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Churches Seize On New Ideas To Survive

Under Pressure, Congregations Turn To New Ideas To Survive


April 04, 2010

From their pews at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Colt Armory factory owners, laborers and members of Hartford high society had the same view of Christ and his Apostles in the spectacular stained glass windows over the altar.

These mid-19th century parishioners read the same Scripture, sang the same hymns and sought comfort and guidance from the same God they believed had created them all. This fulfilled Elizabeth Colt's mission for the church she had founded in memory of her husband, Samuel, and three infant children.

A century and a half later, however, like many houses of worship, the Church of the Good Shepherd on Wyllys Street has been forced to come up with creative ways to continue its spiritual mission.

In 2003, its neighborhood having changed from largely Jamaican and African American to Hispanic, it hired a Spanish-speaking layman, who is now an ordained Episcopal priest, to help build a Spanish ministry. The church now offers Sunday services in English and Spanish.

And although Good Shepherd benefits from a trust created by Elizabeth Colt, the church rents its buildings to generate income. Metropolitan Community Church of Hartford, a nondenominational group founded in 1973 to serve the gay community, has rented a portion of the parish house since 2007, and the Word of Faith Gospel Church just started paying for use of the sanctuary. The Capitol Region Education Council continues to lease the church's parking lot and annex building.

"That sharing of space and outreach to other groups has been part of our culture for a long time, and I think it's wonderful," said Justina Black, a lifelong member of Good Shepherd. "If it wasn't for all these various collaborations, [the church] would be closed, or become a museum or a rental type place."

Even before the recent economic turn, religious organizations were coping with changing populations, demographics and worship habits that led to decreased memberships. And giving is down. In fact, a recent survey titled "State of the Plate," taken by Maximum Generosity, an online site devoted to church giving, and Christianity Today International, a network of publications and websites, found that in 2008, 29 percent of churches reported a decline in giving. The percentage jumped to 38 in 2009.

There have been other challenges. David A. Roozen, a professor of religion and society and director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary, noted some of them: "In the [United Church of Christ], they went through the marriage equality issue, and Protestant congregations have struggled with becoming open and affirming, and there have been problems with clergy abuses."

The economic downtown has only increased the pressures and challenges.

"The simplest way to put this is the economy has made weak churches weaker and strong churches stronger," said Kenneth Keifer, regional manager for United Methodist Churches from Hartford to Greenwich.

Roozen has a complementary take: "What the financial stuff does is it forces choices." Choices cause conflict, but can also create changes that induce growth and vitality, he said.

"Somewhere along the line, most congregations are going to have to change if they are going to survive longer term," Roozen said. "So you can use the choices forced by financial crisis as an opportunity to redefine yourself for the future."

Or not.

'For Sale'

More than a dozen Connecticut properties once used for religious purposes are listed for sale on the commercial real estate website loopnet.com, and former church buildings across the state are now used in other ways.

Examples include the former United Presbyterian Church in Enfield, now home to the Valley Repertory Company. New Britain's historic Trinity United Methodist Church is now an arts and education center. Funds from the sale of that building helped to save another Methodist Church in the village of North Canton, Keifer said.

Cutting expenses, of course, is another option for religious organizations. Sometimes, that's one of the few steps they can take.

Marichal Monts, pastor of the Citadel of Love Church on Barbour Street in Hartford, said his nondenominational church is growing, but parishioners are giving less. Monts gave up his salary and asked the church's musicians to do the same.

"The funny thing is we are seeing more people in church. ... They are looking for some hope in these crazy times," said Monts, who teaches at Wesleyan University and is searching for additional work. "When you are dealing with a city like Hartford where some of [the parishioners] don't have completed education, they are getting part-time jobs and are just making enough to get by."

But at the same time, because of the increased need, Citadel offers free breakfasts and lunches. Monts also plans to form a support group for people with drug and alcohol addictions and will offer other programs, such as financial planning.

