As the pastor of a small church in central Maine, I often feel like a guy on the unicycle, trying to balance two things in my hands, while balancing myself on a bike with one wheel—back and forth, back and forth, trying to look forward, while also glancing at the ground, and trying desperately not to drop the items that are in my hands.
My life as a pastor is essentially about balancing two very different things— hope and reality—in a place where, though the foundation is sure and reliable, the environment is not easy to navigate.
Let’s start with the reality part. Old South is a slowly declining mainline congregation, with an average age of somewhere around seventy. We have only a handful of children and youth. It’s important to note, as I have in other blog posts, that not all of the decline is about our internal church dynamics. It’s also very much about geography, economics, and demographics.
Although the tiny city in which Old South exists has had a mostly stable population (around 2500) over the past thirty years, the larger area has experienced significant decline. The largest city in the area, the state capital of Augusta, which lies just to the north of Hallowell, declined in population to 18,560 (in 2010) from 19,136 (in 2000). In 1980, the population was 21,819. And, even more sobering, is the decline of families. Between 1980 and 2000, the population of people under the age of eighteen declined by 25% in Augusta. And, from 2000 to 2010, the population of school-age children and youth declined another 14%.
The truth of the matter is that Old South could have a great pastor, with great worship, a fabulous choir, and engaging programs, and it still may not be able to sustain—let alone grow—its numbers in order to maintain its current staffing and physical plant—simply because of where it exists.
In addition to the shrinking population, we must also wrestle with other aspects of these demographic changes, including the fact that Maine is the oldest state in the country and the most secular.
Yet we are, especially at the denominational level (United Church of Christ—national and state), seemingly hard-wired to see ourselves on the verge of new growth. A visit to http://www.ucc.org features a whole section called “Grow Your Church.” But there’s nothing on how to deal with the sunset or decline, or closing of one’s church. The same is true at the state level.
This brings us to reality. There is a reality that fuels that hopefulness, especially given that lots of people who live in Maine don’t go to church and don’t belong to any religious group. Convincing those who have come to enjoy their lazy Sundays to come to church instead is no easy task, but there is potential there—important, not to be ignored, reality of the unchurched who live right in the church’s neighborhood.
So there’s juggling. On the one hand, the reality that the demographics are against us. And, on the other hand, the hope that we may be able to share something meaningful with the many people in our community who don’t go to church.
Some churches in Maine are doing what’s necessary to bring in some new people, and that usually involves something that good church people don’t like: change.
But, without change, there is little to no hope. And, we don’t have to go far to see the consequences. Churches in Maine are closing. Instead of looking at them with pity for their loss, we ought to hold them up as examples of what might really be next for more of us.
It’s a juggling act, and more than that, it’s a difficult act for most good church folk to keep active and present in their minds and in their imaginations. It’s not easy to keep these two critical things in mind in most everything we do, especially when lots of those who come to church, come because church is perceived as a refuge, a familiar comfortable place, an antidote to the hectic, constantly changing world.
This is why I often feel like a circus act, like a juggling clown on a unicycle. But, the real trick is finding a way to hold onto those two things in my hand—hope and reality—AND move forward, feeling like those around me are coming with me and not just laughing at the spectacle.