At eight o'clock tonight, a bronze bell will peal a call to the faithful of Western Presbyterian and about 100 people will walk through the doors of a small gray fieldstone church at the corner of 19th and G streets in downtown Washington.

The churchgoers will enter, as always, under the shadow of the massive structure that occupies the rest of the block and virtually surrounds the church: the 13-story headquarters of the International Monetary Fund, one of the most powerful international economic institutions.

As the service begins inside the oak-paneled sanctuary, the noise of the traffic hushed by the church's 20-inch walls, the parishioners will give thanks for the birth of Christ, for their own health and safety -- and for an extraordinary piece of good fortune.

The people of Western Presbyterian have prevailed on the IMF to buy them a $10 million plot of land four blocks away, to build them a $9 million new church -- with underground parking, air conditioning and the old church's interior -- and to give them a $4 million endowment for good works.

In addition to that $23 million, the IMF will pay more than $1 million in lawyers' and architects' fees.

All in return for the tiny corner of ground on which Western Presbyterian has stood for 55 years -- land the IMF needs badly to accommodate its growing work force.

The story of how Western Presbyterian reached a meeting of the minds with the IMF is one with a happy ending, a tale of a local church and a global institution whose interests coincided.

But it is also one of hard-headed business determination, detailed contract negotiations, dozens of meetings with lawyers, hundreds of archi- tectural details and a multiplicity of votes by a bureaucratic structure torn by divisiveness. That's business as usual for the IMF, but it was uncharted territory for Western Presbyterian.

"Essentially, it's like winning the lottery," said a smiling Rev. John W. Wimberly, Western's minister.

He was referring to the new services for the needy the endowment will support, though the transaction also puts Western on a sound financial footing for the first time in perhaps 20 years.

The little church, the third the congregation has occupied in its 135-year existence, was at one time in danger of folding. Never a wealthy parish, Western has been best known as a haven for Washington's transient population.

During the Civil War, when Western Presbyterian was across G Street where the Potomac Electric Power Co. building now stands, the church served as a military hospital. After the Great Depression, it ministered to some of the thousands who came to Washington to work for the great expansion of the federal government under the New Deal.

Many of those people, of course, never left Washington or Western Presbyterian. When Wimberly came in 1983, more than 70 percent of the congregation -- down to 90 people, and that was on a good day -- was more than 70 years old, he estimated.

By that time, the IMF already dominated the rest of the block. It had bought land from George Washington University and from the private owners of the rooming houses that lined the streets. But it had no success with the church, which turned down the initial $1 million offer from the IMF in 1971 and had been refusing to negotiate ever since.

The IMF, created in 1944 to help stabilize the postwar global economy, has been deeply involved over the years in international financial crises. By the 1980s, it was a major player in trying to solve the Third World debt problem. The agency funnels money from rich countries to nations facing big economic trouble. Fees on those loans cover the IMF's administrative budget -- $263.7 million in the 1990 fiscal year.

As a lender, the IMF has been and is a world-class Scrooge. It requires countries that want funds to straighten out their economies by paring public spending, privatizing state businesses and enacting other painful measures. Agency officials have earned a far-flung reputation as hard-nosed negotiators.

So when serious discussions began over the church site in 1988, the IMF had a lot of resources and a lot of backbone on its side. It had lawyers, architects and engineers on staff, finance experts everywhere and some pretty deep pockets. Eventually, the project would consume the energies of three full-time staffers.

But the church had some cards it could play in this game, too. Under Wimberly, the congregation was growing and was becoming more youthful, diminishing the chances that Western would close. A breakfast program for nearly 200 homeless people was up and running. A series of noontime concerts attracted large audiences. Self-help groups, from Cocaine Anonymous to Adult Children of Alcoholics, used the church's meeting rooms, as did various prayer groups.

The church also had Wimberly himself, a fourth-generation Presbyterian minister with a streak of ambition. A refugee from a church in the Bethesda suburbs -- he left because he preferred a more diverse congregation and dealing with urban problems -- Wimberly plays the guitar at evening services and sometimes sleeps in the tiny bed in his basement office. He was not about to let his congregation get rolled.

