Shopping for faith space

Brian Erickson had only been serving as pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Alabaster for about a week when he decided to take a quick break from his day to do some grocery shopping.

But as Erickson pulled into the parking lot of the city’s former Winn Dixie supermarket in the Alabaster Market Center off Alabama 119, he soon realized he would have to travel further down the road to purchase his produce.

“My first week of work, I pulled into the parking lot and actually almost got to the door before I realized the store was closed,” Erickson said of the Winn Dixie, which closed about five years ago.

As he gazed into the vacant 44,000-square-foot supermarket, Erickson began to imagine the space filled with people of all ages worshiping and enjoying fellowship with each other.

Although Erickson did not realize it at the time, his would-be trip to the grocery store had solved many of the church’s overcrowding problems.

For nearly three years, church members and employees had been working with architects and planners to design additional worship space on the church’s odd triangle-shaped lot.

“We had been meaning to do something space-wise for two or three years,” Erickson said. “We had been working with architects to try to design something that would maximize the use of our space.

“That plan was very expensive, because we only have about 4.5 acres on our lot,” Erickson added.

Soon after Erickson discovered the vacant former grocery store, he brought his idea to the church. After meeting with several different church groups, the congregation’s Administrative Council voted unanimously to make an offer to the building’s Los Angeles-based owner.

“At first, he was very noncommittal. He just said that he would think about entertaining an offer,” Erickson said. “But after a few months, he decided to accept our offer.”

After the building’s owner accepted the offer, the church ran into another obstacle. Because the nation is in the midst of an economic downturn, many banks would not consider giving the church a loan.

“We had an uphill battle with that. Some of the banks that had been church-friendly had just said ‘no more churches,’” Erickson said. “And then finally BB&T agreed, almost at the 11th hour, to approve us.”

Though the church has secured funding for the project, it still faces one more obstacle before it can begin moving into the structure. Winn Dixie was the anchor store for the Alabaster Market Center, but its closure did not cause the center’s smaller businesses to shut their doors.

Because the former Winn Dixie is sandwiched between several retailers, the church can not move into the building until the city rezones a portion of the shopping center.

“Our hope is to cut up that property and ask the city to rezone the portion of the property we will use into a church zoning,” Erickson said, noting the current retailers will remain in the shopping center. “We are not interested in cheating the city out of any tax money.”

If the city approves the rezoning, the church could begin moving into the building in late September, and begin holding events in the new building by March 2011, Erickson said.

The church’s initial plan for the building is to open a new children’s ministry, a contemporary worship center and a congregation fellowship area.

The church will still operate its original location, which is a few hundred feet from the shopping center, and will continue to offer services currently housed in the traditional church.

“This is a crazy thing to do. It’s definitely not what we had imagined a year ago,” Erickson said. “Not everyone walks into a church, but everyone walks into a grocery store.

“Some members have been here 50 or 60 years. They’re not interested in a contemporary service, but they are standing at the front of the line helping us move forward with this,” Erickson added. “I’ve been so moved at the way the spirit has moved through the congregation, and I don’t think I’m sugar-coating it at all.”