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The outside of the Skillman Church of Christ building in Dallas. The sanctuary at the Skillman church has not been used for worship for over two years.
Closing Churches
Photo by Cheryl Mann Bacon

‘Grandmother church’ of Dallas fights for its future

Path uncertain for Skillman congregation after vote to merge fails despite majority support.

DALLAS — The steeple at the Skillman Church of Christ stretches skyward above a red-brick, Georgian building, a Dallas landmark on one of the city’s longest streets.

Three pairs of locked double doors once opened to a sanctuary that seated 1,200 when constructed in 1951. Remodeling over the years reduced the capacity to 650, but the church hasn’t used the space for worship since before the pandemic. And it hasn’t been full in decades.

On June 12, about 80 members gathered there to vote on their future.

After decades of decline, the vote ended months of speculation, anticipation and dread. Under church bylaws, a two-thirds majority of eligible members voting was required to support a proposal by the Skillman elders to become a fourth satellite campus of The Hills Church of Christ in suburban Fort Worth.

Of 144 in-person and mail-in votes cast, 94 voted yes. However, 96 were required to approve. The motion failed. Audible gasps echoed through the small crowd. A man walking down the aisle muttered, “Two. Votes.”

About 80 members gather in the Skillman church sanctuary to vote on June 12.

About 80 members gather in the Skillman church sanctuary to vote on June 12.

Since February, a group calling itself Save Skillman has included a photo of the iconic steeple on its Facebook posts, emblazoned with the words: “Steeple-jacking: It’s when a large church targets a declining congregation for the purpose of taking over its facilities.”

Not everyone agrees with that description of the conversations between the shrinking Dallas congregation and the largest Church of Christ in the U.S.

Not everyone agrees about how they got here or what happens next.

Not everyone agrees.

How did it come to this?

A few hours earlier in the adjacent and much smaller chapel, Jake Jacobson preached to about 80 folks. His text: John 8. His message: forgiveness.

“God’s forgiveness is for us all,” he told the audience. “He wants us to learn how to forgive each other.”

Jake Jacobson

Jake Jacobson

The 31-year-old preacher said after months of arguments, anger and labels — and regardless of the vote’s outcome — “God is still God, and Jesus is the great I Am.”

Preachers who have filled Skillman’s pulpit over seven decades include names known throughout the fellowship and especially among Texas churches: John Bannister, Mike Armour and Dwight Robarts among them.

Dwight Robarts

Dwight Robarts

Robarts, recently retired as executive director of Christ’s Haven for Children in Keller, Texas, preached at Skillman from 2001 to 2009.

“When I went there, we had about 550, but it was dropping like a rock,” he said. Robarts and assistant minister Jerry Perry preached 130 funerals in eight years.

“It was very difficult to overcome that kind of attrition,” Robarts said. “If you look at every five-year time sequence from 1964 until 2008, there was a decline except when Mike (Armour) went there.”

In Armour’s first three years, Skillman grew from 400 to 700. The gentrification of the surrounding area and internal conflicts at other large congregations contributed to that uptick, Robarts said.

“Skillman was the only church in the city that was stable and had a plan,” Robarts said. “Mike would say the plan didn’t work, but we had one. With that exception, Skillman has been in decline since the ’60s.”

One thing Skillman has always had is money. Dallas County officially values the debt-free property at just under $16 million.

Related: ‘Where did the people go?’

Missions and work with the elderly were supported by the seven-figure Moeller Endowment. Another bequest provided for youth activities. Even as membership dropped, resources remained more than adequate for a staff much larger than usual for a congregation of 200, then 100, then fewer than that. The church website lists four ministers and four support staff.

As recently as 2021, contributions were at 97 percent of budget, but current year contributions are “significantly behind,” according to preacher Jacobson.

He attributes the decline in part to members who were “uncomfortable” with the months-long process leading to the merger vote and stopped giving.

Continued decline had an impact, too.

“We just continue to shrink as a congregation, and as we shrink, so do contribution numbers.”

“We just continue to shrink as a congregation, and as we shrink, so do contribution numbers,” he said.

The declining finances, coupled with the satellite vote’s outcome, is unnerving to some of the staff.

Youth minister Makenna Miller said she favored the merger, in part because The Hills takes care of its staff and has many young singles and young families. She is uncertain about the future, but for now she’s focused on summer activities with her 11-member youth group.

