G.A.Zurstadt School of Redford Lutheran Church did not have to close exactly when it did. But the congregation recognized a certain coming together of trends.
First and most obvious was the financial trend of the congregation. Like many a declining institution, the congregation was relying more on fewer givers. These tended to be in their sixties and seventies. This was directly related to neighborhood trends. No longer a white blue-collar area, the old Redford area of Northwest Detroit has become a transitional region for families who stay a few years and then move to more desireable suburbs. Crime in the area and around the church (perhaps one incident a year: a purse-snatching; a pick-pocket; a break-in; or a car theft) was enough to convince some that Redford Lutheran and its school were not places to spend much time. The racial make-up of the neighborhood, and consequently of the school, changed dramatically from the 1980's to the 1990's from white to black. However, this was less a factor in the congregation's failure to reach out meaningfully than generational differences. The church leadership, essentially the same for 25 years, lived their prime in a time when money was scarce and people had time on their hands, especially so since retirement. Younger families had less time available and less money, so sentiments about "pulling one's weight" occasionally would be expressed by the leadership toward younger families. Unfortunately, the congregation fell into the temptation of "looking for someone to blame" for the declining trends, many individuals being unconscious of their own contribution to an atmosphere that tended to discourage people from joining.
Another trend that was clear to the congregation was that parochial schools in the City of Detroit, particularly Lutheran schools, were in trouble. In the 1990's ten Lutheran schools closed, beginning with ST.STEPHEN (August voters' meeting), BEREA (couldn't afford both a pastor and a school), ST.PHILIP (couldn't afford both a pastor and a school), ZION (financially unable to carry on, needed building repairs), ST.MATTHEW (independent of LCMS), NORTH DETROIT/School for the Deaf (special education students now main-streamed), HOLY CROSS (their treasurer blamed $300,000 losses over 8 years on the school which closed the Summer, two months before she was caught), LUTHERAN HIGH SCHOOL WEST, (low enrollments, low commitment by parents, very few Lutherans), OUR SAVIOUR (ran out of money in April-congregation also closed), and EVERGREEN which continues, but without LCMS accredidation.
The fact is that these ministries began as parish schools to serve families of a sponsoring congregation; as the congregations weakened, these schools attracted families willing to pay a large portion of the cost for an alternative to Detroit's troubled school system. These families were at first a fertile mission field when the majority of families were members of the sponsoring church; but once the percentage fell below %50, not enough parent/peer influence was left to draw others into the congregation. Indeed, I believe that church families, resenting having to pay recent tuition hikes, may have actually bad-mouthed their church to other parents, contributing to the decline of the congregation's outreach through the school. Therefore, many of the Lutheran Schools in Detroit faced declining support in the congregation, and served an increasingly larger percentage of families with little interest in church affiliation (it stands to reason- parents willing to pay for Christian education are most likely to be church members already).
The church-at-large also contributed unwittingly to the decline of these city schools and congregations by insisting that teachers out of the Concordia colleges be paid a minimum salery that was out of reach of many of the Detroit schools. They consequently found teachers willing to work for the low salery because they were second-incomes in their households. These were often involved in another congregation. Even called Lutheran teachers sometimes attended another congregation than the one that had called them to service.
The final trend that converged in the closure of the G. A. Zurstadt Lutheran School was the rise of CHARTER SCHOOLS in Michigan. In September, Mr. Melvin Smith, founder of the Woodward Academy, approached Redford Lutheran with a proposal to establish a charter school on our site. After discussing the pro's and cons, the congregation voted to "seek a charter for the school", fig-leaf language ultimately unacceptable to the chartering agency (Central Michigan University). So they ended up closing, rather than secularizing, the school ( a sentimental distinction at best). The principal and acting pastor, Rev. Richard Zeile, did not oppose the move. The most God-pleasing thing, he believed, was to continue the school as an agency of Christian education, commit the congregation's endowment fund (about half a year's school budget), and pray/work for a change of trends. But since the congregation was clearly not united in this commitment, to make this change could be a responsible decision if other Christian outreach and service (hopefully more fruitful) took its place.
The financial considerations determined the vote. We had been educating students at a cost of $3,000 each, $2500 paid by families, $500 by the congregation (and teachers who received on average $18,000/year). This cost the congregation about $50,000/year; half a million in the 1990's. The charter school will educate the children receiving $6,000 per head, allowing much better facilities, and paying the church rent on the building of $50,000/year, and costing parents nothing but the cost of uniforms.
In September of 1999, the OLD REDFORD ACADEMY will open on the campus of Redford Lutheran Church.
For seventy years Zurstadt Lutheran School has prepared children for eternal realities in addition to the things of our present world. The Bible was the cornerstone of our teaching program. Just as there are dangers to the body to be avoided, so there are dangers to soul and spirit which we endevored to point out. We began the day with prayer to the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; we studied religion out of the Bible; we asked blessings upon our food and our country; we gathered for worship in the church on chapel days; we prayed in the words of the Psalms and prayers of the saints; and we closed each day as we hope to close this life, in the Name of Jesus.
G. A. Zurstadt was the dynamic Christian teacher who guided the school for forty years, from a one-room school to six classrooms of 140 students at its peak.
G.A.Zurstadt School closed on June 27, 1999 with a special service marking 75 years of Christian education. We marched through the school building removing representative objects to dispose the building for secular use. You may wish to see the Disposition_Prayers from that occasion.
To visit the last principal's personal homepage, see Fr. Zeile's Home Page
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