Rural Adirondack churches struggle, find opportunity in pandemic

Rural churches in the Adirondacks.
The Rev. Chrysalis Beck of the Whiteface Community UMC preaching at the church’s outdoor Sunday services in the fall at the new Festival Field Pavilion. Beck says it is the responsibility of the church to connect with the community. Photo provided by the Rev. Chrysalis Beck.

By Tim Rowland

Three years ago, Pastor Donna Frischknecht-Jackson had what she thought was an imaginative solution for rural North Country churches that were having trouble affording, or even finding, someone to minister to their congregations. On a revolving basis she would preach live at one of the four churches that she served, and Zoom the service to the other three. The idea went over like a lead seraphim.

The hammer of the coronavirus, however, has succeeded in moving churches out of their comfort zones, where a gentle cajoling could not. Some Adirondack preachers believe that as uncomfortable as it may be for their parishioners, there is no going back, and further, when all is said and done, the pandemic may turn out to be a dark blessing that transforms rural churches into a new age where lost connections with communities are reestablished.

“There will be some churches that will die. But every death brings with it something new.”

— Pastor Donna Frischknecht-Jackson

“There will be some churches that will die,” Frischknecht-Jackson said. “But every death brings with it something new.”

Frischknecht-Jackson ministers at the Presbyterian church in Putnam, a town of 609, where to stay solvent the dedicated church members raise money to survive by, among other things, auctioning quilts. And that was before the pandemic.

A place people turn to for help

As is the case everywhere — Frischknecht-Jackson has a national following and edits Presbyterian Today Magazine — the Putnam church has lost members and the members it has retained are aging. Churches across the Adirondacks have fewer people to draw from, fewer contributions and less relevance in everyday lives.

But when the pandemic and resulting financial troubles hit, the church was a natural place to turn. Cali Brooks, president and CEO of the Adirondack Foundation, an organization that facilitates philanthropy and since March has awarded $1.2 million to regional nonprofits, said it became clear early on that some people who had never needed help before would be affected.

“We were really worried that people who needed help for the first time would have trouble navigating the system,” Brooks said. “Very often these people will turn to the churches.”

The Foundation established a network of Adirondack clergy that had their finger on the community pulse and would be able to offer a rapid response to needs, both financial and spiritual. It was a role churches and their parishioners were eager to accept.

But it revealed an emerging truth. Many who in the past would have looked to their churches for help turned to the government instead.

Scott Tyler, pastor of the Ticonderoga First United Methodist Church, said the community donated generously when the pandemic hit, and the church braced for an onslaught of people in need. But then, counterintuitively, the number of people taking advantage of the church’s food pantry plummeted.

Government stimulus and greater allotment of unemployment and food stamps meant that people had the means to buy groceries for themselves. As government funding has dried up, clients to the food pantry have ticked back up, but Tyler said it’s a wake-up call about the church’s role in the community, and the community’s role in the church.

Clearly, demographics are changing and the church needs to change with them, Tyler said. The World War II generation, which was taught to tithe to the church before paying any other bills, is disappearing. 

Dwindling donations

Passing the collection plate on a Sunday morning was already a particularly archaic way of raising funds in an increasingly cashless society. And when the churches had to shut down earlier in the year, this primary source of revenue ceased to exist altogether.

Suddenly it became clear that it wasn’t just the church communities that were hurting, it was the churches themselves. 

Much of what the pandemic has done is accelerate what pastors — who watch attendance dwindle as they preside at the funerals of members who will not be replaced — have known was coming anyway. 

“Younger folks don’t have the mindset that you give to the church,” Tyler said. “Across the board you will find that churches are suffering. We had a healthy balance when we started the year and we still have a healthy balance. But for a lot of smaller churches, this is going to be the nail in the coffin.”

Prior to the pandemic, Tyler had prioritized electronic giving, including a QR code on the church bulletin that allows members of the congregation, who are not in the habit of carrying bills in their billfolds, to donate with their phones.

Finding new ways to connect

Churches have been forced to adapt in other ways, too, maybe most notably in terms of food. The long-standing joke among Methodists is that to get into heaven you need to bring a covered dish. Now, particularly under the pandemic, food — a close second only scripture in importance to any denomination — cannot be counted upon to be the communal glue that it once was.

That’s increased pressure on churches to find new ways to connect with the community. “For the church, we need to be present,” said the Rev. Chrysalis Beck of the Whiteface Community UMC. “We need to provide another layer of support — it’s our niche, it’s our job and it’s what we’re here to do, to be the manifestation of God in the community.”

