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Downsizing Salisbury church has its Plan B

GLENN ANDRES IS among the members of the Salisbury Congregational Church who are creating a non-profit association that will ensure the historic place of worship at 853 Maple St. will continue to serve the greater community, even if the congregation fades away. Independent photo/Steve James

SALISBURY — Laurie Cox harkened back 44 years to when she and her husband, Mac, had just joined the Salisbury Congregational Church.

“At the time, the church had quite a large membership — and there were tons of kids,” recalled Cox, a longtime Ripton resident and selectperson.

“It was really like an extended family.”

Sadly, that family has shrunk dramatically during the past 20-30 years, as many congregation members have moved out of town, left organized religion, or gone on to their great reward. The Salisbury Congregational Church family now counts around 20 souls, a dozen of whom dot the pews for weekly services, according to Cox, the current church moderator.

“We all understand it; our eyes are wide open,” she said of the decline in worshippers, a common lament among most churches in New England and beyond. Gallup reported this past January that Americans’ membership in houses of worship has continued to decline. In 2020, 47% of U.S. adults belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down more than 20 points from the turn of the century. Meanwhile, Vermont is consistently ranked as one of the least religious states in the union, with a growing number of congregations confronting the prospect of shuttering their churches due to a lack of members.

But the remaining Salisbury Church members have decided to respond proactively to their church’s eroding flock. They’ve set up a nonprofit that’ll ensure the group’s magnificent, 1838 Greek Revival building at 853 Maple St. will continue to survive as a community asset, even if prayer ceases to be its main function.

The Salisbury Congregational Church building is the principal structure in Salisbury Village and one of only two handicapped-accessible public buildings in town; the other one is the elementary school — which the community no longer owns. Given that reality, the church figures to remain a go-to spot for local gatherings.

Plans call for a new non-profit association to eventually own the church building. It’s board of directors will tend to the structure’s maintenance and coordinate requests for its use. The church already hosts many local weddings and funerals, and around 20 events each summer, including concerts by Camp Point Counterpoint participants, talks offered by the Salisbury Historical Society, an annual “Old-Fashioned Ice Cream Social” each July 4, and the newer Otter Creek Music Festival.

The new nonprofit’s board, when fully constituted, will ideally include some current Salisbury church parishioners, community members and representatives of the various nonprofits that regularly use the church building, according to Glenn Andres, who’s been a member of the church for more than a half century.

The group’s charge will be made easier by the fact that the church building is in sound shape and is debt-free. It was only a few years ago that the congregation raised almost $250,000 in grants and gifts to rebuild the church’s landmark tower, repair deteriorating sills, install perimeter drainage, paint the building inside and out, provide new pew cushions and a modular performance stage, and install a more efficient heating system.

“What we’re trying to do is assure the conservation and continuity of our meeting house as a community resource,” Andres said.

The newly created nonprofit association is to be entrusted with a sizeable portion of the church’s endowment fund to cover future building maintenance costs and provide a financial cushion should any unforeseen, major repairs arise.

“Without the (financial resources), we feel no one would be willing to take on the responsibility for the building by joining the new association,” acknowledged Andres, who lives across the street from the church.

He noted that, fortunately, the Salisbury church congregation is unanimous in its vision for the church building remaining “an active part of Salisbury community life rather than have it share the fate of so many churches that have experienced deferred and inadequate care or major alteration for an unsuitable and sometimes private use.”

THE SALISBURY CONGREGATIONAL Church, built in the Greek Revival style in 1838, continues to be used for many secular activities even as its religious uses decline. Parishioners hope to create a non-profit association to manage it as a public space. 
Independent photo/Steve James

Church leaders are working with the Preservation Trust of Vermont to “come up with a suitable set of covenants to guarantee that the beloved qualities of the church building will survive,” according to Andres.

Other challenges to be tackled during the coming months include:

• Recruiting members for the new ownership association.

• Determining how much of the church endowment will be necessary for the ongoing life of the church congregation and how much should be set aside for care of the building.

• Drawing up bylaws for the association and going through the legal process of its formal creation and the subsequent property and fund transfer.

• Finding a suitable property manager and a maintenance person to manage scheduling, fee collection, “and adaptation to the parade of uses that will move through the building,” Andres added.

CAN THEY PULL IT OFF?

“It’s not a slam-dunk,” Cox stressed. “There are a lot of steps to go through. But we really are hoping we can get it wrapped up a year from now.”

Church leaders sought advice from the Partners for Sacred Places (PSC), a non-profit, non-sectarian, national organization that guides congregations in repurposing historic places of worship “to better serve their communities as anchor institutions,” according to the organization’s website.

But PSC officials didn’t have a template for the Salisbury Congregational Church to follow for transferring ownership and management of its church building, Andres explained.

In fact, PSC officials said, “If you pull this off, we’d like to use you as a model,” Andres said.

“We’re inventing the wheel.”

It’s a model that other small Addison County congregations would undoubtedly find interesting. The Independent in 2018 reported on the First Congregational Church of Cornwall’s research — including a townwide survey — into potential future uses of that historic church building on Route 30 in the village, should membership reach a point where the institution becomes unsustainable.

Andres retired from Middlebury College in 2015, following a 45-year teaching career, primarily in the areas of architectural and urban history. He has published on a variety of historical and architectural topics, including on the subjects of New England meeting houses and Vermont regional architecture. His background gives him an added appreciation for what the Salisbury Congregational Church is trying to accomplish, and how the earliest settlers of Salisbury have charted a course.

He noted the town’s first meeting house was built more than two centuries ago by an association that owned and managed the building, which was shared by the town and several different church groups before they built their own respective headquarters.

“Our idea is to create a similar situation — to assemble a non-profit association of stakeholders to own, maintain, and manage the building for a variety of users and uses, including the congregation for as long as they should survive,” he said.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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