The story of the Gardiner Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Gardiner, Maine, offers an important view into some of the very challenging issues facing many mainline churches, especially those churches located in places like central Maine.
The Gardiner Congregational Church closed several years ago. Some of the church’s members came over to the church that I serve in Hallowell, just a couple of towns away. It’s been heartbreaking to hear them talk about their church as a “failure.” “Are you sure you want us to join your church?” one woman asked me, “Our church failed.”
Is that the best way of looking at the closing? Is it really just one isolated example of failure? Of a congregation that just couldn’t manage to evangelize enough to keep the place going?
Or, was there something much wider and broader, and deeper that contributed to the church’s demise? Did elements exist that were simply out of the control of church members?
I believe these last two questions are profoundly important—not only to the folks from Gardiner, but to all people who attend mainline churches in areas like central Maine.
What do I mean by “places like central Maine”? Various things:
- An area that has undergone population decline in recent years. In Gardiner’s case, the overall population decline between 1980 and 2010 was 10.5%. The decline of people under the age of 18 was even more dramatic—32%.
- An area with an aging population. Gardiner’s median age, between 1980 and 2000, rose from 31 to 38. By age of population, Maine is the oldest state in the country.
- An area with a lot of religious competition. At the time of Gardiner’s closure, the town had about eight or nine churches (the total population of the town was only 5800 in 2010).
- A population with little or no interest in becoming affiliated with a church. A recent survey found that only 27% of Mainers self-identify as Christian.
In the last several years of Gardiner’s life, the leadership of the church reached out for assistance, from the Maine Conference and from their local Association. I was one of the people from the Association that visited with them on several occasions. In the end, my consulting partner and I strongly suggested that they try to remove themselves from the building. It had become a such a major concern (it was too big and too hard to maintain, plus the layout of the building did not serve the church well at all, with a kitchen, for instance, in the basement) that the members could think of little else but to worry about the physical structure in which they gathered. To the two Association outsiders who listened to their worries and concerns, it was blatantly obvious that this was no way to be the church.
Yet, it was too difficult to think about being the church without that particular building. And, in the end, our report was filed in the “circular file.” It didn’t help that the Conference was telling the church something quite different. The Conference convinced the church to spend as much money as possible to hire a minister for as much time as possible. The church took more money from its savings and hired a newly ordained, inexperienced pastor on a three-quarter time call (the previous pastor had been one-half time). The Conference also encouraged the church to enroll in the Parishes of Promise program, a Conference sponsored effort that helped the church focus on “asset assessment” and “goal-setting.”
The problem, though, for the Gardiner church went far beyond what was going on within the four walls of their church building. They should have been encouraged to spend much more time considering the community in which they existed. It is indeed difficult and painful to accept that the community in which one exists is interested in different things than one’s church, and that one’s church is no longer at the center of community life. But, this is reality and it is a reality shared by many other churches.
At Old South, I consistently try to remind the congregation that we must always be in the midst of a juggling act. On the one hand, we must face the realities of our community. And, on the other hand, we must be hopeful, Easter people, always committed to spreading the good news.
I believe that this “juggling act” must be the focus for more churches. Perhaps it will help people see beyond that horrible word “failure” and that in addition to assessing our “assets,” we must also explore our “liabilities.”
For the Maine Conference, the Gardiner church stands only as a tale to tell of a faithful group that did as well as they could, but had to close and they are to be thanked because they gave their building to the Conference, and some of their other assets to other Conference programming—as if they were just an isolated, and rare, case of a church that closed (and note: that building remains unsold, and empty).
The Gardiner church, though, really ought to be a case study that each and every one of our churches explores and discusses. In these deep struggles, will each church end up deciding that it is just an isolated “failure,” or will each church find new life, and new hope, no matter what happens?
For mainline churches in places like central Maine, we have many challenging issues, and at the heart of every single one is the question about how we can remain faithful to the Gospel and hopeful, while also understanding reality. We ought to be seeking many more opportunities to encourage and support one another, and to work together, to discern the path that is ahead, even if that means leaving our past (and present) hopes and dreams behind.