KLEINMACHNOW, Germany (Reuters) - Pastor Elke Rosenthal has a problem that Christian clergy elsewhere in Europe can only dream of.
While pews across the continent are emptying, her Lutheran congregation in this leafy suburb of Berlin has tripled in size in recent years, outgrowing its two small churches and eager to break ground for a much larger structure.
But the dream sometimes seems like a nightmare for the Resurrection Church parish, which has hit barriers every time it tries to expand.
Once a sleepy town in communist East Germany, Kleinmachnow has boomed since the wall between it and West Berlin fell in 1989. But German reunification also brought the political pressure groups and building codes that have frustrated the parish’s plans for new premises.
“I never thought I’d spend so much time struggling with the bureaucracy,” sighed Rosenthal, who said demand for space is so high on holidays such as Christmas Eve that the parish offers 10 different services that day to ensure everybody can get a seat.
“There is a longing for spirituality and we have to give it room,” said the 49-year-old pastor, a transplant from West Berlin who runs the parish with Pastor Juergen Duschka.
Kleinmachnow, which juts into the affluent southwestern corner of Berlin, owes its curious situation to the Cold War.
Many inhabitants of the upscale pre-war suburb fled west after the area went communist. The Berlin Wall built on its northern border in 1961 cut it off from the city.
Since a canal on its southern border limited access to the rest of East Germany, it became a high-security enclave housing border guards and communist party officials.
When the Wall opened in 1989, it was a property developer’s dream — a suburb with affordable houses and space to build more, all only minutes away from the city that would again become Germany’s capital.
After 40 years of communism, traditionally Lutheran eastern Germany was hardly fertile ground for faith. Only one-fifth of Brandenburg state, where Kleinmachnow is located, is Christian while more than two-thirds of west Germans belong to a church.
As the government’s 1999 move from Bonn to Berlin neared, the town took off and its population almost doubled to about 20,000. Many were civil servants from western Germany. Others came from west Berlin to the city’s newly reopened suburbs.
The influx of westerners helped boost the parish ranks at a faster rate than the town’s population, lifting it from 1,500 in 1990 to 5,500 now.
Peter Greve, 77, a church council member originally from Hamburg, moved here in 1995 while working in construction in Berlin. “Friends told me about it and I liked the town, it’s so close to Berlin and Potsdam,” he said.
Apart from Sunday services and Bible study, church members come for activities ranging from choirs and charity work to a book club and a group for model railway buffs.
Geraldine Fritzsche, 23, an active church member who moved here from west Berlin with her parents in 1997, credited the church staff with creating a welcoming community for newcomers.
“My family was not so involved in the church, but I sang in the children’s choir and the head of the youth mission was very active, so I got hooked,” she said.
With all this activity, the parish has long since outgrown its original brick “village church” built in 1597 and a simple chapel from the late 1940s, both of which have been declared cultural heritage monuments that cannot be expanded.
After several failed plans for a new building, the parish proposed to build on a plot near the old church where the estate of local aristocrats had stood until it was destroyed by Allied bombers in 1943.
Local Greens and environmental officials, a strong force in a region where the old communist rulers used to pollute with impunity, are adamantly against letting them cut down the trees that have grown there since the war.
“They say nature took this space back and it should be left to nature,” Rosenthal said, pointing at the quiet woods where she hopes building the new church can start in 2013. “But a barn stood there 70 years ago and people used to work there.”
There are also doubts in the congregation despite the fact that plans have been rolled back to accommodate only 450 people rather than the original 800.
“There’s a lot of sympathy for the Greens in the Lutheran Church and the stewardship of creation is a central issue for us,” Rosenthal explained. “But we have no other place to go.”
She said some town residents say her congregation’s boom is temporary and its numbers will fall over the next 20 years. But she added: “As Christians, we can’t think that way.”
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall