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New England churches struggle to fill pulpits

MANCHESTER, N.H. — More than a year ago, the West Keene Church of Christ in southwestern New Hampshire advertised nationwide for a mature minister interested in a mission opportunity.
The 35-member congregation, about 40 miles west of Manchester, offered housing, utilities and a small stipend.
But only one man applied — and he turned down the job.
“I really fear for the life of the Lord’s church in New England,” said Kevin Stevenson, a West Keene member. “There are so many souls up here who need the word and so few resources to bring it to them.”
Across the U.S., many church leaders voice concern about what they characterize as a less-than-adequate pool of qualified preachers.
Small congregations far from the Bible Belt face a particularly difficult challenge filling pulpits, New England church leaders told The Christian Chronicle.
“The number of full-time preachers in Maine is alarmingly small,” said Charlie Harrison, minister of the 25-member Brunswick Church of Christ in Maine. “The rest either have a part-time preacher or no preacher at all.”
New England — which includes Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont — is a domestic mission field with 6,000 Church of Christ members out of a total population of 14 million.
Roughly half the region’s 108 congregations lack a full-time pulpit worker, according to Park Linscomb, one of New England’s longest-tenured ministers.
More than three-fourths of the congregations report average Sunday attendance of less than 100. Many can’t even find a part-time preacher, said Linscomb, who has served the Manchester church, a 180-member congregation in New Hampshire’s largest city, since 1974.
From a lack of financial support to New England’s reputation for harsh winters and sometimes-hostile people, challenges abound for congregations seeking a preacher, leaders said.
“Who wants to work for a small church with half salary? Not many people do,” said Anthony Linden, a New England native and student at the Sunset International Bible Institute’s satellite school at the Fall River, Mass., church.
In some cases, Bible Belt churches help support New England ministers: For example, the White Station Church of Christ in Memphis, Tenn., provides funding to Bruce Bates with the Blackstone Valley Church of Christ in Cumberland, R.I.
But often, in a region with an extremely high cost of living, preachers and their wives must supplement their ministry income.
Kevin Wells does not mind that.
The Massachusetts resident has served as a part-time minister at the 50-member Brookline Church of Christ — in the heart of Boston, just a few miles from Fenway Park — since 2004.
“The opportunity to live and work in Boston while using my gifts in a congregation that has served hundreds of students and young professionals over the years was something I could not pass up,” said Wells, who earned a master of divinity degree from Abilene Christian University. “I take the lead in preaching and pastoral care with the church while working full time in student services at a community college.”
Similarly, Leo Woodman, minister of the 30-member Sabattus Church of Christ in Maine, is the full-time administrator of a group home for people with developmental disabilities. His wife, Rowena, works as a computer technician at a public school. But he has no complaints.
“I serve a wonderful congregation,” Woodman said. “It is a group of committed, evangelistic folks.”
He said he does wish New England didn’t lose so many of its most talented Christian young people to larger, more financially appealing congregations in the South. Timothy Tarbet, evangelist at the 40-member New Milford Church of Christ in Connecticut, shares that concern.
“Many of our best and brightest young people are going to school at southern Christian universities, finding a mate and settling in the South — the effect being that churches in the Bible Belt are truly strengthened, while churches in the Northeast mission field are weakened,” Tarbet said.
Linden, who intends to preach in New England when he finishes studies at the Fall River school, said: “I don’t think these large churches realize the damage that they are doing to New England churches.”
The Sunset program at Fall River represents the “only brotherhood school in not only New England but the Northeast,” elder Mike Mullen said.
However, the program needs a director to recruit students and raise funds — and may be forced to close if it can’t find one, Mullen said.
“We need to train local men for local work,” he said. “Too many men come from other areas of the country only to leave within 10 years or so.”
The culture shock for ministers moving from the Bible Belt can range from snowfall that occasionally tops 100 inches in a single winter to people who may seem standoffish and slow to accept outsiders.
“Yet, people aren’t unfriendly — merely culturally different from the South,” Linscomb said. “Although most are Catholic, Catholics are really very open to the Restoration plea.”
Woodman said: “Investing in a work here may not bring as quick a result as some folks may be looking for, but things do tend to take root and grow steadily.”
The White Rock Fund — a charitable organization created by individuals — provides grants to help support Churches of Christ in the Northeast, including congregations in New Milford, Torrington and Trumbull, Conn.; Caribou, Maine; Danvers, Mass.; Ithaca and Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; and Johnstown, Pa.
“Sometimes, elders in Bible Belt states believe New England is too far removed to send youth and adults to help with VBS and campaigns,” said David Tarbet, the fund’s executive director and minister at the White Rock Church of Christ in Dallas. But Tarbet, who served 23 years as minister of the Danbury Church of Christ in Connecticut, which grew from seven members to 300 during his tenure, said the Northeast deserves more attention.
“If the church is weaker there than anywhere in America, we should give more serious consideration to the opportunities and challenges this part of the nation presents to the gospel,” he said.
For five years, the West Keene church — with no elders or deacons — relied on men of the church to preach.
Even when he didn’t give the message, Stevenson knew he’d make announcements, distribute the Lord’s Supper or lead singing. But “the rest of us were just finding that we couldn’t continue at the pace we were,” Stevenson said.
A few months after the failed effort to find a minister, God answered the congregation’s prayers. Eric Willeke, a preacher who had moved to New England from Georgia for personal reasons, began attending — and agreed to serve as West Keene’s minister. He works during the week at an AutoZone store.
“It requires lots of time management and late hours,” he said. “I remember reading in the book of Acts that Paul had the trade of tentmaker and there were times that he had to make tents.
“It is the same case for myself. I do it out of love — a love for Christ, a love for the saints and a love for preaching the word.”

