The For Sale sign outside the Shelton Congregational Church.
Photo by Eric Anderson
by Drew Page
SHELTON (04/17/2012) -- Shelton Congregational Church UCC is giving up more for Lent than most would care to imagine. They are giving up their sanctuary. The building is for sale, but the church's future is uncertain.
Shelton, like many small churches, has seen a decline in the past several years. Despite earning a Best Affordable Suburb designation from Bloomberg Business Magazine in 2009, the city still has a declining working class population. When the economy soured, many lost jobs. Shelton Congregational saw members moving away to find work or missing services in order to work weekends. As the membership and pledges dwindled, resources could not meet operating costs. The Rev. Shepard Parsons switched from full-time to part-time, and joined the choir to add his voice to a shrinking ensemble. And the church's decline continued.
"Looking back through some of my sermons," says Parsons, "I was preaching about the tenuous nature of our church back in 2006."
In fall of 2010, Parsons and some delegates met with Fairfield County Regional Minister the Rev. Sarah Verasco to get information about the Crossroads program, a Conference initiative aimed at supporting declining churches as they engage in deep review and discernment about their future. In the spring of 2011, Shelton received a comprehensive report on the state of their church, including assets, demographics, membership, and member attitudes. No one was surprised by the data. After several meetings, church delegates came to the conclusion that the building should be sold. The congregation voted to sell in September 2011.
At first, Parsons got the sense that there was some relief felt by the congregation, that a huge burden had been lifted. The future of the church seemed possible. The decision to disband was raised initially, but tabled. Some members were energized enough to continue as a church. The building went on the market in January.
"The first time you saw the sign out front, it took your breath away," said Parsons.
Now the future is cloudy. Parsons says some members have told him they plan to go elsewhere when the building is sold. Some are quite undecided. A few have expressed the desire to stay together. That desire was strengthened when the congregation moved to the church basement this winter to save energy. Worship became more intimate. Again the church was infused with a spark of hope and energy, but the For Sale sign still casts a shadow on the church lawn.
Rev. Parsons is hopeful. With Easter approaching, he finds himself reflecting on Jesus' journey to the cross and the Resurrection. The Shelton church may be close to its end. Many of its leadership are exhausted; their energy bled out.
Yet, there are those in Shelton who wish to continue. They can envision a church meeting in members' homes or a small gathering space, gathering in fellowship, service, and worship. Perhaps, when the building is gone, the Shelton faithful will find new energy, new purpose, and new life.
Drew Page is Media Assistant for the Connecticut Conference UCC.