In 1978 I was ordained at the First Universalist Church of Southold, Long Island, New York, and installed as their parish minister. I learned today the the church burned to the ground last night. It is a total loss. An electrical fire is believed to be the cause. Fortunately, no one was harmed. I've been pondering my feelings all day.
I received the "call" to serve this congregation right out of theological school. In those days before you could get approval to do a community ministry, you had to serve a parish church for at least three years. Community ministry was my thing, but the rules were the rules and so off to a parish I went.
In the decades that have followed the Southold area has become gentrified. But back in 1978 there was no mail delivery (all mail was kept at the Post Office and you went to pick it up). There was no internet. In fact there was no television (the wealthier people had large, rotating aerials that allowed them to get TV signals from Connecticut over the Long Island Sound). The nearest bookstore was 78 miles away. Amazon.com didn't exist. It was my first, and last, dose of rural living, and I learned that I am an urban creature.
Still, I stayed for three years. The congregation did well. We grew, renovated and restored the property and I was very proud of that. But I was eager to leave and eventually did. I acquired two cats while there, one of whom was a magnificent calico I named Olympia Brown. She was a fierce wharf cat that I rescued (Southold was a big scallop fishery) and she was one of the most remarkable and fun cats I have ever shared my life with.
The ministry had challenges. In those days the denomination was trying to "save" struggling churches. A congregation could get financial help from the denomination if they met membership and contribution goals. That was dumb. The denomination really should have known better.
All that happened was a bunch of rural churches "cooked the books" in order to get the free money. When the ministers of my generation arrived we discovered that the "membership growth" of the previous year resulted from people putting their relatives onto the membership roll even though they had never set foot in the church. The contribution improvements reported to the denomination turned out to be "aspirational" goals the congregation members felt they might eventually meet if they had a good minister. It was an interesting time, and I was not the only one of my classmates who struggled.
For all that, I had a good time in Southold, and over the decades I have found myself returning to that pulpit in my dreams and fondly remembering seashore life. I heard the congregation had a hard time, shrinking in size and supporting only part-time ministry. I'd hoped that as the gentrification of Long Island continued they would have a renaissance and that old building might thrive again. But that hope went up in flames last night.
Still, sometimes the best thing that can happen to a congregation is that an old building burns down. There will be an insurance settlement and the property is probably worth more now that the church building isn't on it. They can refinance, rebuild, move elsewhere, merge with another congregation or go to a "church without walls" model. There could be a great future there. I hope so.
So I say a prayer for The First Universalist Church of Southold and its current minister, leadership and congregation. I say this prayer in memory of good times past and in the hope of better times in the future. I am so sorry about the loss, but still hopeful that better times will be ahead.