Editor’s note: The Sept. 21 print edition of the Reporter includes an interview with the Rev. Paul Nixon about his new book We Refused to Lead a Dying Church! It includes profiles of 15 churches that bounced back after a period of decline. With the permission of Mr. Nixon and his publisher, The Pilgrim Press, we offer the chapter titled “The Excellent Remnant Church,” which tells the story Sag Harbor UMC, in Sag Harbor, N.Y.
Arrived at last in old Sag Harbor; and seeing what the sailors did there; and then going on to Nantucket, and seeing how they spent their wages in that place also, poor Queequeg gave it up for lost. Thought he, it’s a wicked world in all meridians; I’ll die a pagan. (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)
Sag Harbor, New York, is a seaside hamlet near the tip of Long Island, about two hours east of Manhattan (a bit faster by Lear Jet or helicopter). In the early 1800s it was a major East Coast port, especially for whaling ships. As the whaling industry declined, the drunken sailors gradually disappeared, and Sag Harbor morphed into a colony of artists and wealthy New Yorkers fleeing the intensity of the city. Today Sag Harbor is part of a string of resort villages known as the Hamptons. The Hamptons are the playground of the some of the wealthiest folks on earth. Steven Spielberg, Renée Zellweger, Jerry Seinfeld, Paris Hilton, George Soros, Billy Joel, and Christie Brinkley all have homes out here. At a simple café in Sag Harbor, you can run into just about anybody.
You’ll probably never see any of the aforementioned at church. The very rich have one thing in common with the drunken sailors of old: a large number of them die as “pagans.”
But there’s more to Sag Harbor than the jet setters. In any community with folks this wealthy, there are always plenty of poor folks, with humble homes tucked away a few miles from town, working for just a little more than minimum wage, teaching in the schools, running mom and pop cafés and galleries, and managing the estates. In Sag Harbor, there is also a quiet set: young retirees and work-at-home professionals who never hit the hot parties. A growing number of folks wander out this way in order to raise families in a safe, somewhat idyllic environment, enduring a long commute back to New York three to five times a week.
The Sag Harbor United Methodist Church is not quite as old as the village, but its 175-year-old white New England–style meetinghouse is a local architectural landmark. In the 1860s, 750 people belonged to this congregation. Yet, as has been the case with thousands of similar churches across the United States, the church declined over many decades, to around 150 in the 1960s, and then to the point more recently where their building finally became too expensive to maintain. Building repairs were deferred until there were only fifteen people left in a gorgeous old space that needed a minimum of $1 million in basic infrastructure work just to keep the place from going to ruin. Most of the members were into their eighth decade of life, except for one little girl in Sunday school.
The ship was going down.
Pastor Tom MacLeod came to the church in 2002. He says, “The church was dead, but no one had told them.”
Tom came to Sag Harbor as a local pastor. With shrinking churches and rising costs of ordained elders as pastors, local pastors are a major part of the future for the denomination as it deploys leadership to its churches. People in Sag Harbor Church assumed that Tom had been sent to close them on out. Tom went in determined to make it work. He brought an optimistic attitude and he asked the people to pray for him. They were delighted to work with him to help their church live!
Neither Tom nor Sag Harbor Church would get another shot at this. He says, “I was their last chance, and they were my only chance.” This was their moment. All they had was now. Thankfully, they seized it. They had nothing to lose.
The church was known locally for two annual rummage sales and a yard sale . . . to raise a little cash. Carol, a member for twenty-five years, dreaded the rummage sales. But she usually ended up working them hard because she saw them as a way to keep her church open a little longer. During the first rummage sale after Tom arrived, he walked in and put up a poster announcing that 100 percent of the proceeds from the sale were going to missions. This was a unilateral move. In many places it would have been the beginning of the end for Tom, to announce what the church folks were going to do with their rummage sale money without first polling the church folks. But in this case, people saw that Tom was risking his own salary and that he trusted God. The rummage sale workers went with the idea. It was a hopeful moment, and a turning point for the church.
