The Bible says there is a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to tear down and a time to build.
For those in positions of leadership in over a dozen churches in the county, it’s been a tough job knowing when to do what.
Declining membership, coupled with population decline, migration, rising heating costs and a decline in those practising Christianity, has caused churches of all stripes to re-examine themselves, their mission and their facilities.
Archdeacon Peter Armstrong of Christ Anglican Church in Stellarton believes this is part of a continuing cultural shift that began 40 years ago.
“It was the norm to be connected with a congregation and it’s not nearly the same as it was a number of years ago,” Armstrong said. “That’s not to say there aren’t churches that are thriving since some are drawing more people in.”
Within the Anglican Churches of Pictou County, a federation formed in 2002, there has been a marked increase in the average age of church members. This is similar for the county’s Roman Catholic Churches.
“There’s no doubt that our members and clergy are older,” said Rev. Andrew Boyd, associate pastor at St. Ninian Cathedral at the Diocese of Antigonish.
Last summer, Father Donald MacGillivray of the Antigonish Diocese said that Catholic churches in the county will be part of a review process also taking place in Richmond, Inverness, Antigonish and Guysborough counties. A total of 62 churches will be reviewed.
“It’s difficult. Churches are our communities and churches were created by our forebears. We don’t own the church, I say we are caretakers and it was given to us by our forebears,” said MacGillivray. “We have to keep it in good shape and pass it on to the children. We are stewards of a gift.”
Catholic churches in Pictou County are located in Thorburn, Pictou, Stellarton, Westville, New Glasgow, Trenton, Pictou Landing and Lismore.
“The spirit of the people is that they continue to worship where they have for generations in their respective churches,” said Boyd.
Rev. Bonnie Fraser of the United Church of Canada’s Hopewell/Eureka/East River Pastoral Charge noted that attitudes toward Christianity are changing in the county.
“I remember working in P.E.I. and how ice rinks remained closed on Sunday mornings, and only opened after church services were done,” she recalled. “Now Sunday is filled with activity and not a day of rest. It’s a post-Christian world.”
The result has been fewer funds to work with and has meant the selling off of manses within the charge and the closure of two churches. That process can often be very difficult.
“In our diocese, we have to look at the viability of the parish, not just in economic terms but in its resources, personnel and management,” said Boyd. “Without a doubt, emotions are high because people’s traditions of family are so tied up in a building when closure takes place.”
The diocese has already completed a review of churches in Cape Breton and 16 of its 43 Catholic churches closed. While the review for the county is ongoing, the future for some buildings remains uncertain.
Environmentally, Armstrong noted that large, sparsely attended buildings are hardly ideal.
“Some buildings don’t have a good carbon footprint despite being beautiful structures,” he said. “But we made a strong effort here to make improvements to heating, efficiency and having the buildings used more for community events, including divorce care programs and free rehearsal for a local band.”
With the unseasonably cold weather so far, heating costs have been taking their toll on church coffers.
“We’ve inherited and meet in buildings, but the dominant payment shouldn’t be the oil bill,” said Armstrong. “I would say it’s one our bigger financial items.”
Fraser noted that her churches’ heating bills are also significant.
“Our buildings are in fairly stable shape, though in Hopewell, we move to the basement in the winter months,” she said. “I keep my office in my home as there’s no sense in turning the heat on there.”
Yet despite these challenges, the churches are up to the task of taking a hard look inward and making changes if necessary. Some of the changes have been positive.
“In the last few years we’ve become more ecumenical and do more things with other churches,” said Armstrong. “Most Christians and churches know we share in the same enterprise.”
He noted that in the town of Pictou, churches have been meeting informally and focus on creative outreach, a community garden, and youth coffee houses,
For Boyd of the Roman Catholic Church, reviews have put focus back on the church’s mission.
“Our goal is to evangelize and bring the good news wherever we are,” he said. “The essence of who we are, our purpose, to be sent into the world. How we do that is through the context of families and work place.”
Fraser noted that while things have stabilized for her pastoral charge, they would continue to look at the issues facing the churches.
“It’s really a question of how do we respectfully hang on to or let go of what other generations have secured for us. It’s a big challenge.”
On Twitter: @NGNewsJohn
Religion in Pictou County:
*Source: Statistics Canada*
Total population in private households by religion
Traditional (Aboriginal) Spirituality
No religious affiliation