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Memberís bequest launches $5.5 million capital improvement plan for Birmingham churchcomment (0)

June 16, 2005

By Lauren Brooks and Robin Bird

When Ruth Watkins died in 2003, she left $5.5 million of her estate to her church, McElwain Baptist Church, Birmingham, to be used for capital improvements.
Part of that money was earmarked for the construction of a bell tower, which would complete the 1960s plans for the current sanctuary. 
What Watkins didn’t know was that the church would have to fight the city zoning board to honor her request. The zoning board denied the church’s request for a 100-foot bell tower, claiming a city ordinance in the area limited structures to 60 feet.
Pastor Mike Miller said McElwain Baptist’s sanctuary peaks at 54 feet, and the bell tower “just wouldn’t look as good if it were just six feet higher than the sanctuary.”
“The purpose of a church steeple is to rise above the church and point people heavenward,” he explained. 
After months of appeals and a court-ordered mediation between the city of Birmingham and McElwain, a compromise came — an 85-foot bell tower. 
“It’s an exciting time for our church,” Miller said. Construction on the tower will begin this summer and is scheduled to be completed by the end of the fall. The tower base will be 68-feet tall and made of brick with a 17-foot cross on top. 
“This gift has been a shot in the arm, a real boost,” Miller said. “The church has been in a steady decline for 17 years. Last year was the first year attendance was up. God has turned McElwain around.
“But with such a large gift comes an element of caution. We need to be careful how we manage and spend this gift. We want to be good stewards. We have an allocation committee.”
Miller said the money grew from a fund set up by Watkins and her husband, Fred, about 40 years ago. At that time, the current sanctuary was under construction, but the planned bell tower was not built due to a shortage of money.
As a church member and contractor for that building project and several of the church’s other buildings, Fred Watkins had a heart to see the plans completed. So the couple established a fund with the hope of financing the bell tower in the future.
Now that dream is being realized, as the construction of the bell tower in memory of the Watkinses is under way.
Renovations have begun as well — the construction of a 54-space parking lot, resurfacing existing parking areas, landscaping, foyer improvements, a new roof, new pews, a new front for the church, the enclosure of walkways connecting the buildings on campus, running/walking tracks around the ball fields and the construction of two welcome centers. 
Even with the initial struggle over the bell tower’s height, Miller said the building and renovation project has been a positive experience. It has been exciting for members to come in every week and see something different, he noted.
“We want to make a difference in the community,” he said. “We want to be the epicenter of ministry.”
In becoming this epicenter, Miller said there are many plans in the works. The church unanimously approved a campaign last October called “Making a Difference” with a goal of raising $300,000 over the next two years for the new programs. To date, the church has raised around $30,000.
“Our church’s mission statement is ‘Making a difference at all costs for the sake of the gospel,’” Miller said. “I believe this is part of God’s plan to re-energize McElwain.”
The church opened a performing arts school last fall offering instruction in piano, voice, ballet, choir, drama and guitar. Overwhelming enrollment in the school led to expansion of the curriculum for next fall to include jazz, tap, woodwinds and drums.
In January, the church opened a fitness center for the community, which has served as an outreach tool and led to many fitness center members also joining the church. 
Future plans include the September launch of a counseling center that will have a licensed counselor and will offer pre-marriage classes, marriage seminars and financial management seminars.
A Christian elementary school is set to open in the fall of 2006. Joe Arnold, who has been a member of McElwain for more than 40 years, is excited about the school.
“We have classrooms sitting idle most of the week and that’s ridiculous,” said Arnold, a member of the “Making a Difference” campaign committee. “What we’re trying to do is to be more community-oriented.
“We have wonderful church facilities, but now we have only about 300 in Sunday School. Thirty years ago, we had about 900 in Sunday School. We’ve been frustrated about how to reach the community as it has changed.”
Miller noted, “God brings all things together at the right time.
“Everything we do is for the glory of God. He is glorified when we do things well. We want to make a statement to the community that we believe God wants us to do things right.”

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