Skillman Church of Christ. Photo by Sam Gillespie.

Skillman Church of Christ, part of the East Dallas landscape since 1951, is considering dissolving its charter, conveying its real estate and merging its congregation with The Hills, a non-denominational church in Tarrant County.

The congregation is split on the issue. Some staunchly seek the new relationship, and others want to keep the real estate and believe a new mission can turn the tide of declining membership. Whatever path Skillman chooses, it will mean changes to the neighborhood.

The history of Skillman Church of Christ begins in 1911, when the downtown Pearl and Bryan Church of Christ Church of Christ authorized a new church outpost in East Dallas on Garrett Avenue, one block north of Ross. The congregation grew quickly and another new building, which still exists today, was commissioned in 1925 for the corner of Sears and Summit. By 1950, church membership at Sears and Summit had grown to nearly 800. As a result, the congregation sought the construction of yet another building, holding their first service at the new Skillman Church of Christ on Dec. 16, 1951.

In 2000, the church added the Family Life Center that houses offices, meeting rooms, a gymnasium and a commercial-quality kitchen.

According to several members, the Skillman congregation peaked at about 1,000 and has been declining for decades. What’s left is 150 members, about 60 that meet regularly for Sunday services in the chapel. The main sanctuary is now just too big.

The drop in church membership is not a new phenomenon in the U.S. or in our neighborhood. Other East Dallas congregations have experienced similar declines and pivoted to rebuild their memberships. In 2010, Highland Park United Methodist Church invested resources to breathe back life into Munger Place Methodist Church. Lakeside Baptist Church at 9150 Garland Road merged with the Rockwall-based, non-denominational Lakepointe in 2017.

Reasons for declining congregations are as different as the churches that experience it. In the case of Skillman, 28-year member Tom Crabb, who supports the merger, sees the struggle between older and younger generations over changing cultural values and biblical interpretation. Longtime member June Martin, who opposes the merger, said that as one group leaves because the church is moving too fast, the other group leaves because the church isn’t moving fast enough.

Members say the current timeline is for the congregation to take a vote Sunday, May 15. It will require two-thirds of the votes to clear a path for the merger.

Don Williams, a member since 1968 who opposes the merger, said the church carries no property debt and the merger would also include the transfer of endowment funds and investments of nearly $3 million.

The church has been a landmark of East Dallas for 70 years. Its steeple in the Lakewood Heights neighborhood is a comforting and welcome site to residents and visitors.

Skillman has been a good neighbor to nearby residents and Tietze Park but has become less engaged as the congregation got smaller. For years, the church held a free (donations encouraged) Thanksgiving dinner for neighbors. And an annual Easter egg hunt in Tietze Park for neighborhood children was hosted by the church. Neither has been scheduled in recent years.

The current zoning on the 6.2-acre site is Planned Development District (PD) 586, granted to the church when it built the Family Life addition. PD 586 gave approval for the new building site plan and parking but maintained the development standards (lot size, setbacks, etc.) for single-family zoning R7.5(A).

Whatever the decision, both groups support the Skillman Child Development Center. The center, in operation since 1994, is a well-respected pre-school for kids 18 months – 5 years. Student enrollment nears 300 kids and typically has a wait list. The school operates somewhat independent of the church, occupying a building on campus but paying rent to the church.

If a change to The Hills is a catalyst for significant membership growth, will there be parking issues on Wednesday and Sunday? Will there be changes to the real estate? How would The Hills approach community engagement with Tietze Park, the M streets, Wilshire Heights, Lakewood Heights, Lower Greenville and Stonewall Terrace?

The Hills has three campuses in Tarrant County and has shown the ability to grow church membership. Renewed neighborhood engagement certainly happened at Munger Place as it transformed.

Craig Gray is an elder at Skillman and supports the merger. “The current trajectory is not sustainable,” Davis says. “A partnership with The Hills provides the infusion of both human and financial resources to ensure that we are able to continue and expand programming like our Child Development Center, youth sports and activities, summer camps, counseling and wellness services and more for years to come.”

Williams, with former senior pastor and current member John Mark Davidson, envision “an invitation to collaborate.”

“We want to identify who in the community is already giving back, work to connect with them and provide space and resources,“ Davidson said.

Their model is White Rock United Methodist Church (WRUMC) in Little Forest Hills. WRUMC was nearly extinct several years ago when they established new bearings, hired a community engagement person on staff and turned back the curve. Their new vision included a community garden in the parking lot and coworking space in the basement. They have built partnerships with programs for special needs kids, a dance studio and language education. WRUMC and local elementary school Alex Sanger never sought common ground. Now they do.

Williams and Davidson could see tomatoes and cucumbers on Monticello and small businesses blooming in a “Skillman WeWork.”

This decision will be deeply personal for each voting member of the Skillman Church of Christ. There is risk in any choice. But status quo could mean the congregation shrivels to a handful, the doors close and 6.2-acre site goes up for sale to the highest bidder.

The hearts of the communities around the church are with the congregation and pray the outcome will be a vibrant church and a newly engaged neighbor.

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