Wednesday, November 28, 2018
A door closes and a window opens, goes the saying, meaning that when one opportunity is cut off, another is made available. Such seems to be the case with the anticipated closing of the doors of Orange’s Bethany Lutheran Church, the first major church in town to close. The “doors closing” news is that the 130-year-old brick church at 62 Cheney St., despite all its history, is set to hold its last service on Jan. 20. The “window opening” part of this story is that the remaining members of its congregation are shaping its legacy, starting with the decision to gift its facilities to another church – the Mission Covenant Church around the block.
“I think it wants to be remembered as being a light in the community in Orange,” said Pastor Dr. Mary Hendrickson, who leads both churches.
Hendrickson sees the closing as a loss to the community but not without a silver lining. By joining with the neighboring church, she says they may be able to offer more to church members with the combined resources of two congregations.
That was the rationale behind the merging of St. James Episcopal Church in Greenfield with St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Turners Falls in 2017. The choice was that we could be “better together,” wrote the Rev. Heather Blais, rector, and the Rev. Molly Scherm, associate rector of the resulting Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew, reflecting on the merger. “Making the decision seemed to unleash all kinds of excitement and new energy and helped everyone focus on the possibilities and potential in a newly-expanded community; we realized that we could do more in our ministries and, with only one property to support, invest less time and worry on the financial picture.”
Similarly, three Catholic parishes merged in 2006: St. Mary of the Assumption and St. Anne’s in Turners Falls, and Sacred Heart in Greenfield. Parishioners renamed the church Our Lady of Peace and built a new identity. Closing the churches was a financial decision, with congregations shrinking from the historical numbers of the immigrant communities who built the churches. The Rev. Stanley Aksamit shepherded the merger and has led the congregation since. “I think that people are happy with the way things have ended up,” Aksamit said in a Recorder story in January 2016. Aksamit said he finds the consolidation has allowed him to be more present for his congregation. Elements of the three churches were incorporated among the statues and art of Our Lady of Peace Church, with artifacts of St. John’s Church in Millers Falls.
In South Deerfield, the nearly-200-year-old Congregational Church closed at the end of 2016. “It was a long, deliberate, prayerful process,” said Jack Cooper, co-moderator of the church. “The way it’s perceived by some people is that this was a failure, but that’s the exact opposite of what happened. This was a faithful response to reality. It was not a failure.” The church, founded in the 1800s, had suffered dwindling membership as churchgoers either stopped attending or died. The possibility of closing its doors for good was considered over the course of 15 months. Meetings were held, statistics were investigated and numbers were crunched.
“You’ve got a nearly 200-year-old congregation who has found this to be a place of comfort and sustenance,” said Cooper, “and that’s a tragedy. Not the building.” The fate of the South Deerfield Congregational Church building, gifted to the town as the site of a possible new senior center and/or housing for seniors, is still to be decided. It’s not a simple process. The state has regulations in place regarding what churches can and can’t do after they close. The town has hired a consultant to create the master plan for the building. “I’m absolutely shocked it’s taken this long,” said Selectwoman Carolyn Shores Ness, who said in May that she plans on lobbying legislators to move it forward. It’s been a year and a half. We’re ready to go.”
A church closure is typically long in coming and follows a predictable path. Declines in attendance become marked, pledging dwindles, fiscal reserves are tapped out, youth programs dissolve for lack of young people, and volunteers feel stretched until church leaders confront the three stages of a church closure: 1. Acknowledge the reality of the situation. 2. Vote to close the church, and 3. Commit to shaping the church’s legacy in the community.
One positive trend that is emerging is interfaith activity. In Orange, Hendrickson said the consolidation reflects a wider push by church leaders in the community to work together, establish interfaith groups and create new ways of helping others. “There’s a strong sense right now of uniting to serve Orange, which is unprecedented,” Hendrickson said. “It’s developing and it excites us all.”
A church closing is a sad event, indeed. But attitude is everything, and how it is handled can turn doors closing into windows opening, which is the best possible outcome for the inhabitants of these spiritual homes. Bethany Church seems to have struck the right bell.