From Dwindling Congregation to Dynamic Resource
If your church closed tomorrow, who would notice? And how has this question energized the community of Christ’s Episcopal Church, in Calumet, Michigan?
Christ’s Episcopal Church was founded in 1893, at a time when the area was home to a thriving copper mining industry that drew immigrants from 23 countries. The original members of Christ’s Church emigrated from England and were employed as mine captains, engineers, timbermen, miners, boilermakers and machinists for the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company. Company managers felt that church attendees would be moral, loyal and productive, so the company donated, leased or sold land for churches. Christ’s Episcopal was designed by Calumet and Hecla architect Charles W. Whiting in the style of English countryside churches, a bit of home away from home for those of English heritage.
When the mines closed, however, between 1950 and 1970, many people left the area in search of economic well-being, causing church membership to decline. At first, congregational losses were offset by the arrival of newcomers to the area. But the Church’s congregation dwindled further as the remaining members began to age and either died or moved to join family in other parts of the country.
Over the past seven years, the Altar Guild became a team of two, and now a guild of one. The number of people available to serve on the Vestry or the Ministry Support Team shrank – and then plummeted with the added pressure of COVID. One of two volunteer priests developed dementia and had to step away. A good attendance day at church meant between four and 13 people.
Too Many Challenges, Too Few People
As the Ministry Support Team, we had to face the facts. One member looked at giving and realized we were maintaining the church primarily through the gifts of four families. If any of these were to stop giving, for any reason, we would no longer be able to support the building.
Ours is a smaller church, located in a part of the country that gets up to 300 inches of snow in winter, and heating and plowing are expensive. On the positive side, we share the building with several recovery groups, which is helpful both to them and to us; their donation is added to other gifts that help keep the heat and lights on. The building is also a historic structure important to the town, located inside Keweenaw National Historical Park.
We didn't want to get rid of our building. We didn’t want to stop worshiping. But we were being crushed by the constant struggle to make ends meet. When we discovered moisture in the basement that would require major work, it looked like the end.
Exhausted and Afraid
The Ministry Support Team held many difficult meetings trying to discern a way forward. By last spring, the team included most of the attending congregation, as well as a portion of the Vestry. The same people were filling many roles. We felt obligated. We felt exhausted. We felt if this church failed, we had failed.
We're a ministry-oriented church. We believe that each of us has a ministry recognized in the Baptismal Covenant. It might be the ministry of feeding the hungry, it might be the ministry of dusting – but everyone has a ministry. We did not want to fail in our stewardship of the church or in any of our ministries.
We discussed giving the church building to someone who could use it – to a tribal government, or another organization – but the building would be just as big a burden to them as it was to us. So we kept trying. We got rid of the phone. We cut back every way we possibly could, and it still wasn't enough.
From Neighbors to Possible Partners
We began to look at our neighbors and possible partners. What do we have to offer? We are part of a strong ecumenical union of local churches that provides aid to the community, including a food bank and other ministries serving the broader population. Collaborating lets us reach people more efficiently – but makes it harder for the community to associate the services they receive with a specific church: What do the people in that little brown church do?
Our nearest neighbor is the community art center in a reconditioned church next door. We share yard space with them, and they noticed last summer when we started to meet outside. It felt good for us to be outside of the pressure of the building, under the sun and the trees – and the art center noticed us. They're looking for more space for classrooms, places to meet, places to hold classes. We have that! It might be full of pews, but we have that. Still, plans did not move forward, and the dampness of the basement loomed as a huge financial hurdle.
In the fall, exasperated, we decided to meet with the diocese about our options. We requested bids for the cost to fix the foundation of the church, and we gathered information about needs in the community that our church space could fulfill.
We talked about turning the basement of the church into low-cost housing for un-homed people in our area – although the basement was not an inspiring place, and the costs to make it accessible and bring it up to code seemed overwhelming.
We talked about the garden at the art center, a large rose garden next to our yard, and the possibility of creating a labyrinth that would provide a place for people in the community to walk, to be outside, to enjoy the rose garden. It might invite people closer – to let them experience that little brown church in a different way and maybe inspire them to ask a question or two about what happens there.
