In what is likely a familiar scenario to many Massachusetts Conference churches, West Parish Church of Andover
was struggling with lagging attendance and stewardship.
“Young families came and went, while many of our older folks were feeling burn-out," said member Ruby Easton. "Although there was no threat of closing the church, we definitely felt the need to do something to ignite enthusiasm. So several of us attended one of the Conference's Come and See events (see sidebar) and after discussion, we agreed to set upon the Crossroads path to help us renew our passion, and get an objective look at our situation.”
Crossroads Massachusetts is a ministry designed for congregations that find themselves at a Crossroads and want to intentionally discern their path forward. Last year, 23 churches came to the free Come and See events to learn about the program. Nine churches signed on to the process, two churches have made bold decisions, and one of those, West Parish, has embarked on making changes.
"There could be several different reasons why a church believes it is at a crossroads: declining membership, aging members, oversized facilities, changing neighborhood demographics or declining financial resources," said Associate Conference Minister Wendy Vander Hart. "The common factor, however, is that members feel a sense of urgency that in order to turn their church around, something bold must be done."
West Parish had previously written vision statements and identified core values.
“This time, however, we wanted to take a more purposeful look, and make an expression of what we value, today and into the future, in our lives as Christians, individually and collectively at West Parish Church,” Easton said. “We wanted to answer the questions expressed so well by Rev. Jim Antal, Minister and President of the Mass. Conference: Who are we today? Who is our neighbor? Who is God calling us to be and become?”
“We were fortunate to get some truly invested facilitators and we were all very impressed with the training weekend. The trainers were great, the pace was lively, the material dealt with real issues, and the process was well thought out. The added incentive was the promise of an assessment of our church done by outsiders,” Easton said.
Sixty-five members of the church committed to attend six house meeting sessions. Easton said Associate Conference Minister Wendy Vander Hart offered encouragement and challenged the church to think boldly as the process neared conclusion. The pastor, Rev. Tom McMillan, was also very supportive, she said.
In this process, there are five categories of bold decisions that a church can consider: re-definition, relocation, restart, parallel start, and legacy.
“After receiving a comprehensive report of our congregation’s strengths and challenges and a concrete, realistic picture of possible directions for the future, we chose re-definition,” Easton said.
Vander Hart said re-definition can be one of the more difficult decisions to pull off, but Easton said the church decided to work with the existing infrastructure and organization and transform it – getting a new clarity of mission while working with old parts.
“We presented a proposal to the congregation that redefined our mission in a more outwardly focused way – but we established our first goal as deepening our commitment to faith development, thereby re-fueling the spirit to accomplish three other goals:
- To intentionally reach out to our adjacent neighborhood with an extravagant welcome;
- To intensify our focus on the needs of families;
- To create opportunities for partnering with our neighboring religious communities.
The proposal was passed unanimously in October by congregational vote. The church established a group called the Advocates whose purpose is to encourage the laity and staff to seek, design and partner with ministries in implementing ideas and programs that are consistent with the goals, without making more work for the already burdened.
“We aim to build on the strengths, tap latent talents, and relinquish things that may no longer fit present day needs,” Easton said. “There is nothing inherent in the vision that specifically requires money. But we do think that new initiatives will benefit from new or re-balanced funding. There are no plans for additional staff to implement our vision or new initiatives; our New Beginnings Advocates Task Team, which includes the senior pastor, will complement and support our new vision.”
“We already have some things in progress: two rounds of welcoming postcards have been sent to defined areas adjacent to the church, a lay person created a CD 'Christmas at West Parish,' we are in communication with our resident preschools regarding some parent programs, and we are planning a spring event where we will invite area residents to join us in a community clean-up and luncheon, she said. “It has been a short time since we started implementing some of our ideas, but we have had some new folks attending recently and there is a spirit of expectation that is apparent, so good things are already happening.”
The Advocates team will evaluate progress in making the Vision a priority on an ongoing basis.
“We think, if we are successful, it will be obvious in how we express ourselves as individuals and as West Parish Church, to each other, our community and the world,” she said.