After 70 years of funerals, a church held a funeral for itself Sunday.
North Heights Lutheran, the former megachurch of Arden Hills, closed permanently after a service that puzzled and stunned parishioners.
“This is like a divorce, or anything else that is going to mean a lifetime of healing,” said church member Zelda Erickson.
“God is still on the throne. But maybe God wants us to go to another church.”
The congregation did not know that the church’s staff, including pastor Mindy Bak, had been fired on Thursday. But Bak showed up anyway, and after she said the last tearful goodbye, she left for good.
“I am done here. I came this morning as a volunteer,” Bak said by phone after the service.
The church was once one of the biggest in the state, with 3,400 attending services weekly. About 10 years ago, attendance and income started to slide. In June, Bak laid off half of the 88-person staff and shut down a satellite church in Roseville.
Immediately, the church split. Roughly two-thirds of the congregation left and began holding services in a nearby hotel under the name “Bondservants.”
On March 6, before a crowd of about 250, Bak announced the closing of the church. Twice that many showed up Sunday — for a service that seemed to show a church in denial.
There was no mention that it was the last service. There was no sermon, no nostalgic look back at the past 70 years, not a single goodbye or even a thank-you.
The service was almost entirely music from the seven-piece house band and the 60-voice choir. The only hint that something was wrong was in the readings and hymns.
During one prayer, the line, “A time to be born and a time to die” from Ecclesiastes 3 caused a ripple in the congregation. When a line from another song appeared on the 40-by-30-foot screen — “greater things are still to come here” — spontaneous applause erupted.
Church leaders have not told parishioners why it is shutting down, or what the church’s financial condition is. They have not said what will happen to the 43-acre church campus and the 1,350-capacity sanctuary.
The church’s K-8th-grade school will be open at least through the end of the school year, Bak said.
Bak’s term as senior pastor was short, she said by phone after the service, as the terms of previous pastors have been. “One of the things that churches in a death spiral do is consume leaders at an ever-hastening pace,” she said.
Out of 88 employees a year ago, said Bak, only three remain. “They will handle the final stages of the closure, or whatever else happens,” Bak said.
Some reporters and photographers were ejected during the service. Three security guards surrounded Bak at the end of the service, as congregants waited in line to hug her goodbye.
They used the same word repeatedly to describe the service: unbelievable.
“The message here is, ‘This doesn’t feel good. We don’t like it,’” said Mark Johnson, a choir singer and 15-year church member.
He isn’t sure what he is going to do on Sunday mornings. “I am looking for a place where God can use me,” Johnson said.
Some church members believe the church is out of money.
Church member David, a Minneapolis remodeling contractor who didn’t want to give his last name, said, “We got into debt, and we can’t resolve our differences. It’s a little embarrassing. This is not who we are supposed to be.”
Others blamed the members of the breakaway group, which held two services Sunday. But some said they were eager to join that church next Sunday.
Church member Erickson found the all-music service inspiring. She is moving on — although not as a part of the church. “I think the Lord allowed this. We are all supposed to be searching our lives right now,” Erickson said.
“God is saying to me, ‘Take my hand, Zelda. Stand up and go on in the world.’”
Sandra Olmsted was not at the service. She is a 21-year member who now worships with the Bondservants.
She said the closure of the church doesn’t mean it is dead. “Just because the keys are turned over to the bank doesn’t mean they are disbanded,” Olmsted said.
“There in no sense that this congregation is going away. We have just had some very poor leadership driving a wedge between us.” It might be possible, she said, that somehow the Bondservants could re-occupy the building.
But in the parking lot, stunned worshippers stood around aimlessly as earthquake survivors.
Three of them gathered by a minivan, trying to figure out what just happened.
One recalled the Old Testament tale of Solomon, who ordered that a baby be cut in half and split between two women — knowing that the true mother would give up and let the healthy baby go to the other woman.
North Heights, said one parishioner, has been pulled apart because neither side loved it enough.
“They just split the baby,” she said.