Photo: Some of the church's young people joined in on blessing a prayer shawl before it was delivered..
After many decades of decline, Payson Park Church, UCC of Belmont, had to make a hard decision in 2015. The congregation brought in the CrossRoads / New Beginnings program, and actively consulted with Associate Conference Minister Wendy Vander Hart to help answer the question about the church’s future. Would the congregation now close, merge with another congregation, or rededicate themselves to a new mission and bring in another settled minister? Out of a time of discernment during a two year interim, the congregation decided to call a new pastor, and the Rev. Eric Wefald arrived at the end of 2016.
“Payson Park leaders actively engaged the process of looking into their neighborhood and discerning a new ‘Why’ for their ministry,” said Vander Hart. “This work also greatly informed their search process for new pastoral leadership.”
Over the past two years, in 2017 and 2018, Payson Park Church has now welcomed fifteen new adult members, most of them young adults, which is a big number for a small congregation. By the January 2019 Annual Meeting, the congregation was celebrating an historical turn around. Reversing a more than ten year downward trend, funds pledged for 2019 increased over the previous year (by 5%). Plus for the second year in a row, the number of faith pledges towards the budget also increased, this year jumping up by 16%. The number of pledges for 2019 now surpasses the number of pledges in 2006. Payson Park recently had to add another Sunday School class to accommodate the increasing numbers of children in church. Even the adult choir is blossoming and growing in numbers. Christmas Eve in 2018 was the highest attended Christmas Eve service in over eight years.
The new pastor, Rev. Eric Wefald, believes this good news in large part comes out of a new focus adopted by the Church Council. Everyone on Council read the book, For a New Generation, by Lee Kircher, (positively reviewed in the magazine The Christian Century), and discussed it at a one day Council retreat.
South Church UCC in Andover generously let Payson Park use their space on a Saturday for this retreat. “I believe Paul’s words to be true,” said Rev. Dana Allen Walsh, Senior Pastor of South Church. “’The body has many members.’ We are all one in the body of Christ and I’m grateful for the moments we can celebrate, encourage, and support our interconnectedness.”
During the retreat day, the Council reflected on their mission, discussed Kircher’s book, shared meals, and prayed together. At every Council monthly meeting since the retreat, they now ask the question, "What can we do to reach the next generation?" (The next generation is defined as the median age of the surrounding community, and younger, which according to online demographics, is 41 years old and younger around Payson Park.)
“We are coming to a consensus that we can no longer wait for the next generation to suddenly love the church of the past and come to our doors,” said Wefald. “Instead we need to reexamine all parts of our congregation, so that what we do reaches and embraces the next generation. And many of our changes are coming out of this new focus, such as hiring Rebecca Bowler as our new Youth & Community Outreach Minister.”
Another change is having younger faces, “the next generation,” including children and youth, actually lead the worship service. The church is becoming intentional in making children feel more essential in the church. In addition to learning the stories of faith in Sunday school and leading worship, children and youth sing in the youth choirs, serve as greeters and acolytes, and more. Teens are leading the way in mission and outreach, whether cleaning up the Charles River, or walking with the homeless through CityReach.
Formerly, the children’s message was given about twice a month; now it is given at every service. “Our children's messages are something that our members and visitors point to as very welcoming of children,” said Wefald. “We try to ensure the messages are engaging, fun, and authentic. Nowadays we sometimes have 15 to 17 kids, including visitors, up front to hear the children's message and they seem delighted to be included.”
“We have been inviting the teens to lead one part of worship, like the Call to Worship or the Scripture,” said Bowler. “This is our attempt to show the teens that they are valued members of the community, and to engage them in a way they might not if they were simply sitting in the pew as an observer. This also demonstrates to the congregation that we do have young people in our community and that they are important.”
“We hope that by including many age groups in ministries, and showing younger and more diverse leaders in worship, we can attract a younger and more diverse crowd,” she said.
Wefald and the CE committee have also initiated a new tradition of inviting children and youth to remain in worship for communion, three times during the academic year. For the first time, children are hearing adult sermons and receiving communion, and they seem to love it. Instead of passing the heavy silver trays with little cups and then trays of bread, communion is made more welcoming to little ones by inviting everyone up to a small communion table on the floor, and inviting all to dip the bread into the cup.
Another way the church is showing they are putting youth and families first is by supporting a local refugee family. During their regular Belmont Religious Council ecumenical meeting, Wefald proposed joining forces with his fellow Catholic council member to support the resettlement of refugee families. The council president, Pastor Joe Zarro, of Plymouth Congregational, UCC in Belmont, encourages these types of connections as a way of supporting each other and the community. As a result, Payson Park and New Roads Catholic congregations joined together in sponsoring an Iranian-Kurdish family who had spent over two years in a UN refugee camp in Indonesia.
The Mission and Outreach committee of Payson Park allocated over $5,000 towards this resettlement process. Plus, the congregation co-hosted a music concert in early 2018, drawing in hundreds of people from a number of congregations across three towns to support work with refugees. Many musicians and music teachers donated their services in this benefit concert, which raised thousands more dollars.
Three of Payson Park Church’s members were recently given an award, recognizing their ongoing work and daily support of this resettled refugee family.
“People who have been on years-long journeys elsewhere have returned and introduced themselves to me. New families with young children are quizzing me and asking what kind of community we are. Who are we?” said Wefald. “We need to be different. With our actions focusing on the next generation – whether we are talking about new families or those new to our country – we are indeed showing that we are different than we were before.”
“Payson Park Church is fortunate to be able to build upon the strong history of faith in the congregation, plus the already outstanding programs such as Vacation Bible School (with 53 kids in August 2018!), the faithful church teams feeding the hungry every month at Bristol Lodge, and the vibrant music ministry,” said Wefald. “The new motto of Payson Park Church? ‘We are Growing with God, for the Good of the World.’”
You may contact Rev. Eric Wefald at firstname.lastname@example.org.