in the parking lot?
"Bring our camping chairs and greet the sunrise," Riley said. "With song and coffee. Take breakfast over to Fox Coffee because they keep our pastors happy on Sunday morning."
And Fox Coffee will be open Easter. They've already checked.
Another advantage to being located in a shopping center.
Greg Jaklewicz is editor of the Abilene Reporter-News and general columnist. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.
This article originally appeared on Abilene Reporter-News: Hollowed ground: Congregation welcomes Easter at shopping center site