Choosing where and what to cut and what to add can be painful for all involved. Staffing is one of the greatest challenges because of ancillary expenses like insurance and housing. So some congregations are reducing staff, yoking or merging with another church or moving to part-time clergy positions.

Although the United Church of Christ has a handful of federated churches — different denominations that have merged into one church — this type of collaboration is not happening as much now.

"Finding ways to survive, it's a tough thing for churches to do, particularly in the United Church of Christ," said the Rev. Ron Brown, associate minister for clergy concerns for the UCC's Connecticut Conference. "We have many towns that have more than one church or churches that are close together, and it's important for them to maintain their own identity, which makes merging sometimes difficult to talk about."

But all of this can lead to, well, blessings in disguise.

A congregation's ability to change can affect its vitality and growth, recent surveys have found. These surveys were launched in 2000 by a partnership of faith communities affiliated with the Institute for Religion Research. They showed that religious organizations open to changes in worship style or distinctive in their identity exhibited increased vitality and strength.

"Churches that were strong to start with, they had to cut back so maybe they had to lay off some folks, but they are doing the jobs now," Keifer said. "It has really created another level of community within the churches."

'Meeting Human Needs'

Outreach also helps. Congregations that recruit and work at keeping new members by inviting them to become more involved have grown. Age is also a factor. Congregations with large percentages of senior members appear to have growing challenges, are lower in spiritual vitality, poorer in financial health, less open to change and experience more conflict, a recent report on the faith communities' surveys found.

By combining tradition with outreach and new ideas, Hartford's North United Methodist Church on Albany Avenue seems to be meeting the needs of all of its parishioners and its community.

Historically an all-white congregation, the membership changed with the neighborhood and is now a mix of African, African American and Caribbean cultures. Using the traditional Methodist model of connecting members through classes, the church also has embraced its parishioners' love of music. Three organists share the church's historic Opus organ; three choral directors lead five different choirs, and about 60 children take piano lessons. Such collaborations create an enjoyable worship experience, said the church's the Rev. Hugh Hamilton.

"The worship piece, they have it together," said Hamilton, who has served the church's 500 members for the past nine years. "They enjoy incorporating dynamic worship and it's an important part of their lives."

Meanwhile, a visitation team helps Hamilton minister to shut-ins, and the church offers a food pantry and community clothing mission, and regularly cooks meals for two homeless shelters. Recently, North United bought a large building next door that will house its literacy outreach program for children and adults and a health initiative to provide medical and dental care.

"We see it as a vital piece to the continuing economic, social and spiritual development of our people," Hamilton said. "This project is about meeting human needs in the name of Jesus Christ."

Spiritual creativity occurs on many levels. For years, West Avon Congregational Church has collaborated with Avon Congregational Church on joint summer and Good Friday services. So when West Avon saw a dip in its youth group membership, it teamed up with the growing group at Avon Congregational to provide support to needy communities in Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia.

"They stay in the heart of the community in need," said West Avon's the Rev. Brian Hardee. "They may prepare and serve a meal, sort supplies, paint apartments for the elderly. The idea is to open up your eyes to what is going on," he said.

A Different Kind Of Support

One Jewish congregation has developed a proactive approach of outreach to cope with a struggling economy.

When Rabbi Michael Pincus learned that some of his congregants at Beth Israel in West Hartford were out of work or facing job loss, he helped create the Jewish Employment Transition Services initiative.

It "started off as a way to help our congregants who are out of work and be a support to them during this difficult time period," said Pincus. "We then organized it so that it would not be located in one synagogue, but available to the whole community."

Now a year old, the free program is operated through Jewish Family Services, a regional organization, and provides workshops, networking, counseling, resume writing and other resources. These not only help to shore up the financial health of those who use them, but also their emotional health. More than 500 people have used the program.

Some Restructuring

In addition to their own special challenges, Connecticut's Catholic churches have been buffeted by the same changing populations and demographics as other religious institutions.

