The Future?

[The reading of a Letter to the Editor in the Presbyterian Outlook recently (8/24/2010) led to the writing of this column. The letter writer was P.W. Gregory from Lambertville, N.J. Among his comments were these:

“Church people by and large, especially the older they get, resist change and transformation, and are only more than happy to support and fund that which has always been.”  Additionally, Mr. Gregory stated: “The process (of change) will be painful to those who have invested in the current system and (they) will resist to the bitter end, but change will happen.”  (emphasis mine)] .


My friend, Calvin, is a member of a Presbyterian Church (USA) and has been since 1947.  He and his family members have served in various official positions in this church which was established by some first generation Scottish settlers in 1871.  The church is an important part of his life, and it grieves him to think of its future but then, it also gives him a feeling of satisfaction to conclude, rightly he hopes, what changes may be in store for the present congregation of 26 members, about 12 of whom generally attend services regularly.

The church has been an important force in the community for most of its existence.  At one time, the membership approached 150 but that was when the community was primarily agrarian.  Most of the large families lived, worked and died where they were born.  Today mobility has changed the character of the community meaning that there are few job opportunities available locally so the young depart for greener pastures, leaving a void in their church’s membership.

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), it is his understanding that the church property is not owned by the local congregation but by the Presbytery under which it officially operates.  Should the church for whatever reason decide to make any fundamental changes in its operation, it would do so only with the official sanction of the Presbytery, the governing body.  In the past when a church has been reduced to a membership of two or three, the Presbytery has frequently agreed to “sell” the church property for $1 to a local Board of Trustees whose members are then responsible for the property although officially it loses its Presbyterian designation.  This is a distinct possibility for Calvin’s church too should changes not occur.  So what might be some possibilities?

First, one would hope, work and pray for a revival of interest in the church that there might be an influx of new members who would infuse fresh life into this presently slowly dwindling membership.  Today the church consists of not even one “young” person or even a family with any children who might fit that designation.  With few exceptions, most of the current members are all retired and that happened years ago. The Sunday school consists of one class, all 6-8 adults or less.

There are some positives to be considered before one concludes that there is no hope for this church.  The few members are well educated, the minister is highly qualified, and church property is in excellent condition with an attractive sanctuary, an income generating manse and a relatively modern Educational Building well equipped for any active congregation.  The church has no outstanding debts and has a modest yet adequate reserve fund to support its contingency needs and sufficient funds to maintain the adjoining cemetery.  It has always been able to address its financial needs and the demands associated with those required by the governing bodies of the church.

But there is a more likely scenario in Calvin’s opinion.  It is not one everyone will embrace, but it is a practical if contentious one that offers hope for the future.  If the property is to be used as a more viable witness for Christ in the community, something drastic must inevitably have to take place.  And it might very well not be a Presbyterian presence or even a church that is ethnically the same as the present one.  As anyone would reasonably conclude, this church has to change from what it currently is or eventually die.  Of course it could continue to exist as a monument of ‘failure’ in the community as what is called a commemorative church, that is, one that has no active congregation but controlled by trustees.  Its services might consist of homecoming, a wedding or funeral and at the best, services might be held quarterly or less frequently.  Time would be its worst enemy since a relatively unused building has a tendency to deteriorate more quickly and as the years pass, it would inescapably meet it fate.  In our county, it is not hard to find examples of such sad, similar instances. Disgustingly and shockingly, vandalism is also a factor to consider.

So what might be an answer although one that surely would be resisted by some, an unfortunate resistance in Calvin’s opinion?  Rather than stand idly by and see the church property silently fade away as a footnote in history, why not do what is right as he sees it?  And what is that if indeed this does come to pass?

Regardless of whatever group might be welcomed to assume ownership of the property, the fact is that there should be a group of people who would pursue the real mission of the church, the same mission that has been followed by those who founded the church 139 years ago: To witness to the faith of our fathers.

If the congregation should be Presbyterian, congratulations!  The members can simply continue what has already been started.  If the Christian congregation should be Holiness, AME, Baptist, Independent, black, white, Latino, so be it.  At least it would be doing the work for which it was organized in the first place.  Now there would be those who might vehemently resist such a drastic change but if so, what is the alternative?  Could one argue it would be better? 

Admittedly there would be some important decisions that would need to be made such as retaining the church’s historic name, the maintenance and preservation of the adjoining cemetery, the use of the funds that would be generated by the possible sale of the property and the disposition of the money remaining in the church’s bank accounts when dissolved.  Surely reasonable people could bring about a solution to these concerns.

Whoever is reading this in the year 2025, please give Calvin, a friend of the writer, a call Up There and let him know the outcome.

Better yet, drop by for a future visit with both of us. 

Bill Lee

PO Box 128

Hamer, SC 29547

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