Musicians from the Whiteface Community UMC, including from left The Rev. Chrysalis Beck, Tara Mulvey, Barbara Mulvey and Rowan Mulvey. Photo provided by the Rev. Chrysalis Beck.

Beck’s church has about 90 members, about 40 of whom regularly attend church services. But she counts among her flock those “associated” with the church, people who participate in church events or gather at the church’s popular Riverside Thrift Shop that not only helps the needy afford goods, but also serves as a social center, church fundraiser and a place less formal than church where community members can ask for prayers. 

But the thrift shop has struggled to remain open as well, as COVID has started to infiltrate the mountains and the risk of being out and about — especially for older people who have the closest ties to the churches — has increased.

So without traditional ways to connect, churches have almost universally turned to the technology that Frischknecht-Jackson was trying to peddle four years prior.

Embracing new technology

Beck speaks for many Adirondack preachers when she says, “Never in a million years did I think I’d be offering an online worship service.” Yet one of the more incredible stories of the pandemic has been the speed with which clergy, many of whom admit to being proud Luddites, have embraced Zoom and Facebook Live, and not only that, but have convinced 95-year-old great grandmothers to embrace it as well.

The success has been notable. It’s not unusual for preachers to get double the number of viewers on the computer screen than they would have attracted to an in-person church service. They have also been able to target the younger audiences that they will ultimately need to survive.

Among those most affected by the pandemic have been young parents with children, who have been forced to negotiate the uneven world of education, where one positive Covid test and associated contact tracing can shut down a school. Even families that have not been affected financially have been rocked emotionally, Beck said.

For them, spiritual support is essential. “One family joined during COVID because their association with the church had become so much stronger,” Beck said. “People are dipping their toes back into the water and finding that online church can meet their spiritual needs.”

It can benefit the church as well, including those in remote locales where attendance has been dwindling. Nina Dickinson ministers to churches in Blue Mountain Lake, Long Lake and Indian Lake, where the congregation at any given time might be less than 30 — total. Some of her flock are refugees from churches that have closed, and Dickenson, who is still in her 50s, brings down the average age in the room considerably. She loses some snowbirds in the winter, but gains some locals who go elsewhere in the summer. “I might average eight to 12, but it’s not always the same eight to 12,” she said.

Already the churches’ pastor, musical director and chief cook and bottle washer, she now also serves as their IT department as well, helping her members overcome old computers and poor connectivity. It’s been a success. The three congregations come together for joined services, which has strengthened informal ties among the town that, due to their proximity, had already existed. “It’s helped to solidify the sense that we’re all in this together,” Dickenson said.

There was another beneficial angle: Community connections via Zoom or Facebook Live were not limited to once on Sunday. Bible studies, children’s activities, music and coffee klatches can pepper the week with opportunities to connect.

They can also reach people who, for whatever reason, are reluctant to show up for a formal church service. Some don’t have the time or ability to get the whole family organized on a Sunday morning. Some worry their kids will be a distraction. Some aren’t sure they’ll fit in. 

Video church eliminates those obstacles. 

Yet ministers are aware that what Zoom giveth, Zoom can taketh away. Online services mean that Adirondack residents can stay connected with their church even if the weather is bad or they’re not feeling well. But they also mean that church attendance is no longer limited by geography. People can reconnect with churches they may have gone to at a former residence, or grandparents can listen to their grandchildren sing a hymn on the other side of the country. So online content must be compelling to stay competitive.

And for the ministers themselves, who care deeply for their people, technology is no substitute for a hug. Many express regret that they can no longer comfort those who are grieving in ways to which they are accustomed. So some have combined technology with an old, almost forgotten avenue of connection: snail mail. Ministers say they have taken to sending personal notes or packets of uplifting materials. It may not be a hug, but receiving something personal in the mail is so special and unique in this day and age that it feels like one.  

Ministers say they don’t know exactly how much of this new way will stick once the pandemic is gone, but they do believe that it has opened many eyes as to the possibilities for a new bond between church and community.

“We still don’t know where churches are going to be, financially or spiritually; we don’t know what tomorrow will bring,”  Frischknecht-Jackson said. “But we have the opportunity to be The Church. We really have the opportunity to show that we are the House of God.”

About Tim Rowland

Tim Rowland is a columnist, author and outdoors writer living in Jay.

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