East Hartford Church Strengthens Community Ties Through Its Parsonage
What can a church do with an unused parsonage? The obvious answer is rent it out to turn it into a source of income, but this answer comes with a host of challenges and questions about a church’s purpose. Perhaps a better question to ask is how can this building add to the ministry of the church?
Rev. Kelly Jane Caesar and the congregation at First Congregational Church of East Hartford (FCCEH) asked this question in 2015 when deciding the fate of the adjacent Woodward House, a large multi-bedroom residence that once served as the parsonage. The congregation, with a history of community involvement, wanted to use the building to serve the community. Caesar was also interested in using the talents of church members.
“When I came to East Hartford, I found the people [of First Congregational Church] to be great mentors and supporters,” said Caesar.
She noted that there was a strong connection to education in the church. Several members are retired teachers, and the church hosts a daycare program. When Caesar and the church leadership went to the town and asked what the schools needed, the town showed interested in working with the church.
A partnership was formed.
The Urban Education Immersion Program is a joint effort between FCCEH and the public school districts of East Hartford and Manchester to end the cycle of illiteracy by immersing new educators in the community in which they are working. The church offers free rent and utilities in the Woodward House, and provides the residents with a mentor who can help connect them to community and church programs and the resources in the community that they may need to contact as professional educators. The towns employ the residents with either work full or part-time work in the local schools, as certified staff, para-professionals, tutors, or even building substitutes. By living and working in the same community, these new professionals get a chance to see the impact of the both the schools and the church in the community where the students with live.
In exchange for the free rent, the Woodward House residents commit to 8 hours a month of service to the community related to the church. This service may take many forms, such as taking part in a local mission project or becoming involved in one of the small group ministries of the church. One of the residents is helping to coordinate the local Crop Walk to combat hunger. The other is planning a movie night for families in the church neighborhood. Caesar hopes as the year progresses that the residents will take on more leadership roles in service projects.
Launching the new program was not without difficulties. When originally planned, East Hartford schools and the church were going to partner with Americorps, a national network of service programs focused on civic engagement, but that partnership never developed even as FCCEH began preparing the home and their application. Early in the program if was hard to find young, new education professionals who could find work in East Hartford and were interested in a living and serving in the community, forcing the church leaders to broaden their scope to include neighboring Manchester schools and the surrounding community. This opened up an opportunity for the East Hartford church to connect more directly with churches in Manchester as well. Caesar says they are looking to create stronger relationships with these churches in order to help residents working in Manchester connect directly with the Manchester community.
In September, the first two residents moved into the Woodward House. Caesar says she and the church leaders would like to see a few more. The Woodward House can host up to 6 residents, but due to the time involved in getting new residents oriented in the house, their work, and the community, Caesar says they likely won’t take any new residents until January. During the upcoming months, she also plans to meet with town officials to see where they can strengthen the new relationships.
In the meantime, there are two new members of the FCCEH community in need of guidance.