Wimberly knew the church held the trump card: the only piece of land in the world on which the IMF could build offices adjoining what it already had.

The IMF was paying upward of $6 million a year in rent for the K Street suites where toiled the 300 of its 1,700 employees who couldn't be squeezed into the main building. It was worth a lot to the agency to find a cheaper, and closer, home for them. IMF officials in 1988 began asking Wimberly what it would take to persuade the church to move.

The list of demands he produced was extensive. The IMF would have to build a new church, and it would have to be in Foggy Bottom. It must have access for the handicapped, underground parking, heating, air conditioning and more office and meeting space. The kitchen had to be large enough to handle the feeding program.

The sanctuary, where services would be held, should either look like the old one or be the old one. A large endowment was needed to fund social service programs. Not a day of worship or feeding could be missed. And the IMF had to pay every penny of every cost, from lawyers to architects to stonemasons.

In late 1988, the IMF found a site four blocks away from the church, at 24th Street and Virginia Avenue NW, overlooking the Watergate complex. The land was occupied by the American Association of University Women, which wanted to sell. Price: $10 million.

But objections to the project began surfacing within the IMF. Though the fund is sometimes seen as monolithic, its policies are set by its members. One nation raised its voice in opposition when purchasing the site first came up for discussion before the 22-member executive board. It was the IMF's richest and most powerful member: the United States.

U.S. officials were concerned the IMF was not choosing the cheapest option, sources say now, and they wanted it to consider continuing to lease office space. Never mind that the money came from different pots within the IMF; Congress was known to object when asked to contribute more money to the IMF's lending coffers. A pork-barrel church wouldn't help.

The IMF already had a reputation for high salaries and high living. Why should it spend more to build a church in the District of Columbia than it has lent to, say, Ethiopia?

Fortunately for Western Presbyterian, IMF board decisions do not have to be unanimous. Votes are rarely taken at meetings; instead, members make day-to-day decisions by consensus. Despite U.S. opposition, the IMF agreed to buy the nearby site with an eye to swapping parcels with Western Presbyterian.

As James B. Kaiser, IMF projects manager, put it, "It now seemed feasible to do what we set out to do 20 years ago."

IMF officials invited Wimberly and a delegation of church members to lunch at headquarters in January 1989. Over the salmon course, they said they had paid for the right to buy the site and asked church members to decide whether they were interested. IMF officials even displayed models of possible churches on the site.

Wimberly's initial response was to ask the IMF to pay for an evaluation of the church's physical condition to help the congregation make its decision about staying versus moving, and fund officials agreed. That study found it would cost the church $300,000 to $500,000 to repair and renovate the aging furnace, the peeling plaster, the inadequate kitchen and the grimy windows.

"I've come in many times and prayed for the furnace," said Martha Sauve', a member of the congregation for 40 years. It was not working when a reporter attended a service two Sundays before Christmas.

Now it was the congregation's turn to cope with resistance. Some members, who had married off their children and mourned their dead at 19th and G, were worried about moving and wanted to look at keeping the old building.

Among Protestant churches, Presbyterians stand out for their democratic ways. Councils of elders make church policy and councils of church officials make area-wide decisions. For Western to move, a majority of the congregation had to want it. Even the self-help groups and other users of the building were consulted.

The Western congregation voted in May 1989 to move to the new site, subject to agreement on design, size of endowment and other details. The congregation was not about to accept the IMF's recommendations, on church styles or anything else, without review.

The hardest part was yet to come. So far, the parties had been negotiating in good faith. But the IMF, as an international organization, had diplomatic immunity. If it reneged on the contract, it could not be taken to court. The church, which had not a penny to spare, needed expert legal and architectural advice before the final contract could be signed.

So the IMF agreed to pay for the lawyers and architects with whom it would spend the next 18 months haggling over details. After extensive interviews by a church committee, Fulbright & Jaworski was selected as the church's law firm and the Georgetown firm of KressCox Associates, with expertise in historic preservation, was retained as the church's architect. A construction consultant was hired to help with cost estimates. The church pushed the IMF on a number of points. The IMF wanted to turn over the $4 million endowment after the congregation had moved to the new building; Western and its lawyers wanted the money immediately to induce the IMF to abide by the agreement. The church won.

