An Alternative Narrative in Rochester, New York?

My hunch is that the Presbytery of Genesee Valley, which includes the City of Rochester, is like many urban presbyteries. Once thriving congregations face decline, with changing demographics, challenging finances and aging buildings all parts of the profile. I know that faithful, thriving ministry is happening in our urban centers, and I certainly don’t equate growth and success with faithfulness, or decline with failure. But I know that what is happening in Rochester is happening in the cities where I’ve served, and many others.

We have closed, and will close, many congregations, and when the question rises as to the disposition of the building, the default response is to sell—to a new congregation, another not-for-profit, or perhaps even a commercial developer. Then presbyteries face the question of what to do with the proceeds, a question for another time, albeit a very important one.

So it was with the Rochester congregation called Calvary-St. Andrews Presbyterian Church. Formed as a merger of Presbyterian and Episcopal congregations in Rochester, Calvary-St. Andrews (CSA) had served as a vital community anchor in the South Wedge neighborhood for more than 150 years. For the last 40 years, Judy Lee Hay served faithfully and effectively as CSA’s pastor, embodying in her leadership a deep commitment to urban renewal, radical hospitality and inclusion and social justice.

At the point of Judy’s retirement, CSA began to decline numerically, financially and spiritually (again, a case study for another time).  The decline accelerated through several transitional leadership models. Finally, the congregation’s Session requested that the presbytery appoint an Administrative Commission whose purpose would be to dissolve the congregation.

I was appointed to serve as moderator of the administrative commission. I agreed to do so only if closing as a foregone conclusion was taken off the table. It was. We assembled a very faithful and effective AC who did the hard work of discernment. We met with members of the small congregation as well as church neighbors and broader community activists.

We eventually decided several things:

  • That the congregation, sadly, would be dissolved.
  • That the church’s thriving hunger ministry, which served so many in the neighborhood, needed to continue.
  • That the congregation served as an important force for good in the neighborhood.

The congregation’s last service of worship was held on Easter Sunday 2017. A community-based steering committee is slowly taking on responsibility for the food program, maintaining and expanding services (including a community garden) while working on fund-raising and volunteer recruitment.

That left one question…what of the building?  As I noted, our presbytery’s practice, if not policy, had been to move toward building sales following a congregational dissolution. I understand that – presbyteries don’t want the responsibility of building management.

But something about this building, its legacy and history and its crucial neighborhood role, continued to speak to us. Not to mention a growing vision of what could happen within its walls! So while we’ve listed the building on the market, we are also working rigorously on an alternative proposal, called the Roc (Rochester) SALT (Service and Learning Together) Mission Center.

In its embryonic conception, Roc SALT Mission Center would be a ministry of the presbytery, managed by a board of directors and staff.  It would continue to provide emergency food to the South Wedge community. Additionally, it would offer a location where visiting groups – youth, adult, in-town, out-of-town, faith-based and other – can have a residential, immersive, reflective mission experience and take that experience “back home.” The Center would connect with other South Wedge institutions, as well as faith-based and social service organizations throughout the city. It would engage the presbytery in a creative and needed new mission initiative while repurposing a strategic presbytery asset that happens to be an architectural gem.

The Center has received an innovation grant from the Synod of the Northeast and we are pursuing other funding. We are hoping to hire a part-time director in the fall who will help us offer a pilot program in 2018.

We are just at the beginning of the story. We fully expect the presbytery to exercise its fiduciary responsibility as it ponders the future of the CSA building. We also hope the presbytery will be taken by a creative and alternative vision for the use of a building, that serves, in this case, as so much more than a building.

Each congregation and each presbytery will discern the use of building in their own way and in their own context. Many are exploring new narratives.  Our story simply encourages all of us to be bold and creative – and perhaps even a bit risky – and to invite the Holy Spirit into the conversations, as we seek ways to be faithful in the new church and world to which God is calling us.

Story by John Wilkinson, pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York, June 2017

(PC)USA Presbyterian Mission

ROC SALT Center Update for Presbytery January 2019

ROC SALT Proposal v. 2 November 9 2017-original