Faces on Faith: Here is the church, there goes the steeple
The first church I served as a full-time pastor was in Gloversville, New York. In its heyday, it had been a thriving congregation, with hundreds of members. But when Gloversville hit the skids in the early sixties, and lost thousands of jobs and residents, the church began to shrink in size and resources. Its once filled sanctuary had a hundred or so souls rattling around in a space designed for six or seven times that many. Due to a greatly reduced income, it was falling into great disrepair. It cost a small fortune to heat each winter.
The congregation decided it was time to do a capital campaign. But they faced a choice. They could spend hundreds of thousands to repair the sanctuary, or they could tear it down, repurpose the fellowship hall to be a new, much smaller sanctuary, and create a space much more suited to their needs, freeing up precious resources for community outreach.
There was a very lively debate. Many folks wanted to repair the sanctuary. It was a proud symbol of their past. But then, in the midst of the congregational meeting called to make the decision, some of the oldest members of the congregation, folks with many many years of history in that place, stood up. “Friends,” they said, “we shouldn’t be thinking about ourselves, we shouldn’t be living in the past, we should be thinking about the future, and what we leave here for our children and their children.” That turned the debate. The decision was made.
Today, if you travel to upstate New York, and drive down East Fulton Street, you’ll see the church as it stands now. The bell tower, which had been attached to the front of the old sanctuary, still stands, but then there is a large grassy space with no building – and then the front part of the refurbished fellowship hall. In the last fifty or so years, that congregation has been able to do more for the community than any other church in town. Out of its building and out of its resources has come a meals program for the elderly, an annual countywide art show, a family counseling center, a Big Brothers Big Sisters program, a hospice program and much much more. Programs and services which have helped innumerable people. Programs and services that have helped bring a bit of the kingdom of God to a very impoverished city. All because some brave folks were willing to look to the future.
So, are you getting bogged down in the past? Or, are you recognizing that the way of faith may move you in a new and different direction?
The Rev. Dr. John H. Danner is the senior pastor at Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ.