Up against a stained glass barrier, the congregation of the Woods Memorial Presbyterian church overwhelmingly has approved a proposal to move ahead with a 10-year, $6 million expansion project.

The vote Sunday by 400 attending members of the 1,800-person congregation gave the go-ahead for a 28,000-square-foot addition -- including a 550-seat sanctuary -- in three phases over the next 10 years.

"We are just absolutely cramped beyond belief," Associate Pastor Timothy Stern said in an office below the present 340-seat sanctuary.

Stern said the 78-year-old congregation has run into what church sociologists call a "stained glass barrier."

"If you don't have 20 percent of the seats in your sanctuary open, a family of four may not be able to sit together the first time they come to services. If they don't feel comfortable on their first visit, they may not come back. That's a stained glass barrier."

Church planners immediately will begin raising money for the first phase of the project. They will review their plans again in November and may change them depending on how well the pledges are rolling in, said Robert Pickens of the Woods Research Committee.

The fund-raising committee has already collected $500,000 in pledges and needs $2 million by Nov. 4 to go ahead with the project, said Lawrence Ulvlia, chair of the fund-raising committee.

In addition to the new sanctuary, the first phase calls for a 6,000-square-foot meeting room, part of which will be used for Woods' popular day care/pre-school program and a new choir rehearsal room.

Plans for Phases II and III, loosely scheduled for the next 10 years, will be made when the time comes, Ulvlia said.

If all three phases work out, the 32,400-square-foot church would almost double in size.

The expansion project does not affect Woods' tabled plans to build 100 homes for senior citizens on land adjacent to the church.

Woods Church, founded in 1912 by 24 members, has expanded four times in its history, most recently in 1971.

The congregation has grown consistently along with Severna Park -- even at a time when the Presbyterian church is losing 50,000 members a year nationwide, Stern said. Woods now has one of the largest Presbyterian congregations in the state.

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