StJB in Focus: Leap of Faith Campus Reconfiguration

There are many exciting and challenging changes at St John the Baptist (StJB) regarding our campus and parish directions. For more than 140 years, the ‘little white church on the hill’ has been a spiritual retreat and beacon for the community. Added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1984, our church is our well-maintained pride and joy. However, St John’s other two parish buildings – the Parish Hall and Rectory -- have become an increasing burden to operate and maintain. With disrepair, water/leakage issues, decrepit roof, and prohibitive entry/access in the Parish Hall; and excessive heating/operating costs in both buildings, these structures no longer meet our needs. Further, they physically, financially and spiritually drain us; they rob or detract us from God’s mission for StJB. 

A candid property evaluation was done at St John the Baptist early this fall, led by StJB Interim Rector, Janet Lombardo, our vestry team, and the NH Diocese Canon for Mission Resources, Benge Ambrogi. After careful consideration in mid-October, St John’s dedicated vestry approved a full campus reconfiguration, including: 1) tear down the parish hall; 2) sell the rectory (separate lot), which will help fund; 3) build a new energy efficient, handicapped accessible building attached to the church through the chapel.  The new proposed modular addition will have space for community dinners/events, a modern attached kitchen, office space, and more. 

“I envision a patio to hold coffee hour looking at our beautiful stone altar and cross,” enthusiastically shared Pastor Janet, “I believe this new campus will bring new life and vitality to our church community.”

In a crucial meeting with Bishop Rob Hirschfeld and Canon for Transition, the Rev. Gail Avery, held in StJB’s sanctuary on November, 14, 2018, the proposed campus changes were brought before the congregation for discussion. It was a well-attended, 90-minute highly interactive meeting with 30+ parishioners, including vestry, Pastor Janet and Diocese leadership. While the concept was eagerly embraced by nearly all, some questions and concerns were brought up regarding logistics, timing, communication and congregational buy-in. 

Most parishioners voiced support for the vestry’s decision. They welcomed the property re-formation to reinvigorate and bring the parish together. It would allow StJB to refocus our energy and efforts away fromthe increasing burdens of exhausting and expensive real estate maintenance and more towardGod’s mission of outreach and community service. It can help us re-envision our renewed common mission, refine our direction, and help entice a new minister and parishioners. 

“This is an imperative and exciting opportunity for St John the Baptist,” proclaimed Dave Guinta, StJB vestry and building committee member. “It gives us a fresh look at our church to best meet our current and future physical structure needs and vastly reduces our time, energy, and operational costs in our buildings.”  Guinta concluded, “Far more importantly, it will help us refocus our mission, prepare and better attract a new rector, and build our vitality and sustainability as a parish.”

A few heartfelt tears and concerns were also shared. Primarily, these involved the potential immediate sale or loss of the Rectory (bathroom, coffee hour, meeting/office space), which would impact our ability to conduct Sunday services in our beloved sanctuary this winter/spring. Despite recent service announcements and coffee hour discussions, several people heard these proposals for the first time; unfortunately, they felt disconnected or overlooked. StJB’s ‘grieving process’ was also acknowledged as many are still reeling from the loss of Reverend Sue and rapid changes in the last 6 months. We need to communicate better, not just about our church buildings, but rather building up our church. As cherished parishioners, Donna Marie Currier and Donna Nelson, articulately reminded us, we need to make the time to process, heal, and “care and nurture each other.” 

While the sale of the Rectory is intended to provide a good funding start for the new addition, a call for parishioner pledge support will be needed and other funding options will be fully investigated. There is also the challenge of more people power needed to fill several open St John’s vestry positions and form a new building committee, which will be the topic of the next StJB In Focus 1.3. 

Several affirmations also focused on key StJB transitional concerns. First, Bishop Rob recognized St. John the Baptist as a “full parish” with a “dedicated group of church people;” he said there is “no interest or intent on closing this church.” Canon Gail noted the search for a “half-time priest will likely draw some one from the New England area; thankfully, the NH Diocese has a “deep bench” with several good and local supply priests, which will be explored in the coming months. Unexpectedly, Pastor Janet also offered her strong recommendation to “keep two morning services (8 am Rite I & 10 am Rite II),” which she believes is “very important to this church.”  

Conceptually, the congregation strongly supports the three-part campus reconfiguration, as approved by vestry. Given our Parish Hall is too drafty/costly to heat and entirely closes in winters, no one had much dispute of part one: tearing down the Parish Hall this fall to immediately save money and reduce hassles. This will occur after logistics are properly taken care of (stored, distributed, salvaged or tossed; please contact Tina Firicano if you want anything). Initially, there will not be space for the StJB thrift shop, but options for this mission exist through partnering or further expansion. The big ‘compromise’ to ‘minimize disruption and trauma’ was to slow down part two: delay the sale (closing and transfer) of the Rectory until at least mid-April. This would ensure the continuity of our services in our church sanctuary, allow more project time, and provide a smoother transition to part three: build a new, easy access modular addition off the church chapel. Project support was confirmed at the end of the meeting by a vast majority show-of-hands vote, urged by respected parish leader, Dave Moberg.

