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As pews fill up, Middlebury church needs room to grow

THE REV. STEPHANIE Allen, pastor of Middlebury’s Memorial Baptist Church, has an enviable dilemma: How to create more room to meet public demand for the church’s programming? Independent photo/Steve James

MIDDLEBURY — While some Addison County congregations are shrinking so quickly that they’re turning their churches into community centers, leaders at Middlebury’s Memorial Baptist Church are aggressively searching for more space in which to house their popular programs.

Officials at Memorial Baptist Church, or MBC, recently had to install shorter pews to maximize sanctuary seating within the opulent, historic church building at 97 South Pleasant St. 

With a 125-person seating limit for Sunday sermons, Memorial Baptist Pastor Stephanie Allen gets worried when Easter rolls around, facing the prospect of having to turn worshippers away.

Still, those who can’t get a seat for a Sunday sermon won’t miss out completely. They have the option of attending services remotely, or on demand through YouTube or via podcast. A devoted group of 60-plus people already views sermons from home, due to frailty, disabilities or because they might live in a different state or country.

“It’s a good problem to have,” is something that Rev. Allen has heard a lot during her decade shepherding Memorial Baptist. 

The resurgent MBC is building its base, in part, thanks to a popular pastor and an unabashed embrace of technology to amplify its message.

“Many churches disbanded their livestream when they (returned to in-person services after the pandemic). We never did,” Allen explained during a recent interview.

If anything, MBC doubled down on technology.

In addition to offering videos and podcasts of sermons, Allen stars in a variety of short videos accessible through YouTube and TikTok. Those videos — some of which have received 2,000 or more hits — impart a cross-denominational message of “comfort, love and unity,” according to Allen.

Anyone who attends an MBC Sunday service can get instantaneous access to Allen’s sermon notes by simply capturing, with their smartphone, a QR code that appears on church pews. Paper versions are also available.

“The videos and technology have driven the younger population to the church; it does help,” Allen said.

THE REV. STEPHANIE Allen, pastor of Middlebury’s Memorial Baptist Church, has an enviable dilemma: How to create more room to meet public demand for the church’s programming?
Independent photo/Steve James

Indeed, while many MBC parishioners are seniors, the church is drawing an impressive number of children, youths and young adults.

Sixteen members of the MBC flock are younger than 8 years old, a youth movement that has forced the church to revamp its nursery twice during Allen’s tenure.

“We have a gigantic Middlebury College population,” Allen added with a smile

Earlier this month, MBC hosted a “welcome back Febs” event for incoming, winter-term students.

“It was packed downstairs with college students; 30-40 of them mixing around; it was the coolest thing in the world,” Allen said.

Two current Middlebury College parishioners will be attending seminary school during the next few years, according to Allen.

“Those are the signs of growth and health in a church that you wouldn’t know if you’re not here to see it,” she said. “The passion for me is working with this next generation.”

Allen and her colleagues realize that interest in the church can’t build in a vacuum.

“(College students) have had retreats here, and I would love to offer more. But we’re limited in what we can do,” she lamented.

BUILDING OPTIONS

The COVID pandemic has forced a roughly three-year pause in MBC’s growth aspirations. Church leaders last fall assembled a building committee to consider expansion options. The panel is considering both short- and long-term solutions. The most ambitious of those ideas: Possibly purchasing the adjacent Inn on the Green or building a 4,000-square-foot addition onto the east (rear) side of the church. Church leaders have asked architects to calculate what it would cost to build with a basement, and to potentially add a second floor in the future.

Middlebury’s MBC was erected in 1905, courtesy of Col. Silas Ilsley, who also gifted the town the Main Street library that bears his name.

“He built this to his father’s memory,” Allen said of the building, which boasts marble in its exterior construction, a sturdy slate roof and magnificent stained glass.

While extravagant in its design and fabrication, the church building occupies a small footprint that offers limited expansion options. 

In 2005, the church underwent renovations that maximized its interior space. The congregation hired an architect to find ways to increase seating in the church sanctuary. The concept of a balcony was abandoned because its high cost couldn’t justify the mere 50 new seats it would’ve created.

“We’ve done as many modifications as we can. We’ve added panels in the basement to negate some sound, to get more space, because we’re using the fellowship hall for multiple (purposes). We’re out of everything,” Allen said.

Officials have explored purchasing the neighboring Inn on the Green, currently owned by Middlebury College. The college purchased the inn in 2021 to house around 25 students. Allen said the institution bought the property for around $1.5 million and would certainly want to recoup that investment should it choose to sell.

“It’s not for sale right now,” Allen said.

A MARBLE-CLAD 1905 icon on South Pleasant Street in Middlebury, Memorial Baptist Church is outgrowing its current footprint and is studying whether it could expand on its back side or purchase the Inn on the Green to the north.
Independent photo/Steve James

One of the advantages of acquiring the inn someday is that it wouldn’t enlarge Memorial Baptist’s carbon footprint, Allen explained.

Owning the inn would also give the church the option of renting some rooms and thus soften the town’s housing crisis.

Building an addition onto MBC would give church members the chance to customize the space and incorporate green energy, such as solar panels. But new construction would have to pass muster with the state’s historic preservation standards. For example, the MBC would be hard-pressed to incorporate expensive marble into new construction to match the 1905 building.

Either expansion option would be costly, and rural churches aren’t flush with cash. But Allen is optimistic MBC will be able to solve its space problems with help from parishioners, diligent fundraising, support from the community at large, and bank loans.

Memorial Baptist has yet to kick off its capital campaign. Allen believes an expansion project is still one or two years down the road.

“Ideally, if I could snap my fingers, it would be today,” she said of the creation of extra space. “We’re literally running on fumes.”

For more information about MBC, check out memorialbaptistvt.org.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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