— 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.”