I serve on a small team examining and considering possible new models of governance and staffing for the Maine Conference. We’ve been meeting regularly since last summer, wrestling with a variety of issues, working with a consultant, and finally coming to a place where we have a draft document that’s ready to be shared with the Conference’s representative body, and then the Conference as a whole. For the next several months, we’ll be gathering comments and suggestions, and working on new drafts, with new insights and details of where the Conference might focus its resources and its energy in the future.
One of the issues that I’ve brought to the table is an issue that continues to feel like my issue, and my issue alone. In the work of others on the Team and in the drafts they’ve proposed, my “issue” is always left out.
I realize that “my issue” is not fun or glamorous, or exciting—at least in how we want to be thinking about the future of the Maine Conference of the United Church of Christ. But, it is critical, I believe, and so I keep bringing it up, inserting it back into the work that we are doing, sometimes with a note about how strongly I believe that it needs to be there. Although I’m starting to feel like a broken record, I continue to try to drive home my point. It’s been feeling a lot like a trip into the wilderness.
My “issue” is the simple truth of demographic realities and trends in Maine—at the local and state level. Demographics is not simply a matter for the local church, but ought to be a focal point of our Conference, especially since there are a lot of UCC churches that exist in shrinking communities. And, as well, there are growing communities where no UCC churches exist in any form.
Here are some examples:
In Augusta, there is a large, almost cathedral-like building home to a not so large UCC congregation. In the city of Augusta—Maine’s capital—population declined from 21,819 in 1980 to 19,136 in 2010 (12.3%). Within that shrinking population, there was an even steeper decline of children, from 5,649 under 18, to 3,309 (41.42%).
In Waterville, about 20 miles north of Augusta, there is also a large building home to a shrinking congregation. In that city, the population declined from 17,779 in 1980 to 15,722 in 2010 (11.5%). The “under 18” population fell from 4,158 to 2,893 (28%).
And, then there are these communities:
In Belgrade, a lovely lake area, west of Augusta and Waterville, the population increased from 2,048 in 1980 to 3,189 in 2010, and the “under 18” population increased from 605 to 785, although the median age rose from 31 to 44.
In Manchester, another lovely lake community just west of Augusta, the population increased from 1,949 to 2,580 between 1980 and 2010, while the “under 18” population decreased from 574 to 525 and the median age went up from 33 to 47 during that same period.
In Sidney, the town that separates Waterville and Augusta, the population increased from 2,052 to 4,208, while the “under 18” population increased from 700 to 1,047 and the median age went up from 28 to 40.
There are no UCC churches in Belgrade, Manchester or Sidney, or in other towns like them—small town communities, many of them with lakes and variable populations (probably more in summer than winter) and which may or may not be dealing with an increase of children. But, all of them, like so many other communities around the state, are dealing with significant increases in median age.
No surprise there, really, since Maine is the oldest state in the country.
This ought to be key Conference business. It ought to be a part of the work of Conference staff to help us, on the local, association and Conference levels, to understand demographic changes and trends. We should to be thinking about where our churches are located and wondering if this is the best way to “be church” in this part of the world in these days. We should be thinking about how to spread the good news, in ways that are flexible and nimble (no new church buildings, for instance), into communities that are growing. We should be spending quality time considering our concept of “Sunday School” and whether or not it should be so focused on children.
I realize that it’s not much fun to dig deep into census data, especially when the information one finds is not really what one would like to find. It’s not a lot of fun to unearth and try to disseminate information that many good church people would rather ignore.
But, when information is not only so crucial to how we think about ourselves and how we should be thinking about ourselves, but is also readily available, it seems ludicrous to ignore the reality that, for many of us, is right in front of us. Spend time wandering around Waterville or Augusta, and one cannot help but notice the prevalence of older people, and the dearth of younger people. Drive around these cities and notice how many homes are for sale, and have been . . . for a while.
This isn’t just about learning to close churches in communities that are shrinking or dying (though we should be doing a better job in that regard), it’s also about being engaged in transformation and the ways that our God may be guiding us, in these communities that look different than they did thirty years ago. Evangelizing to retired people is different—and will look and feel different— than evangelizing to young families, but for many places in Maine, that’s where we, as churches and as a denomination, could be doing good and welcoming work.
Changes and trends are not always welcome, but they are what they are. Ignoring them isn’t good, nor is it healthy. In those changes and trends, there are opportunities—opportunities to be the kind of Christ-centered people we say we want to be.