So rummage sale money at Sag Harbor, from that day forward, went for missions. Further, if the church was going to live, it would be freed from the ventilator of perpetual bazaars.
Each sale day netted around $1,500 for church expenses (twice a year). Tom points out that just a few weeks after the church gave up the rummage sale money, they struck a deal to house a counseling service for $1,500 a month (this would be twelve times a year). A few months later, village zoning issues curtailed the rental of church space to the counseling service. (And my, are there some zoning issues in ritzy historic districts!) So they again exercised trust in God and simply gave the space to the counselors (for free). But within a few days, a playschool came right along after that looking for space. They housed them in the basement for a month. For the church, these ministry partners were like manna from heaven, confirming their faith and trust.
During Tom’s first couple years, the church added “praise music” to the mix in worship, music that had a freer and more expressive tone. When they did not have live instrumentalists, they sang karaoke. And it all worked. Slowly they grew to about forty worshippers a week, the highest average attendance in at least a quarter century.
But their ancient four-hundred-seat building took entirely too much upkeep. So they decided to try to sell it and build something more practical. Tom came from a background in construction and he figured he could help them with the planning and construction of a new facility, if they could get rid of the old.
People, of course, had good memories from their old sanctuary with the morning light radiating through Victorian era stained glass. They knew they would not be able to afford to duplicate it, even on a smaller scale. So selling required some processing, some grieving. Most people at Sag Harbor, however, were able to think of the church’s needs ahead of their own. So they rallied around the idea of selling and rebuilding. People credit Tom’s energetic and hopeful spirit as a critical factor in anchoring the church as they moved away from a place they had called home longer than any could remember.
They knew that their church location in a prime historic district of one of the old Hamptons villages should bring a good selling price. But, on the other hand, how much market could there be for a needy church building? In early 2008, just before the real estate crash, an area resident paid Sag Harbor Methodist $2.9 million for their old building, with plans to spend several million more and convert it into a ten-thousand-square-foot palatial residence with stained glass windows and a church steeple. It would be an entertainment showplace.
As a side note: To date, this renovation has not taken place. The buyer tried to work out a deal to sell to the community library, and then to sell to a group wanting to build a large bed and breakfast. They even tried to turn it into a wallpaper factory. Nothing has worked out yet with the old building, but the United Methodists took the money and moved on!
The church spent about $600,000 for three acres of land (compared with 0.48 acres at the original site) and another $1.5 million to build a simple building that came to about sixty percent of the square footage of the original building. The new sanctuary seats 144, and comes with a fifty-car parking lot, the first in the church’s history. The church was able to pay cash for all of this, and they set aside a considerable nest egg as well.
Were it not for the appearance of a buyer just weeks before the market changed, they would still be in the old building, and possibly for years yet! This story is, in part, a story of the right timing with regard to real estate! They would call it God-timing.
Between the selling of the old and the opening of the new, they moved to a nearby church building, where the African Methodist Episcopal Zion congregation had recently closed. Moving from a four-hundred-seat building into a sixty-seat building immediately improved the sense of intimacy and energy in worship. It was a much simpler building, one that showed some wear and tear simply from a few years of vacancy. One very long-time member, Bruce, says that the church discovered “a greater sense of sanctuary” in this humble interim location than they had known in the previous half century at the other place. The AMEZ chapel had once been a stop on the Underground Railroad and this contributed to the sense of sanctuary.
Soon after they moved into the AMEZ building, the church adopted a Latino congregation. The United Methodist folks were still trying to find their parking spaces and which door to use, and immediately they were sharing space with another congregation. This added to the positive energy of that time.
