ADDISON COUNTY — The Rev. Andrew Nagy-Benson, pastor of the Middlebury Congregational Church, considers his profession one of the dwindling “generalist” vocations in an age when experts and wonks reign supreme.
“Our currency is not in knowing everything about one thing, but knowing something about a lot of things, and more importantly, beyond knowledge, it’s all about human connection,” he said, sitting down in his spacious Charter House office.
Over the course of a week, Nagy-Benson, 43, wears the hat of a teacher, preacher, confidant, coach, writer, thinker, father and manager. One of his favorite weekly tasks, in part because of his background studying literature, is writing the sermon for Sunday worship, when he can tie many of these threads together.
“What you are really trying to do as a preacher is you’re trying to connect this ancient word to present life,” he said. “You have to know what the text says in its context, what it has meant for other people … (and then) what does it have to do with Middlebury, Vt., in the year 2013. It’s trying to make it real, trying to make this come to life for people.”
There was a time when the church — this church in particular — stood at the center of a community like Middlebury, and nearly the whole town would hear the pastor’s sermons. Some of the first settlers of New England set up communities so that religious, social and political life all revolved around the white church on the green in the center of town. Their Congregational churches were autonomous and self-governed, and their democratic decision-making system eventually expanded to town meetings, which would come to define the political system in places like Vermont.
Today, the social and political influence of the Congregational churches is more spotty, and the role of these churches has changed in New England, including in Addison County.
“Geographically many (churches) are at the center of the community but it is not lost on people in the church that we are now a voice at the table rather than sitting at the head of the table when it comes to community life,” said Nagy-Benson.
The Rev. Gary Lewis, 63, who has led the Vergennes Congregational Church for the past 24 years, grew up in New England in the 1950s when it was still the social expectation to go to church.
“At that time everybody went to church, it was just part of the culture,” he said. But, he readily acknowledges, people view the church differently nowadays.
“People are … satisfying themselves without making a commitment of time on a regular basis,” he said. “So, in general, organizations, fraternal organizations, (church) organizations that depend upon regular, long-term commitment are having some challenges. We live in a culture that really prizes convenience.”
Declining attendance for mainline Protestant churches like the Congregationalists began in the 1970s, and has continued to be documented, most recently by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life. According to a study Pew conducted last fall, less than half of Americans identify as Protestant for the first time since researchers began tracking religious affiliation, including a decline in white mainline affiliation from 18 percent in 2007 to 15 percent in 2012. Simultaneously, those identifying as unaffiliated have increased from 15.3 percent in 2007 to 19.6 percent in 2012 — nearly one in five respondents.
The story for Vermont’s Congregational churches, the denomination that evolved from the churches of those first Puritan settlers in colonial southern New England, falls in line with these statistics. In 1957, many of Vermont’s Congregational churches joined with the Reformed and Evangelical Church to form the United Church of Christ (UCC). In 1960, the state was home to some 189 UCC churches with a membership of 27,360, including 537 in Middlebury. Today, UCC membership in Vermont has shrunk by more than 50 percent, numbering only 12,968.
Despite this reality, Congregational pastors and their churches continue to find ways to thrive and remain important parts of their communities, even if they have long ago moved from the center of them.
The Congregational Church of Middlebury is one of a minority of UCC churches that has seen growth in the past three years. It currently has a membership of 279 people and an average attendance of 153, nearly a 7 percent increase from last year. In addition, the church’s Sunday school program has expanded significantly: In this new school year they expect around 80 children. The senior high youth program, all but dormant a few years ago, now has up to 25 youths of all backgrounds, religious and non-religious.
Nagy-Benson, who came to the Middlebury church in 2009 from a much larger congregation outside of New Haven, Conn., attributes the continued growth of his church to how its culture and values fit in with the town’s.
“I think this is a progressive church in a progressive town. This is an intellectual church in a college town,” he said. “This is a church that tries hard to extend an extravagant welcome to everybody, and everybody means everybody.”
Nagy-Benson noted that his church gets several faculty members and students from Middlebury College at the weekly services.
progressive Christian environment
Lewis says that his congregation is made up predominantly of families that span a diverse range of ages.
“It really is the connection (of) families with other families that want to raise their children in a progressive Christian environment,” he said.
While the growth of his church has plateaued in recent years, he says the average worship attendance of around 100 is a comfortable number for the relatively small congregation. Furthermore, Sunday school has also been doing well with 30-40 children, and they are expanding youth outreach in the form of experiential service trips.
Churches in towns like Vergennes and Middlebury also maintain connections in the surrounding community through service. The Congregational Church of Middlebury started and hosts the Middlebury Community Care Coalition. While it is now an independent, unaffiliated organization, the UCC church still accounts for many of the volunteers who provide daily community lunches and weekly community dinners among other service projects.
“It’s a church that rests its head not so much on dogmatics but on living out the faith in the community,” said Nagy-Benson.
Similarly, Vergennes Congregational Church coordinates a community food shelf that sees participation from churches, businesses and individuals from every corner of the town.
“We do have an active ministry of reaching out for people in need and they do not need to be part of the congregation,” Lewis said about the Vergennes church’s commitment to service in general. “We won’t (necessarily) be able to solve their problem, but at least we can listen and react in some way positively.”
Rural churches run much differently without a large population center in the background. There are about six of these small UCC congregations in Addison County, not including Congregational churches that chose to not to join the UCC, like the Bridport Congregational Church, or that federated with other mainline protestant denominations like the Bristol Federated Church. With much smaller numbers, many have been struggling to pay the bills and to find permanent pastors.
But one of these churches, the New Haven Congregational Church, has seen dramatic changes in the last few years. When part-time pastor Rev. Abby Gackenheimer, 33, took over in November of 2009, the average worship attendance had dwindled to 15 people. This was in part because the parish had not had a settled pastor for several years.
At first the congregation, made up of predominantly lower- and middle-income people who made their living in the agriculture and retail industries, was hesitant about taking on Gackenheimer, she recalled. She considers herself part of a movement of pastors under 40 years old practicing a theology called “emergence” or, as she says, “doing church new.”
“We are seeing … a younger generation (of pastors) coming through, which is revitalizing some of these churches and giving new energy and new voice to (them),” she said.
“We are not necessarily out to fix the church but we are out there to expand what church means,” she continued. “We might have liturgy to guide us but we add splashes of something that is just unusual to find.”
This includes bringing non-Christian music into the church, like Phillip Phillips’ hit, “Home,” or using unconventional methods to get the service’s message across.
“Sometimes my message is not a sermon. It sometimes is an activity,” Gackenheimer said. One day, for example, the whole congregation played with Play-Doh in an effort to get across a message about living and playing joyfully.
And it is working. Her church has nearly doubled, with membership at 55 and average worship approaching 40. She says congregants no longer have room for all the children in the church’s Sunday school, that they are spilling out into the hall.
“I’ve had folks who’ve just become members of the church who walked in and they thought they were in the midst of a cult because we were so welcoming,” she said, noting the difference from when she arrived.
While New Haven Congregational Church, like many churches around the county, still struggles to make ends meet it has no plans of becoming a museum in the near future. Neither do Middlebury or Vergennes’ Congregational churches.
“We don’t have the numbers we once did but the people who are there (at church) are there on purpose,” Nagy-Benson said. “They want to be there and they get something out of it and bring something with them out into the community.”
Editor’s note: Luke Whelan was a summer intern at the Independent.