I live in the city of Waterville, Maine, just west of the mighty Kennebec River. On the other side of the Kennebec is the town of Winslow. These are struggling communities, but once they were not. This is mill country, or more precisely in these days, closed mill country. On the Waterville side, the mills were textile mills—Hathaway Shirts, for instance. On the Winslow side, the mill was paper—Kimberly-Clark being the last owner and operator of the large mill that runs along the river.
This is the part of the world that was so expertly depicted by Richard Russo in his 2001 novel Empire Falls—a place with many broken and heartbroken people, whose family ties were close to the mills, but who either could not or would not move when the mills began to decline and then close.
Census data offers a sad picture of this area. In Waterville, the population in 1980 was 17,779. In 2010, that population had declined to 15,722. In Winslow, during that same time period, the population went down from 8,057 to 7,774. In Winslow’s case, the decline seems not all that extraordinary. But, in the public school system, both places experienced significant erosion. In Waterville, there were 2,848 children in the system in 1980. In 2010, the number had declined by almost a full thousand students, to 1,856. In Winslow, the numbers went from 1,735 to 1,211.
Despite sharing the same zip code and local phone exchanges, Waterville and Winslow are fierce rivals, especially when it comes to school sports. So, when there was talk, about fifteen years ago, of tackling the shrinking public school numbers by consolidating the two high schools (one in Waterville and one in Winslow), along with the construction of a brand new, state-of-the-art high school, the response was an unequivocal “no”—especially on the Winslow side.
But still, the school systems eventually joined to become an Alternate Organization Structure (AOS) that shares, among other things, administrative functions.
This collaboration between two rival school units has produced some interesting, if “under the radar,” opportunities for students, particularly at the high school level. Students may, with a fair degree of ease, choose among courses at both high schools. It’s certainly not perfect, since it requires traveling from one high school to the other (and then back, with no public transport options), but it allows two shrinking high schools a little more flexibility when it comes to scheduling, and meeting the needs of their students.
My daughter, who is just finishing her junior year at Waterville High School, has taken math this year in Winslow. Limited choices to meet her needs, and some scheduling problems looked dire about a year ago. The solution? An honors calculus in Winslow that worked with her schedule—and the schedule of a group of Waterville students. Out of about 13 students in the class, 8 of them were Waterville students.
In the face of adversity, some institutions are able to figure out creative solutions for meeting the needs of the people in their community. Wishing away problems doesn’t ever seem to work and neither does “having faith” or setting up one more promised great program or finding that one “turn the corner” kind of leader.
There’s an important lesson here for churches.
In the more than fifteen years that I’ve lived in this part of the world, I’ve often been both amazed, and troubled, by the fact that while many institutions have been forced into new ways of doing what they do—from schools to hospitals—area churches somehow see themselves differently, immune from the forces around them. Churches are generally not looking at creative solutions to the shrinking numbers that they, too, are experiencing. Instead, there is some kind of strange hope that lies in the next program, or pastor.
I realize that in a world of uncomfortable change, the church may be a refuge for these people, a place that is constant and reliable. But, that means that the refuge isn’t likely to exist well into the future. The “refuge” is already facing serious issues and problems that require new and creative solutions. This part of the world is shrinking in population, while at the same time becoming more secular. Reality.
Good church people could learn some valuable lessons from the institutions around them. In the face of adversity, there are creative solutions. Sure, the solutions aren’t all great, but they are significantly better than the alternative. Local churches should not continue to lag behind. Instead, we should be actively engaged, excited about new ways of doing what we do and being who we are. What does it take to take seriously our transformative faith??