Difficult Decisions: Bunker Hill Congregational Church

2/22/2017
By Drew Page

WATERBURY – Church leaders make many decisions: worship decisions, mission decisions, even the mundane choice of whether to set up 5 tables for coffee hour or 6. Sometimes, the decisions are much more difficult, taking years of prayerful thinking by dozens of leaders or even entire congregations.
 
Bunker Hill Congregational Church of Waterbury took nine years to discern what direction the church needed to take. The church had experienced a period of decreasing membership during a time when operating costs did not follow the same trend. A turbulent transition further depleted their numbers, according to Former Moderator David Simpson.
 
In 2007, the church called the Rev. Jack Zappulla as a part-time pastor. Zappulla was asked to stay 2 to 3 years to help the church discern what the future of the church might be.
 
The church examined several options. They looked into downsizing the church and moving to an alternate location. They also spent several years in conversations about mergers, but the obstacles they encountered were too great to continue on this path.
 
Simpson says the churches two primary concerns were the church's building and its endowment. Most agreed not to continue operating under deficits that would spend the endowment down to nothing. Agreeing on the building was more complicated. For long-standing congregations, church buildings absorb the individual moments of the people within and transform these memories and emotions into a single living body. The Bunker Hill church was no different. Standing on the gentle slope of the Bunker Hill neighborhood of Waterbury, the church had been a center of the community for 111 years.
 
Bunker Hill Congregational Church
and Bunker Hill neighborhood
(Imagery ©2017 Google)

 
Finally, the church leaders agreed that they wanted the building to be used by an agency who held similar community values to those of the church. They sent 60 letters to see if anyone was interested in the building. Though the church had been appraised, the letter offered no monetary value, only an inquiry into the interest of these entities in using the property.
 
Walnut Hill Community Church responded, but instead of suggesting a sale, the church asked if Bunker Hill would be interested in giving away the property.
 
Simpson, like others in the congregation, could not imagine giving away a property valued over $300K. But there weren't any offers to purchase the building. Struggling to figure out a next step, Simpson contacted his sister, the Rev. Jill Dunlap, pastor of Trinity UCC in Baltimore, Ohio. Dunlap asked her brother a key question: "What would Jesus do with a building he no longer needed?"
 
Simpson knew the answer: Give it to someone who would put it to good use. He was not the only one who came to this conclusion.

"People began to realize the building itself was not the church," said Rev. Zappulla. "It was something that the church used."
 
On September 11, 2016, the Bunker Hill Congregation voted to give the property to Walnut Hill. On November 6, All Saints Day, the congregation worshipped for the last time in the Bunker Hill sanctuary and officially closed. The property was turned over to Walnut Hill on condition that the community organizations and support groups that already use the church are allowed to continue to use the space.
 
As a legacy of the church's commitment to community support, the congregation decided to use the remaining endowment to help the people of Waterbury. The endowment was transferred to the the Waterbury Congregational Union with restriction that all investment growth is used to combat hunger and homelessness in the area.
 
For Rev. Zappulla, the Bunker Hill closure was a first. Though he knew what he was getting into when he started at the church, he says there is no training for guiding a church to this kind of decision.
 
"Really in my case, " he said, "it was simply providing guidance along the way."
 
Simpson praised that guidance, crediting Zappulla with helping the congregation take a difficult look at itself.
 
"Until a congregation has looked at where they are, where they've been, and what they think the future holds, they can't make a good solid decision," said Simpson.