CHARLOTTE, NC (Jim Morrill/The Charlotte Observer) - The congregation of Steele Creek Presbyterian Church voted Sunday to explore a merger, beginning a process that could mean abandoning the site that's been its home for 257 years.
Steele Creek, Mecklenburg County's second-oldest house of worship, finds itself in the path of a constantly expanding Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
Members voted 94-43 to pursue a merger with one or more of the other Presbyterian churches in the Steele Creek area. No deal would be final until the congregations vote on a firm proposal, a process that pastor Jeff Pinkston said could take up to 18 months.
That could lead to the sale of the church, whose current sanctuary was built in 1889, and its 40 surrounding acres. In a separate vote Sunday, church members voted to sell their manse and 16 acres of nearby property to the City of Charlotte for nearly $1.6 million.
Along with its historical significance, Steele Creek Presbyterian once boasted of its size. In the 1970s it was the largest rural Presbyterian church in the United States, with well over 1,000 members.
But as the airport grew, membership shrunk. It's now 351.
"We've been greatly hurt by expansion of the airport already," Pinkston said Sunday. Jet noise finally stopped the church from holding services on its expansive front lawn. And burial services in the adjacent cemetery are often drowned out by the noise.
For Pinkston and others in the church, the vote was a realization that airport growth is inevitable.
"I have mixed feelings, he said, citing the church's long history. "I'm also concerned about our future if we're basically surrounded by an industrial park."
The airport's rail cargo yard is considered a major economic development tool. Norfolk Southern operates the yard, transferring containers between trains and trucks. The airport's long-term plans call for developing new warehouse and logistics facilities for shipping in the area south of the airport.
Airport officials have said it has no plans to demolish the church's historic sanctuary if a sale ends up happening. And they've said they have no interest in acquiring the cemetery, which holds the remains of generations dating back to the Revolution.
Among them are the grandparents and ancestors of Matthew Ridenhour, a Mecklenburg County commissioner who walked through the cemetery after the vote.
"I understand that the church has to do what it believes is best for its congregation," he said later. "But from a personal perspective, it's a sad day. The church has been here so long."
Sunday's vote means the church will explore a merger with one or more of the four other nearby Presbyterian churches. Three of them – McClintock, Pleasant Hill and Mount Olive – are "daughter" churches started by former members of Steele Creek Presbyterian. The fourth, Central Steele Creek, was already established when some left Steele Creek Presbyterian to join it.
If a merger eventually is approved, the congregation could move to an existing church or find itself in a new building.