At the same time, the building that housed our ecumenical food bank raised the rent. The food bank would have to move. If our building could be made accessible as well as watertight, we'd be a great location.
What would happen if . . .?
As positive as all this sounded, we were still looking at the very real possibility of closing. But we are fortunate in that our diocesan staff believes, as we do, that God has a purpose for Christ’s Episcopal Church in Calumet. A team met with us for a hard, honest conversation to talk about our finances, the reality of our challenges and our small congregation.
Then we talked about what could happen if we made some radical changes. What if we could get a donation to begin the work on the foundation? What if we removed the pews from most of the worship space? We could leave the historic fabric of the choir and altar intact and worship there, but open up the rest of the church to make room for new possibilities. This was a compelling idea: When you have a congregation of eight in a space designed for 150, it's challenging to feel that we're really worshipping together.
Just like that, we realized were not walking alone – and never had been. Suddenly, the way was clear to make some changes and see what happened. We could always try something else, so we decided to try.
Uneasy, Unsettled – And Inspired
What better time to begin preparing for a new way than the first Sunday of Advent? That morning, six people arrived to find pews roped off with wide gold ribbon, our worship space now a small circle of chairs and pews toward the front. To make Eucharist more intimate, we added an altar on the floor in front of the high altar, completing our circle. And not just any altar: This was the original altar that had served the congregation until it was replaced by the large wooden ornamental altar. That first Sunday of Advent, our missioner also introduced a more conversational sermon and changed a few details about "the way we always do things."
Was it frightening? Oh, yes! We were unsettled, a little uneasy. We were not in our accustomed pews. But something else happened, something unexpected and good: We all felt the stirrings of hope, and ever since, we've had a steady core of about eight worshipers on most Sundays. We're not sure whether that is due to the changes or because people are just curious about what else we might try the next week! Even those most attached to their pews have been able to come forward and join us at the front of the church.
Finding Our Way
It has been interesting to watch this community, which seems so averse to change, engage in fundamental changes. The pews will come out this summer, and we have received a donation to fix the foundation. We have applied for grants to make the basement accessible, so it is ready to house the food pantry. We've talked about introducing an indoor labyrinth where the pews currently stand, so community members have a warm place to walk in the winter. We continue to host recovery meetings and art classes. The space isn’t ready yet, and we're already getting requests to use it for a mother's support group and as a community meeting space.
I can’t say we are out of the woods. We are not confident that we will be able to pull this off successfully. Yet we are confident that God is in control of what happens here at Christ’s Episcopal Church. If this church is meant to be here, it will be here – and if not, we trust that there is another purpose for our community, another place for us to meet, another way for us to fulfill each of our small ministries.
The kind of faith that is moving us forward is not “practical.” A practical solution would be to give up and go home. But we feel it is what the Spirit is leading us to do. By being willing to break open the church building and by listening to the needs of our community – even if those needs are complex and might require us to change – we can open hearts in a community that desperately needs an open and accepting place to worship. We're already hearing from people who are asking questions about the Episcopal Church, what we believe and who is welcome. And that is a great start!
Wyndeth Davis is a member of the Ministry Support Team for Christ's Episcopal Church in Calumet Michigan (Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan), where she is currently a postulant. Born in Seattle Washington and raised in a Methodist/Presbyterian congregation in Oregon's Willamette Valley, Wyndeth came to the Episcopal Church as an adult. She was drawn to the value the church places on all people as beloved community, and the radical welcome practiced by the congregation of Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick MD, where she was confirmed. Wyndeth devoted her career to the national parks as an archaeologist, an interpretive specialist, and the national coordinator of educational programming, and later interpretive planning. She is currently a national park superintendent. Wyndeth enjoys painting icons, gardening, and is blessed with an amazing son, Nathan.
- Uncovering Hidden Treasure by Demi Prentiss, Vestry Papers, September 2019
- Strategic Thinking for Congregations an ECF webinar presented by Donald Romanik, April 23, 2015
- An Asset-based Approach to Engaging Church and Community, ECFVP Team, Vestry Papers, January 2022
- Church with Garden and Food Pantry Seeks Same by Nathan Davis, Vestry Papers, March 2015