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Pews, Chickens, and being Wider Still

Every year, religious communities all around the world engage in what we know as a Stewardship Campaign. It is one fundraising mechanism we use to know how to plan for paying the bills and funding the mission and ministry for the coming year.

Some churches chose to build their budget based on the projected income from their pledged donations. Others make their budgets and then ask for their members and friends to pledge based on the needs anticipated for the coming year. Both of these methods are based in the historic reliance on members and friends to fund the cost of operating a church. From salaries to electricity, mission giving to Sunday School curriculum, members of the congregation pledge to ensure the lights stay on and the minister gets paid.

Did you know that this wasn't always the case? When our Puritan ancestors first came to this continent a the "Meeting House" was paid for by all members of the community, whether you went to worship or not. In that day, every household paid to support the Meeting House as the center of community life. There was no separation of church and state, as you can see in this wonderful piece by Margaret Morabito, Church Historian of the First Congregational Church of Rindge, NH.

Old North Church, Boston, MA

Following the American Revolution, many congregations needed to create additional ways to provide support for their minister as more denominations planted churches in and existing town. Many congregations had wood plots and farm plots for the pastor and his family so they could heat their homes, house their livestock, and grow their own food. Many congregations, particularly those in bigger towns, sold box pews to those with the most money. It was the place to be seen! And those numbers on pews? This is a remnant of the paid pew practice. (Here is a fun video about the cost of buying a pew at the Old North Church in Boston.) And then there was always the opportunity to pay your pledge in chickens, venison, wood, or produce. The point was supporting the minister so he could support the congregation.

"1863-1883: These were eventful years in the [First Congregational Salem OR] church. Women were given the right to vote on church matters, and the membership grew to over 200. Candles were replaced with gas fixtures, and members no longer “rented” pews to help pay the minister’s salary." Willamette Heritage Society website

Nowadays, the rental of pews and a pledge in chickens is not an option. Time is a critical commodity, so subsistence gardening is out. And managing a wood lot for firewood is a LOT of work, so Northwest Natural is a better choice for heating and cooling. There are fewer and fewer churches who own a parsonage, so a housing allowance is necessary to cover a mortgage or rent. We don't have a local barber/doctor, so health insurance is necessary to cover medical costs. And life without a pension would leave your pastor preaching well into their "golden years."

On top of that, we no longer have the volunteer expertise to run our bookkeeping and accounting, play the organ and piano, clean the building, or fix the elevator or furnace; not to mention fixing the roof, maintaining the copier, handling security at night, or mowing the lawn. I am deeply grateful for all of the things that ARE DONE by volunteers, but the current needs of the building and operations go well beyond what we have the volunteer capacity to accomplish.

This can be hard to wrap our heads around since many of us remember when FCCUCC was a happening place! This church caught the wave in the mid to late 20th century, when attendance and membership grew, and many churches built bigger buildings, added Christian Education wings, and saw their endowments expand. Many were able to dedicate significant amounts of money to future building needs because nearly all members were pledging or tithing (10% of a person's income). Traditional Mainline Protestant churches were the place to be, and be seen, just like in the days of the box pews two centuries earlier.

But the shifts in culture over the past 50 years have changed the place of historic Mainline churches in society. Fewer people (and fewer dollars) are there to keep churches going. A 2019 Gallup poll found that less that 50% of Americans belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque. This was the lowest percentage in polling history. Over 20% of that declined happened in the last decade. Millennials and Gen Z are 30% less involved in faith communities than those born before 1946. Boomers and Gen Xers are 16% less involved than their elders. And while Salem has a large number of churches, nearly all of them, regardless of beliefs, have seen a significant decline in membership and attendance following the Pandemic. The only churches that have seen any real growth are those who preach White Christian Nationalism, a trend that has more to do with politics than faith.

So where are we headed in the world of declining interest organized religion and rising costs of keeping churches open? I don't have an answer for that, but I can say that past may be prologue in some interesting ways. As I researched the four buildings this congregation has had over its 170-plus years of mission and ministry, I see some interesting patterns that might be of use to us today.

One being found the first building, the little log cabin/schoolhouse down near the river. It was a multi-purpose building, being both a school for children of the African American families (because public schools did not allow non-White children to enroll) and a meeting house for the Congregationalists here in Salem. Are we called to a mission which

requires a multi-purpose building that serves a vulnerable population?

Second Building for FCC

The second pattern is found in the transition from the third to the fourth building. In 1905 a third building was built on the corner of Liberty and Center streets. This building replaced "the most pretentious church in Salem" with an even bigger building that sat over 450 in the large Italianate Gothic sanctuary.

Third Building for FCC

Less than 40 years later, Rev. Robert Hutchinson, convinced the congregation to sell the existing structure and build a smaller one that would better meet the needs of the existing congregation. Our current building was dedicated in 1941. In the next few years FCC saw a period of growth that eventually doubled the size of the congregation. What kind of building might we need for growth in the 21st century?

The third pattern comes from long before FCC, or any other Christian church was here in Salem. The Kalapuya, like most indigenous peoples, practiced rituals and gathered in places that were not set apart from daily life. The winter plank houses, and summer mat houses, were set around a common space that were used for gatherings of all kinds. What would ministry and mission look like if we had no building?

As we explore what it means to be Wider Still, we are invited to ask what that will mean with fewer resources to live out our expansive welcome. We will need to ask ourselves what is essential and what is not so we can embrace the future before us. I am grateful to our ancestors who have shown us that we can follow their example and make courageous choices as we face the uncertainty of our changing world. And I am so grateful for you and your commitment to becoming Wider Still as a people of faith for a time such as this.

In celebration of all that is,

Pastor Robin

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