The University of Texas at Tyler and University Christian Church are engaged in preliminary conversations about the possibility of UT Tyler purchasing the church property at 3500 Old Omen Road.
"Nothing is finalized," Hannah Buchanan, UT Tyler public affairs specialist, said. Likewise, the Rev. Ron Byrd, church minister, said, "Neither party has made a final commitment; no papers have been signed."
February will be the earliest that the university might release a statement about the matter, Ms. Buchanan said, declining to say anything further.
"Sometime between now and the end of January," Byrd said, "we (church leaders) will make a decision of whether or not we will be able to make a deal with the university and sell the property and start a new congregation or whether we will stay here and continue on with the ministry as it exists."
Byrd added, "It's a time in the life of our church of great uncertainty, but it's an exciting time because we could be starting anew."
The talks began roughly six months ago, Byrd said, after the university called expressing an interest in the property, asking what the church's long-term plans are for the property and would the church be interested in selling at some point.
"We said we might be," Byrd said.
Since then, periodic conversations between the university and the church have continued.
"We just wait for them (university officials) to call us and tell us if they are interested in the next discussion. We've talked to them a couple of times," Byrd said. "They will probably get back to us before the end of the year."
The UT System Board of Regents in Austin would make the final decision on behalf of UT Tyler possibly purchasing the church property, the minister said.
The congregation has voted to give authority to the church leadership – the board of trustees and its chairman – to make a decision of whether or not to make a deal to sell the church property to the university or allow the church to continue operating in its present quarters.
"We do have permission to sell to the university if a deal can be made," Byrd said.
The church owns almost eight acres adjacent to the UT Tyler Ornelas Activity Center and Innovation Academy, a charter school operated by UT Tyler.
The church has one building on its property, which houses a sanctuary, a fellowship hall and kitchen, three classrooms and three offices, including one for the northeast area minister of the Christian Church Disciples of Christ.
"From our (the church's) end," Byrd said, a decision about whether to sell to the university will be determined by whether church leaders think they can get enough revenue from the sale and whether there are enough people with the interest and energy to start a new church.
Of approximately 140 people who attend University Christian Church, the minister speculated there might be 40 or 50 who eventually would participate in efforts to start a new church.
The church's name is "a misnomer," Byrd said, because the church does not have many young people come to its services, it is not attractive to young people, the medium age of its attendees is 70 and the church does a good job of ministering to older people.
"Now that the membership has gotten so much older, people can see that going the route we are going, the church is not going to be able to sustain itself past the people who are here," Byrd said. "We don't have enough new people coming in and are not attractive enough to new people. As a result, we've been in discussions about what the future of the church might be."
Simultaneously, the church is confronted by the minister's decision to retire next summer.
Byrd, who has been pastor 26 years, plans to retire on his 62 birthday in June in order to serve as caregiver for his invalid wife, who has multiple sclerosis.
"I'm going to retire out of necessity. I can retire and have a full pension from the Christian Church Disciples of Christ pension fund," Byrd, who was ordained in 1983 and has served two other churches, said. He plans to continue as a member of University Christian Church after his retirement.
"My retirement and the age of the congregation has led us to think about what the church might do," Byrd said. "We have to determine as a congregation is there enough vitality left and will there be enough revenue from any sale for us to start a new church."
If University Christian Church sells its property, "everything would be different," Byrd said. A new church with a different name would be started, probably meeting initially in rented space in a presently unknown part of town, the minister said.
Byrd anticipates an interim minister would be brought in and the church would send a representative for training at the Hope Partnership, an organization in Indianapolis within the Christian Church Disciples of Christ that teaches people how to start new churches.
The representative would then come back and tell local members the things they could do to start a new church, Byrd said.
The result of not starting a new church, the minister said, "is eventually we are all going to get too old and there's going to be nobody here. Churches are closing all over the country."
UT Tyler already utilizes the grounds at University Christian Church at no cost under an agreement with the church for activities of the Innovation Academy, such as field events including soccer and the track team. A close relationship between the university and church dates back to the days when UT Tyler was a two-year school and its band used the church fellowship hall as a band hall.
The church, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2016, has always been activity in community outreach, Byrd said.
Tyler Area Senior Citizens Association started in the church and it helped birth Habitat for Humanity locally. The church is the only nonprofit organization that for 25 years has sent money every month to Habitat for Humanity. It is also one of the first 15 nonprofit organizations that started Bethesda Clinic.
University Christian Church was formed in 1976 and its building was constructed in 1978. It evolved from the former Ross Avenue Christian Church formed in 1952 as a mission of First Christian Church. The Ross Avenue Christian Church closed when the demographics of Ross Avenue and Gentry Parkway changed, there were not enough people to maintain it and a new church was formed that became University Christian Church.