As noted by Sister Ellisa Rinere, director of pastoral planning ministry for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich, "Many manufacturing jobs have changed over the last 40 years, so the character of the towns has changed. The population isn't as young as it once was."

The churches' challenges have been exacerbated by priest shortages that have required some parishes to close or share staff, she said. There are now six priests in the diocese serving multiple parishes.

Michael Strammiello, the diocese's director of communications, said changes in southeastern Connecticut have prompted the diocese to take a closer look at the configuration of its 77 parishes.

"Shortages of priests is a factor, but there are many issues here, and one of them is that many of our churches and schools have been in place for more than 100 years.

"In 100 years, changes take place," Strammiello said. So today, he said, the diocese is asking, "Are parishes in the right place, the right configuration? Couple that with the extraordinary financial pressures of the times, which all institutions are facing of course, this relentless recession we are all going through."

For the Archdiocese of Hartford, which consists of 216 parishes in Hartford, Litchfield and New Haven counties, priest shortages have required some restructuring.

"We've got some parishes that are being pastored by one priest, two maybe three parishes," said the Rev. John Gatzak, spokesman for the archdiocese. "That is challenging."

The good news, said Gatzak, is an increase in the number of seminarians studying to become priests. But sharing priests is still necessary and is occurring at churches in Manchester and New Britain. What's happening in Torrington, however, is particularly striking.

The four parishes of Sacred Heart, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Peter and St. Mary — known as the "Torrington cluster" — share three priests. Each church is financially independent of the others, but they share the cost of the priests' salaries, benefits and living expenses. Clustering brings parishes together but also preserves their identities, said the Rev. Christopher Tiano, the cluster's head priest.

"We have kept the separate parishes, kept the separate histories, but we also collaborate across the cluster for bereavement, evangelization, the pro-life committee and parish social ministry," said Tiano, who said three of the nine Masses offered at the parishes each week. "We have two large parishes and two small parishes. The smaller parishes like the cluster because it provides them with a lot more activities. But there are growing pains that occur because we don't have a model to follow. Someone didn't do this before us."

Historically a city with a large Italian population, Torrington is now home to a growing number of Latinos. In response, the cluster began a Spanish ministry.

"Our third priest is a Colombian native, so there are always new people coming in," Tiano said. "It's a really beautiful thing. It's the story of the church over and over."

Elizabeth Would Approve

The effects of the recent downturn in the economy will continue to be a challenge for all of the state's religious organizations as they look to fulfill their spiritual missions, while serving the needs of those who come to them for support and guidance.

"This is the challenge for the church today: how to be an aid to people as they face need in this financial crisis," said Gatzak. "How does the Gospel call us today as we face some of these needs?"

In some ways, Elizabeth Colt had it easy in that all she had to do was open the doors to the beautiful church she built, and all would come.

But that was then.

"A lot of our congregations still are very traditional in their approach to worship," Roozen, of Hartford Seminary, said, "and it doesn't cut it with a lot of what they call the millennials, and it didn't even cut it with the baby boomers.

Dana Campbell, the interim priest at the Church of the Good Shepherd, spoke recently about the advantages of sharing the house of worship. "I feel very happy that they are here," she said, adding that Metropolitan and Shepherd members collaborate on Bible classes and worship services and support one another's events.

"Any organization has a cyclical life and has an opportunity to jump-start itself and do something new," she said. "Change is what the Bible tells us we can expect."

Justina Black, of Good Shepherd, said, "I think Elizabeth [Colt] would support what we are doing here, because we are reaching out to the community and that was her mission."

•Information on the Faith Communities Today series of national surveys can be found at faithcommunitiestoday.org. •For details of the annual State of the Plate survey, go to www.christianitytoday.com/yc/2010/spring/stateplateresults.html. •The Pew Research Center's series on Religion Among the Millenials can be viewed at pewforum.org.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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