John Mark Davidson and Jacobson came to Skillman about the same time in 2011, Davidson after eight years doing mission work in Peru. On the day of the vote, he was traveling in Peru.

Jacobson became executive minister in 2018, and his duties expanded after Davidson resigned to become executive director of ChristianWorks, a Dallas nonprofit that provides adoption, counseling and other family support services.

Christians worship in the Skillman Church of Christ chapel.

Christians worship in the Skillman Church of Christ chapel.

During his tenure, Davidson developed a plan to revitalize the congregation that included creating a worship space and atmosphere more welcoming to visitors and community members who were “not used to Church of Christ ecclesiology,” Jacobson said.

One component was a second service with instrumental music and expanded roles for women — “a format of worship for seekers,” he called it.

Elders — there were six at the time — could not achieve consensus on that idea, and then ChristianWorks began pursuing Davidson. He resigned as minister but remained a Skillman member.

Around that time, elder David Griffin purchased a home in Colorado, where he works half the year. Another’s illness and disagreements among the eldership led to four resigning soon after Davidson shared his plans. The congregation learned all of this on the same Sunday. Ultimately, one of the four was persuaded to stay on because bylaws require that the congregation have at least three elders.

With post-pandemic attendance down to 75 to 80, informal conversations with The Hills picked up.

David Williams has been a member of Skillman for 32 years and an elder since 2012. He said the conversations began initially with some past Skillman members who are elders at The Hills.

David Williams

David Williams

“We knew them, and they knew us, and we knew they were good people, what they do and how they do it,” Williams said.

In November 2021, Skillman elders surveyed members on the possibility of a merger with “a like-minded congregation” and found 64 percent wanted to consider it. Another 22 percent wanted to know more or were undecided. The same survey asked whether members were open to the appointment of women elders.

While conversations with The Hills continued, an elder selection process began that included reading groups and Bible studies about women in leadership roles. Ultimately, two names were put forth: June Martin and Ken Teague. The date was set for a voice vote to approve.

As a framework for what a merger might look like began taking shape, the possibility was announced publicly for the first time Jan. 9. Elders at The Hills were surprised to learn Skillman had already gone public.

Don Williams

Don Williams

David Meyer, executive minister at The Hills, advised the Skillman elders not to move forward with the elder appointments or major building improvements until a decision was made about whether to merge.

The Hills lists 83 ministers and staff on its website, of which 47 are women, but women do not serve as elders.

Don Williams, a Skillman elder in the 1990s, was an advocate for adding women elders. He later became the leader of the Save Skillman group that opposed the merger. Don Williams and David Williams are brothers-in-law. David’s wife is Don’s sister — a Williams married a Williams.

Exhaustive process or lack of engagement?

Meyer, who joined The Hills staff in 2012, put the congregation’s pre-pandemic weekly attendance at just under 6,000 on all three campuses, and around 8,000 to 9,000 in a month. Post-COVID attendance is about 75 percent to 80 percent of that and “who knows how many online.”

As part of a five-year plan developed in 2021, The Hills leadership decided to explore options for fourth and fifth locations, including one in Dallas County.

Dallas attorney Cecelia Morgan visits with fellow Skillman church members after worship.

Dallas attorney Cecilia Morgan visits with fellow Skillman church members after worship.

Meyer said they were trying to discern what that might look like when “Skillman approached us and asked, ‘Is that something you would consider?’”

In January, Skillman elders convened a six-member advisory committee led by Cecilia Morgan, a longtime Skillman member and Dallas attorney with more than 30 years as a mediator and arbitrator. The elders commissioned the group to prepare a report for the congregation.

According to the 101-page document released March 20, elders told the group their mission was not legal or financial due diligence nor to make recommendations. Rather, the group was to conduct transparent fact finding designed to answer members’ questions. Morgan said the committee collectively spent “over 325 man/woman hours” preparing the report, which detailed the ministry, leadership and operations of The Hills, but also included Skillman bylaws, minutes, financial statements and a membership list of 178 names.

Related: Struggle to save a church inspires an innovative partnership

Between January and June of this year, a flurry of announcements, documents, explanations, Q&As, website additions, several town halls and other events took place. Save Skillman members posed challenges via their Facebook page, in documents and in person to elders’ initial answers and explanations and to the “Assurances,” a document provided by The Hills regarding how the process of a merger would work.

