Difficult Decisions: Ivoryton Moves In With Neighboring Essex
Between Dec. 24 and Jan.5, the average temperature has been 15° F and only risen above freezing once. As local churches turn up the heat in their buildings, it's hard to ignore the costs. The average price of heating oil has increased 47 cents per gallon, an increase of 18.5% since last January.
These increasing cost have impacted many local churches. Ivoryton Congregational Church, a small congregation of about 25 active members in the Ivoryton section of Essex, realized in 2016 that they could no longer keep up with the costs of their picturesque, Adirondack style building. Believing that better stewardship meant selling the building, they began to search for an alternative.
“It wasn’t contentious, but it was a difficult decision for the members who have belonged for 40, 50, 60, maybe more years,” said the Rev. John Van Epps in an interview with Zip06.com in October 2017.
Members did not want to close or merge with another church. They reached out to 10 local religious organizations looking for a shared space to worship. Though many of those were open to the idea, the arrangements were never quite right.
Then the deacons of the First Congregational Church of Essex, a UCC church only 2.5 miles away, offered to change their worship time to 10:30 to let Ivoryton use their space for an early morning worship. Ivoryton would begin at 8:45 and finish by 9:30. The Essex building has a flexible parlor suitable for a coffee-hour time, so Ivoryton could have some fellowship time while the Essex congregation began arriving and preparing for their 10:30 worship.
"It only took two or three meetings," said Rev. Ken Peterkin, pastor of the Essex church, referring to the negotiations with Ivoryton. "It wasn't very hard because we knew this was something coming."
Peterkin was referring to a 10-year history at Essex where the congregation had been reaching out to all the Protestant churches in the area to see if anyone was interested in some form of partnership. They even considered merging into a new-church-new-campus scenario, but that conversation never developed.
A partnership was indeed formed. Ivoryton has been worshiping at 8:45 AM in the Essex sanctuary since October. They pay rent for use of the sanctuary, the parlor, and a small office space that the Essex congregation formerly used for storage.
Originally, Van Epps was concerned that the Ivoryton people might not arrive by 8:45, so he planned to start worship with a fifteen-minute hymn-sing, followed by an abbreviated worship at 9:00. To his surprise, worshipers have been arriving on time, so worship has not changed too drastically. The staff has made some adjustments to a smaller office space, and now shares internet and some equipment with the Essex staff.
"Everything is manageable and is basically working," said Van Epps.
Worship numbers have not dropped significantly. According to Van Epps, a few members decided they did not want to leave the old building or get up earlier for worship, but most have made the transition to their new space.
Van Epps hopes the congregation can begin to look at new mission ministries when the old building sells. A buyer has agreed to purchase the property on Main Street in Ivoryton, but that sale is still being negotiated with the town. When the property is sold, Van Epps says the annual budget of the Ivoryton congregation will be close to half of its projected budget at the beginning of 2017.
In the meantime, Ivoryton and Essex are enjoying a new relationship. There is a new buzz of friendships begin forged in the building during the transition between the Ivoryton coffee hour and the arrival of the Essex worshipers, according to Peterkin. Rev. Peterkin and Rev. Van Epps have helped each other cover pastoral duties in one other's absence. The two congregations worshiped together on Christmas Eve and will likely worship together during the Easter season as well. Peterkin is optimistic about future events and programming as well. Essex often collaborates with the local Baptist and Lutheran churches. Peterkin envisions all four churches strengthening their relationships in the coming months.