The IMF wanted to wait until it had obtained District zoning approval to build its new wing before going forward with the church construction; it was persuaded to go ahead. The IMF also wanted to swap the land first and negotiate the design later; Western successfully pushed for a "layered" agreement: certain steps would take place before the swap, others afterward.

The church retained most of the power over the design, though the IMF still held the purse strings. Some compromises had to be made along the way for financial reasons. The stained glass windows would be set in precast concrete, not limestone. Some floors would be carpeted, not finished wood; the walls would be plasterboard, not plaster.

Church members were closely involved in the design process. Architect David Cox would attend services sometimes, then meet with interested members in the dingy fellowship room downstairs and show slides of his progress.

Ultimately, the IMF agreed to pay for the dismantling and virtual reconstruction of the entire interior of the sanctuary.

The pews, the oak molding, the rafters and the stained glass windows all would be moved, cleaned and re-mounted. Some of the details would be subject to actual experience once work started in the summer of 1991. But during a three-week test, Cox and his team removed and reinserted one of the windows, proving it could be done.

"I ask myself sometimes what I'm doing, in the latter part of this century, doing a copy of a copy of an English Gothic country church. But stranger things have happened," Cox said.

Negotiations sputtered back and forth over other factors. The possibility that the land under the new site could contain environmental contaminants took hours of meetings and three consulting firms, for instance.

The real-estate swap that the IMF had hoped could occur immediately after the contract was signed in June 1989 finally took place -- on Oct. 31 of this year.

"It was like the fourth quarter of a very dull and back-and-forth football game, where the trips to the icebox become more and more extended because it's just not over," the IMF's Kaiser said.

With the land swap complete, the next step is to award a construction contract early next year. The move will take place in two phases. When the outlying office and meeting complex is done, probably at the end of 1992, the congregation, the homeless and the other groups will move. Services will take place in the large meeting room of the new facility.

Then, the church will come down, brick by brick. The hope is to use the same stone in the exterior of the new church. The smoked oak pews will be stripped, cleaned and refinished, as will the molding. The limestone casings will be chipped away to release the stained glass in the massive windows along the sides and front.

If all goes according to plan, the congregation will begin meeting in its new home in 1993.

The endowment, on which the church has received interest since June 1989, is supporting not only the feeding program, but also the construction of two churches in Ghana, creation of a new church in Northern Virginia, work with AIDS patients and other activities.

The congregation decided that no money from the endowment will subsidize normal church operations; that will continue to come from contributions.

Some opposition remains to the move. Every Sunday, Robert Meyers, a former Presbyterian minister, pickets the church and hands out flyers contending Western should disband and use the sale proceeds to help the poor. But the majority of the congregation looks forward to a church where the plaster doesn't fall off and the paint doesn't peel, where they can help others rather than needing help.

"This decision was a question of balancing the ministry to our congregation and ministry to our community," parishioner Stephen Biddle said. "We were leaving a neighborhood we've been in for 40 years, but it finally came down to looking within or looking without."

The IMF, so far, has gotten what it wanted for the amount it had budgeted. The new church site was cheaper than expected; other items have cost more. Participants said the agency undoubtedly was aware that every quibble that required more negotiation jacked up the legal bills.

"I'll say this: It was a time-consuming and expensive process," said Stephen Feldhaus, the Fulbright & Jaworski partner who led the team of negotiators for the church. But, he said, both sides came away with what they wanted.

Wimberly, all participants agreed, played a pivotal role in the negotiations, and a surprisingly effective one considering he is not trained in either law or architecture.

"I told John he would have made a great real-estate developer if he hadn't gone into theology," said Cox, the architect.

Wimberly acknowledged some relish in the give-and-take of the negotiations.

"We were operating from a strong hand," he said. "We tried to make sure we got what we wanted and deserved. We did not try to bludgeon the IMF {but} ... we could always say, 'We'll stay.' "

And how did he feel during the process? He smiled. "I didn't know I had any of these skills. I've discovered there is a big part of me that likes being a business person."