Editorial: Our churches are reinventing themselves

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Published: 5/1/2018 3:00:21 PM

For readers of “Faith Matters,” the guest-written column on Saturday’s Religion Page, it’s clear that the face of organized religion is evolving. Some of the changes are driven by finances. Churches served by a full-time minister are becoming the exception rather than the norm as congregations find themselves strapped to offer a living wage, with its attendant benefits of health insurance and retirement accounts, to a full-time minister and at the same time maintain a large and/or historic structure. Other changes are driven by society, as theology competes with lifestyle trends like yoga and meditation.

But that doesn’t mean organized religion is dead — far from it. In addition to traditional faith groups, new models of ministry are answering people’s spiritual needs and Franklin County churches are leading the way. Some examples from recent “Faith Matters” columns include:

A church with a bi-vocational minister: Rev. Will Sencabaugh of the Congregational Church of Shelburne balances his pastorate with a third-shift job in a warehouse. Sencabaugh said, “Some of the best clergy I have met are bi-vocational ‘part-time’ pastors. Many work in education, social services and nonprofits. Some are writers and artists.” He goes on to say, “A parishioner doesn’t care what you are called. When you are at their bedside in the hospital and you are holding their hand offering a prayer, they don’t care that you wear a hard hat, harness and steel-toe shoes during the overnight hours. They only care that you are there for them — present with them — in that moment. For me, that’s the job that matters.”

A church resulting from a merger: The Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew merges the former St. James (Greenfield) and St. Andrew (Turners Falls) episcopal churches. “The choice our congregations discerned,” wrote the Reverends Heather Blais and Molly Schern, “was that we could be ‘better together.’ The two of us were actually astonished at how readily our parish members embraced the concept of merger ... Making the decision seemed to unleash all kinds of excitement and new energy. ... 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.”

Churches with lay speakers: The Unitarian Universalist congregations of Bernardston and Northfield call on lay speakers including Barry Deitz, Daniel Tinen and Jim Scott to lead their services. Tinen says, “When there is no professional leader around, (volunteers) arrange or even lead the services, ... balance the books, print the orders of service, find the music and attend all kinds of meetings. This seems like prosaic day-to-day work, but it is a kind of spiritual practice.”

A church with a special focus: “Arts and Activism” drives the programming at the Bernardston Unitarian Church. Free art workshops, changing art exhibits, and service projects like the Guinope Children’s Project, that provides uniforms so that children in a Guatemalan village can go to school, are like “a magnet where progressive ideas meet church life,” said the Rev. Steve Wilson.

A church without walls: The Cathedral in the Light, which meets outdoors on the Greenfield Town Common, provides a meal with every service.

Rev. Dr. Christine Fontaine, an intentional interim minister, helps guide congregations through change. “Clearly,” she said, “churches are changing and we don’t always know what the future will bring, but as long as we are willing, change can be a positive thing.”

The phrase “organized religion” is often used dismissively to describe a staid institution from the past. But as Tinen said, “In a healthy religious organization, it’s easier for people to learn to be full human beings than if they work by themselves alone.”

Stay tuned to Saturday’s Religion page series, “Faith Matters,” for living models of organized religion in Franklin County and the North Quabbin area.

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