At one of our vestry conversations with the Bishop last month, he surprised some folks by talking in some detail about what has been going on in other parishes in the Diocese: specifically in several parishes in and around Augusta, and the parishes in The County known as the Aroostook Cluster. What could these churches’ struggles have to do with ours? What has Kennebec County to do with MDI?
A few years ago, five parishes in Kennebec County were struggling. All agreed that Augusta could not sustain five parishes indefinitely, but each parish had its own history, its own gifts and strengths, and none of them wanted seriously to consider giving those up. St. Mark’s was the old, traditional stone church in downtown Augusta, and its city-block campus of buildings supported many local ministries and organizations. Because it was the biggest and most centrally located, some in the surrounding churches worried that any move toward cooperation would end with them being “swallowed up” by St. Mark’s. For several years, the situation was what Bishop Lane described as a “staring contest.”
Then the vestry of St. Mark’s did something surprising. Looking at their resources and their options, they voted to close up their church and worship for the winter at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church. By the next spring, the congregation of St. Mark’s discovered that they had a lot in common with Prince of Peace, and they decided to stay. They called the Pastor of Prince of Peace to be their Rector, and walked away from their beautiful but impractical old downtown campus. The new shared ministry continues to grow and bear fruit. The remaining parishes are still discerning how they are called to be the church in Kennebec County, but St. Mark’s has shown them a fresh possibility.
A number of years ago, five parishes in Aroostook County realized that they were not sustainable as they had been, and entered into a cooperative ministry known as the Aroostook Cluster: One priest and five deacons served the five parishes, who agreed to a rhythm of Eucharist and Morning Prayer, with some service times on Saturday or Sunday evening. More recently, two of these parishes, in Caribou and Mars Hill, decided prayerfully that the most faithful way they could be the church was to close their parishes and bring the gifts that God had given them to the three remaining parishes.
When asked what the Diocese had learned from these stories, the Bishop’s answer was quick: “We should have started sooner.” By the time parishes are in financial or membership crisis, many options have already foreclosed. Conversations started earlier, when congregations are healthy, are more likely to give birth to new, creative ways of doing ministry.
I have a fancy printed fold-out map of the Diocese of Maine, dated 2004, which shows dots for seven congregations that no longer exist: some in small towns like Dexter, some in urban areas like Portland. Some have closed, some have merged, and at least one, in Biddeford, has re-booted itself as a neighborhood social-services center.
I have a blurry multiply-Xeroxed map of the Diocese from the late 1940’s, showing a dozen congregations in north woods towns where it’s now hard to imagine that they ever could have survived. As many parishes and altars as we have now on MDI, it’s shocking to remember that at one point there were also Episcopal chapels on Knox Road, on Eagle Lake Road, on Sound Drive, on West Street in Bar Harbor, and on Gott’s Island (thanks to Ed Garrett’s article “The Episcopal Church Comes to Mount Desert Island,” The History Journal of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society, Volume III, 2000).
I don’t share these stories, and I don’t believe the Bishop shared his stories, to depress you with evidence that the Church is dwindling and that our parishes are surely on the path to extinction. To me, these are not stories of extinction but of evolution: individual organisms dying out when they can no longer survive in a particular ecological niche, but at the same time other organisms growing and blossoming in new niches as they become available. Either way, life continues, even though it may not look much like the life that came before. And that, of course, is the blessing and the mystery: new life is not possible without the death of old life.
If that sounds kind of theological, it’s not a coincidence. Christ’s death on the cross looked to all the world like extinction, but out of it comes abundant new life that looks nothing like the life that came before. If our church is going to live resurrection life with Christ, we must trust him enough to die with him, too.