In short, Skillman would dissolve as a congregation, its assets and property transferred to The Hills. Skillman staff would be allowed to apply for their positions and, if not retained, would receive nine months severance. Leadership would be shared, but The Hills model would be put in place, and investments would include remodeling the Skillman sanctuary to accommodate instrumental worship.

Skillman church members fellowship as the congregation votes on a possible merger with The Hills Church of Christ

Skillman church members fellowship as the congregation votes on a possible merger with The Hills Church of Christ

To proponents and the Skillman elders, the process felt exhaustive. To opponents, it seemed rushed, too driven by The Hills’ agenda and lacking in congregational engagement.

Morgan, who makes her living as a negotiator, though that was not her assigned role here, is careful to say she does not speak for Skillman. And for two months after the committee report was released, she kept her own opinions to herself. Once the elders released her of that obligation, she expressed support for the merger in a detailed email to fellow Skillman members, urging them to vote yes.

Skillman church members cast their ballots on whether to merge with The Hills.

Skillman church members cast their ballots on whether to merge with The Hills.

“We never want to lose sight of Jesus’ admonition to us as Christians to go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every living creature,” she wrote. “Skillman has been a beacon of the Gospel for over 70 years. Thousands of cars drive past our building and read our sign, see our building and some recognize our electronic presence. To God be the glory. Vote Yes!”

In an interview after the vote, she said because of her professional training she understood “there were many options at many junctures that could have been done differently. But we did what we did, and at the end of the day, I think the Lord’s will is paramount. … You make the best decision you can make at the time.”

Don Williams is less generous.

“It was just a poor process,” he said. “The first any of us had ever heard of a transaction was in January when elders announced it. Nobody at Skillman other than elders knew about it though conversations had been in process for two years.”

The retired chairman of the board of Trammell Crow Companies, a giant in commercial real estate development in the U.S. and abroad, was watching online with his wife in January, as is their habit, when he heard the announcement.

“I said, ‘This can’t be true.’”

In addition to what he called “no congregational discernment process of alternatives,” he said the plan was “the single worst deal I’ve ever seen in the history of my career,” blaming The Hills for a pressured sales pitch. He also objected to The Hills’ more conservative views on women in leadership and LGBTQ issues.

And he said he doesn’t want to go to a church with a band, though he acknowledges his children and grandchildren prefer it. For all those reasons, he believed The Hills was not a “like-minded congregation” with Skillman.

Reality is complicated

Churches of Christ typically have certain practices and stances that many use to define where a congregation falls on the progressive/mainstream/conservative spectrum. Instrumental music, roles for women and affirmation of LGBTQ individuals top the list; others vary depending on the region and age of the congregation. As the story of Skillman and The Hills illustrates, reality is more complicated.

Most visitors would find Skillman worship services quite traditional. Singing is a cappella with a mix of traditional hymns and praise songs. However, women may make announcements, read Scripture, lead prayers or give the communion devotional.

Members gather in the Skillman Church of Christ chapel for in-person worship.

Members gather in the Skillman Church of Christ chapel for in-person worship.

The Hills worship is less mainstream in Church of Christ terms. Its praise team includes multiple instrumentalists though one of the three Sunday services is still a cappella. Rick Atchley, the minister, preaches in person at one campus and livestreams to the others. Sometimes different speakers are live at all three. Women at The Hills have similar roles to those at Skillman..

Both congregations baptize by immersion, have elders, take the Lord’s Supper every Sunday and in most other ways function within Church of Christ norms.

Don Williams declined to give names or a number of Save Skillman members but said the group ranged from people in their 40s to those in their 80s, “like me,” and “with a range of theological views.”

Some opposed The Hills alliance because they believed it would limit women’s roles. Others opposed it because they didn’t like The Hills’ gradual move away from Church of Christ in its name. Its website calls the congregation “a non-denominational Christian church.”

However, located on Loop 820 on the northside of Fort Worth, The Hills arguably is the most visible congregation in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Its sign still reads “The Hills Church of Christ” as do its legal documents, and it still functions within the broader fellowship of Churches of Christ.

Billie Faye Curtis didn’t say whether she’s a part of Save Skillman. But she did say emphatically, “We will vote no.”

A plaque denotes the architect and builder of the Skillman Church of Christ building.

A plaque denotes the architect and builder of the Skillman Church of Christ building. It was constructed in 1951.

Curtis has been at Skillman for a long, long time. She and her husband were married in the chapel: “I started in the fourth grade, and I’m 80 years old.”

The name matters to Curtis.

“Skillman will no longer exist, and I don’t like the idea it won’t be Skillman Church of Christ. That’s very important to my husband and I. It’s Skillman Church of Christ. It always has been, and it always should be.”

But Curtis was committed to staying at Skillman no matter how the vote went. She said she’s “not real fond” of having women elders, but probably wouldn’t leave over it. “It’s home to us, and I believe we can do better than we’ve done.”

But, she said, she’s “not real sure how.”

Curtis’ good friend, Nancy Smith, has been at Skillman almost 50 years. For 30 of those, she taught 4-year-olds. She retired in 2010 as judicial assistant to a magistrate judge at Dallas’ federal courthouse.

Smith favored the merger. Her visit to the Hills convinced her.

“The kids came out of the walls — I’ve never seen so many children — it was unbelievable! Oh, if we could just have that enthusiasm, those young couples and children. That sold me right there.”

“The kids came out of the walls — I’ve never seen so many children — it was unbelievable! Oh, if we could just have that enthusiasm, those young couples and children. That sold me right there.”

Not everyone was sold, however. Some objected to the instrumental worship, though The Hills agreed that Skillman could continue to have a second, a cappella service.

Smith has friends who have said if the vote didn’t pass they’d leave, and she may among them. “I’ve not been fond of any alternative put forth.”

Skillman’s large, active group of widows and other single women are not all in agreement, but Smith said they’re still friends. They just don’t talk about church anymore.

“It’s just us. We love each other.”

Along the way, a number of consultants and friends sought to help. Carson Reed, executive director of the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at Abilene Christian University, has consulted with the Save Skillman group about a possible reboot.

He said circumstances at Skillman are consistent “within the larger scenario of how many churches are in steep decline and are having to ask questions about their future.”

And, he said, conflict is common, “particularly when there is a lack of clear vision about how to proceed.”

Others have been engaged on both sides — communication consultants, facilitators, legal counsel. And ultimately Liz Alvarez, director of civil and election litigation at Guest and Gray law firm, was enlisted to oversee in-person and mail-in voting.

Now what?

Skillman members visited and enjoyed snacks before the meeting where vote was held and while votes were being counted.

Skillman members visited and enjoyed snacks before the meeting where vote was held and while votes were being counted.

Morgan calls Skillman the “grandmother church,” having played a role in planting the Prestoncrest Church of Christ, which in turn helped plant other area congregations. People in the pews have included Dallas business elite, a mayor and two school superintendents.

“Everyone started here,” she said.

So where does everyone go now?

“Who knows what people are going to do?” she replied. “There are a number of families who will go elsewhere and have already gone elsewhere. And I think a number of those folks will seek a Hills campus in Dallas.”

An elderly woman passed two tearful elders’ wives as she exited the sanctuary and conveyed her own dismay.

“We don’t have a Plan B,” she said.

Both groups invested great effort just to get to the vote.

“We won the vote by 2,” Don Williams said in a text after the vote. “Can now move forward with Skillman 2.0,” referring to a plan he called a work in progress.

Debbie and David Williams led the communion devotional at the Sunday morning worship. David Williams is an elder.

Debbie and David Williams led the communion devotional at the Sunday morning worship. David Williams is an elder.

“A group of younger members are already at work,” he said the next day. “We have outside consultants on best practices for reenergizing Churches of Christ. We want to be a neighborhood church.”

In a statement read after the vote and distributed by email, elders said they recognized the outcome would dismay “a resounding majority” of Skillman members.

“We all must look in the mirror and take some responsibility for the place Skillman Church of Christ finds itself,” they said. “We must all recommit ourselves to God’s service. The journey ahead will require wisdom that is beyond our human limits, generosity of resources that we have not demonstrated this year and a new level of commitment to service.”

David Williams said elders had reassured staff no changes were anticipated.

“It is sad but it’s not over,” he said. “God is in charge of the ending.”

CHERYL MANN BACON is a Christian Chronicle correspondent who served for 20 years as chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University. Contact [email protected].

Filed under: Church decline Church merger Closing Churches Closing churches Dallas Fort Worth National News Skillman Church of Christ Texas churches The Hills Church Top Stories Where have all the churches gone

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