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The Happiest Time in the Life of a Community Church

The Happiest Time in the Life of a Community Church
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Welcome to the September 2007 edition of Jud’s New England Journal, the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale, editor-in-chief of Yankee Magazine, published for over 70 years in Dublin, N.H.

The Happiest Time in the Life of a Community Church

Oddly, it’s often during those months — sometimes even a year — when it’s searching for a new minister.

While larger towns in New England naturally have several churches of various denominations, innumerable small communities across our six-state region have, over the past 50 years or so, have been reduced to one church, usually known as the “Community Church.” It’s nondenominational in spirit — that is, open to all — but its background and traditional support are often Congregational or Unitarian.

A small-town community church often finds it difficult to encompass its members’ various religious backgrounds, and its popularity among various social groups swings from high to low to in between.

Sometimes Episcopalians will have a dominant influence. During that time, more so-called “year-round summer people” will attend, and communion may even be offered, to the distress of several townspeople.

Then, perhaps some liberal-minded young people will gain the upper hand. There will be an awkward few minutes in each service where everyone holds hands. Quite a bit of guitar playing, too.

When this sort of deviation subsides, and subside it always does, the natives and working professionals in town assume command once again and run the organization in the straightforward, no-frills manner in which it has been run for centuries.

The ebbs and flows of community church life are dictated to a large degree by the sort of minister in residence. Ministers come and go fairly regularly, and I think it’s during those periods between ministers that the church experiences its ultimate harmony.

A search committee, including all town social functions, is formed and meets regularly with the congregation as a whole to report on progress, as well as to invite discussion and opinion as to what the church “needs.” On these occasions, person after person rises to explain what the church means to him or her and what marvelous attributes ought to be part of the new minister’s character.

Everyone agrees with what everyone says. The church is never happier. And often the search process can last more than a year, with guest ministers filling in on Sundays. The man or woman eventually hired is simply the nicest person available at the moment the church feels it really is time to choose somebody.

Unfortunately for the minister chosen, he or she is expected to be an approximate replica of Jesus Christ—no human frailties allowed. Over the years, I’ve known and liked many ministers, and most have had more apparent human frailties than many people I’ve enjoyed less.

The first minister I ever knew—in Vanceboro, Maine, where I was raised—suffered from a severe stutter, particularly with the word “Christ.” It’s unfortunate he wasn’t a Unitarian, because the entire service would come to a halt over and over while he’d silently struggle with that particular all-important name until it would finally burst forth in a minor explosion.

Alcohol was the problem of another minister I knew well—probably precipitated by self-doubt. “Do you think being a minister in this town or anywhere makes any sense, Jud?” he’d ask me as we sipped cocktails on my porch from time to time. During sermons, he often forgot where he was going. His point would remain dangling in the air somewhere for his flock to guess at. “And as John once said in those never-to-be-forgotten words … those never-to-be forgotten words … those …” I’d hurt for him.

You know, I’ve come to realize it’s not easy to be the minister in a small New England town.

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The Happiest Time in the Life of a Community Church

Updated Saturday, September 1st, 2007

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