One of the most notable elements of the Sag Harbor story is how little conflict they experienced in their rebirth—in comparison with some of the other stories in this book. I asked several folks at Sag Harbor about this lack of conflict. Tom immediately credited the excellent pastor who had come before him. In fact, his predecessor, Howard Faulkner, served Sag Harbor five years for $100 a week and gave it all back to the church. Howard at age eighty-one is still very active in the church, serving on the trustees committee and preaching twice a year. Tom knows that Sag Harbor could not have responded to his leadership in the way it did without the work that Howard had done, gently, humbly, and faithfully getting the people ready.
Another member, Frank, characterized the people who hung on at Sag Harbor as “an excellent remnant.” I like that term. It applies to several stories in this book. We could devote a whole chapter to this alone, but I will keep it to a couple paragraphs here.
What are the marks of an excellent remnant?
• The people who remain have retained a vital personal spirituality, even as their church has diminished. Above all, they love God. It’s that simple.
• No one person has abused his or her position and taken power over the rest in a self-serving or dysfunctional way.
• They are ready to work with a leader who is wired to challenge them to move toward God’s excellent future.
• They often have the history of a pastor (before they began to grow) who worked with marked humility, faithfulness, and spiritual depth.
An excellent remnant (in church terms) is sort of like an old house that one might want to renovate, one that may look like it is falling down outwardly. But when you send in the engineer, she investigates carefully and then says to you, “This place has good bones. It will be a showplace when you are done.” Excellent remnants give old churches good bones, good spiritual infrastructure for renewal.
Carol chimed in on this conversation to add that when she had come to the church in the 1980s, there were quite a few folks who would have given Tom a hard time. But by 2002, they were mostly gone. This also is a theme I have noted in other church transformation stories: churches sometimes have to lose a few certain personalities before they are ready to move forward, before they become (in Frank’s words) “an excellent remnant.”
Today, Sag Harbor Church is a diverse and interesting mix of people. Some have come to the area from other Long Island communities to get a little further from the city. Some have come from as far away as Antigua. They are white. They are black. They are politically all over the map. Religiously, they come from Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu life backgrounds. One of the most recent new members had been a Jehovah’s Witness.
If you took a snapshot of everyone on the front steps after Sunday worship and then asked someone to tell you where they think these sixty or seventy smiling folks lived, the last thing you would likely hear would be the Hamptons. These are remarkably and delightfully ordinary folks. Sag Harbor has a wide range of economic levels, but any paparazzi that wanted to lurk around looking for a good photo op would probably be disappointed. Pastor Tom has been delighted by the way that strong relationships have formed between rich and poor. They minister to each other. He thinks they are a stronger church because of this. Mother Teresa would certainly agree.
Members described their church with the following statements. “Everyone fits in.” “It’s a land of misfit toys.” “Everyone’s welcome.” “Leave it at the door.” “Just show up.” “People are real.” “People accept and love each other where they are at.” “Radical trust in God.” “I cannot imagine anyone showing up at this church and not being welcomed and accepted.”
A twenty-one-year-old woman, Temidra Willock, used these words: “Diverse, intimate, spiritually exciting.” She also added that she remembers when she would have used a different set of words: “Traditional, tense, segregated.” She would know perhaps better than any. You see, Temidra was the only child in Tom’s first confirmation class at Sag Harbor several years ago. Young people often see reality with more clarity than the grownups. Sag Harbor Church raised her to a mature faith—even though she was the only kid they had at the time!
As of this writing, Tom has recently completed seminary. In eight years as a part-time pastor, he has helped grow Sag Harbor Church, sold the old building, designed the new and relocated the congregation twice. He looks forward now to a new era where he will be able to better focus, and to lead them to the next level in their ministry development.
Tom says, “It feels as though my ministry is just beginning—we have a body of Christ—and there is more than me pushing here!” He feels that the biggest next challenge is developing more leaders: “It can’t all come through me; we will be more powerful when God’s vision is mediated through many.”
Because of this tenacious, faithful church, it is a safe bet that quite a few Sag Harbor residents will not “die a pagan.”
“The Excellent Remnant Church” from We Refused to Lead a Dying Church! by Paul Nixon (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2012), pages 91-98. Used by permission. All rights reserved.