Bishop Rob concluded and blessed the meeting with a final prayer of guidance, where he praised St John’s “courage” in embracing this bold new campus vision and affirmed the NH Diocese’s full support. A new addition will allow StJB to more easily gather and enjoy fellowship and food, better integrate our outdoor space, and re-orient/expand our parking. Most importantly, it will free us from the overwhelming burdens of our two current real estate albatrosses and allow us to refocus efforts on God’s mission for us. There is much hard work ahead and our path forward may not be entirely clear or easy, but it is a leap of faithwe take together. And just perhaps…if we build it, they will come. 

Announcing StJB in Focus

We’re introducing a new brief monthly article series, StJB in Focus, to the first Electronic Bidding Bell (EBB) of the month. EBB is StJB weekly e-mail sent to all members at the end of every week, please join us on stjohntb.org/join-email-list. This StJB in Focus series will highlight important events, happenings or work within our church community and is archived here on our web site. Appropriately, our September 2018 launch article: Living in Transition, addresses our opportunities in change. New StJB member and former news editor, Maureen Gillum, will be championing this monthly EBB and web site series, but encourages your feedback, topic ideas, and article contributions. Maureen can be reached at mgillum.m@gmail.com.

StJB in Focus: Living in Transition

Ironically, change is about the only constant in life. Most people don’t like change as it is often difficult, disruptive, uncomfortable and a painful amount of work. Change typically requires us to think, explore, expand and adapt; it challenges our set routines and comfort zones. There is also the vital flip side to change: opportunity and growth; a chance to modify, refine and strengthen. The act of becoming offers life, vitality, and hope, while remaining the same is to stagnate and perish.

As our Bishop, Rob Hirschfeld, recently cited in News From the Vine, “The presiding Bishop (Michael Curry) speaks of our God as ‘loving, liberating, and life-giving.’ These words describe a God who is not fixed or stuck, but constantly calling us beyond the status quo.” Simply put, God wants us to embrace change and evolve.

For more than 140 years, the Episcopal Church of St. John the Baptist (StJB) has well served the seven villages of Wakefield, NH and beyond. Through the vision, donations, and efforts of several prominent families (the Dows, Sanborns and Lows) the church was built ‘up on the hill’ in the Village of Wolfeborough Junction (now Sanbornville) in 1876-77, under architect Charles Haight. The ‘Carpenter Gothic’ architecture of our church is further enhanced by its 14 stained glass windows, a unique bidding bell, and the only pipe organ in the area. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Far more importantly, StJB is known as a warm, open and inclusive church – one that welcomes ALL people in worship, fellowship and outreach.

Today, our church is in a time of transition. St John’s former rector for the last 11 years, the Reverend Sue Poulin, was called to serve St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Dover, NH in March, 2018. Among the smallest parishes of the 46 Episcopal churches in New Hampshire, StJB is at the start of its search for a new minister. During this transitional work period of reflection and discernment, we are blessed to have the guidance of Interim Rector, the Reverend Dr. Janet Lombardo. Not only has Janet served as an Episcopal priest in the NH diocese for more than 20 years, she is currently a consultant to the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) specializing in Congregational Development.

“I specialize in helping congregations in transition,” explained Pastor Janet, “a crucial first step in this process is to re-envision each church’s mission or purpose. Ultimately, we work on congregational strength and vitality.”

StJB’s Warden, Tina Firicano, shared, “the hardest part is the unknowing and uncertainty of our future,” but she also sees “enormous opportunity and excitement” for the parish to “seek God’s path of what St. John’s is meant to be.” Tina added, “We may be small but we’re a feisty, sustainable church with a whole lot of love to give.”

Pastor Janet largely echoed, “St John’s is entering a period of re-envisioning of who we are and what we are doing.” While she admits transformation can be an anxious and difficult time, she assured, “we are not alone in this process – God and the diocese are there to help support us.”

Bishop Hirschfeld’s recent visit to StJB reiterated the importance of this process and encouraged the parish to “take its time” to explore and discern “who we are” and “what we want to be.” He also reminded us to keep faith, work together and trust in God to guide us.

St John’s will navigate a delicate balance to re-imagine its current mission and purpose – in essence its congregational vitality -- while also preserving its rich history within the Wakefield community.

Pastor Janet challenges us to go beyond our historic legacy to revitalize our purpose and pertinence today. “It is not enough to show up in our beautiful little church each week and support ourselves,” she stated, “individually and collectively, we must seek to serve others in our community in faith and love.”