  • Feedback
    Many students go to Christian school to get a degree in Bible and then walk out with $50k plus of debt. Factor in high health insurance cost and most guys fresh out of school have to seek larger congregations. This is the demise of smaller churches across the nation.
    January, 8 2009

    I am a student at the Bear Valley Bible Institute of Denver and I have every intention on moving to the NH area and church growing and planting. I am putting my plans together over my next 2 years of school for my family and I to do the work in the NE region.
    I am honestly appauled at the lack of response from the Bible Belt where I am from, Clarksville, TN, and I am appauled at what some of our brethren have said about putting women in the pulpit. It truly is sad to see more men not committed to the word to preach it, but that does not give ‘the okay’ to go against the scriptures of the NT just because the church isn’t growing like we would have it to. Perhaps the ones who are saying, put women in the pulpits need to step into one. The church is the church and there is only one. The church will continue with these churches without fulltime male ministers, and a church with women preaching is a denomination. It’s your choice. Do the work. I know I plan to. I keep seeing, let the women preach who have the ability and desire to preach. She can have more ability than Stephen and more desire than Paul, but if she has not been given the authority then we need to start encouraging our young men to preach. I’ve written a blog about this very topic. It’s long but if you would care to read it, I know that you will be encouraged.
    December, 11 2008

    Maybe it’s time to release some of the old traditions men have enacted in order to reach people who don’t want to battle with legalism that is also spread throughout our congregations in the United States.
    It may be that our men don’t want to preach for dying churches that can’t let go of traditions. That there “are not many qualified men” who can preach may mean there is also a limited scope of what these congregations are looking for in a preacher.
    Many are starting new churches in the NE because the old ones won’t let them serve. The church will continue with or without these churches.
    December, 8 2008

    I have assisted in growing churches in every imaginable location around the world (including New Zealand, where the soil is very hard).
    The problem isn’t gender, or cold weather, or unreceptive people. The challenge for church growth is planning and vision. Outcome-based ministries that know their objectives and how to reach them.
    December, 8 2008

    This article may have an element of truth in it but what it really does is reveal just how legalistic and narrow minded we still are, even in the most open and so-called liberal churches of Christ! It keeps repeating men, men, men, men, men over and over as needed for the pulpits. If we are so worried about finding preachers for small (or large for that matter) congregations in New England, or anywhere else where part and full time preaching ministers are needed, then we need to shed our old ideas of the pulpit being a male only strong hold and tap the reservoir of talent and desire that we have in the women in the church who have the desire to preach and the ability to preach.
    Ask Kevin Wells of the Brookline Church of Christ (see the article) if women can preach. He recently yielded his pulpit to Katie Hays. The sermon is on their website and it is excellent!
    December, 8 2008

    A brother at Church mentioned this article to me tonight at Wednesday night study, I have not read the article so I went on line. I must say that I am shocked at the lack ministers and or commitment for some but God will work it out. A brother of ours at Church had his parents down for thanksgiving. His dad mentioned something about needing a evangelist in VT. My wife and I are trying to put together a mission work in New Zealand to attend SPBC for 2010 + when we were approached. God has set things in motion and hopefully we can do his will up in the Northeast or where ever he sends us as a team. Glory be to God! Let go and let God and doors will open. Talking to people about the need for the Church up in the Northeast is a need in it’s self, and, you never know the doors God will open with just words.
    In Christ,
    December, 3 2008

    This article is very moving. It brought out information that I was unaware of. I would like to know more about how we all can collectively help in this “domestic mission field”. I am a member of a small (75-90 average attendance) but strong church in southern California and will try to direct our missions effort toward this area. I want to be able to do more. Please publish more about what we can do quickly.
    Ron Pardee
    Riverside, CA
    November, 27 2008

    WHOA, NOW! Forgive me if I come across as “hostile” but that particular line in the article simply doesn’t belong! Having moved from Maine to the Nashville Tennessee area four years ago I can assure you there are people of every stripe in both places, and the people of New England tend to be just as personable and caring as the folks we know here.
    The future of the church is one where we retreat from our reliance on ‘pulpit preachers’ and focus more of our time and energy on evangelism through existing relationships. Having skilled people leading our congregations in that kind of work is far more valuable than someone who spends time writing sermons. People such as Leo, Park, Charlie, Tim and others possess those skills for sure, but what matters to the people of New England most are genuine relationships centered around Christ, not eloquence.
    As for financial support, I firmly believe that these leaders – call them ‘evangelists’ instead of ‘preachers’ – need to be vocational. Let them be in the workforce 20 hours per week so they can connect with people, at least until they’re firmly planted in the area.
    The real issue is we need to fill the people we know with the “message of reconciliation” rather than filling ‘pulpits with preachers.’ New England really is a domestic mission field and will wither if left to neglect by churches preoccupied by their own local concerns. If we collectively pray and individually give to these congregations, we can join God in His work there and count on renewed growth.
    November, 22 2008

    Though I can’t argue that New England does indeed have “harsh winters”, I can’t let the “sometimes-hostile people” mention in the article pass by without comment. We’re also an “oftentimes-kind,” “usually-generous,” and “always-interesting” group around here!
    November, 21 2008

Filed under: National

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