Thursday, March 15, 2007

Some Local Color, or, Where is Tetzel When You Need Him?

My church is located in an upper middle class bedroom community in southern New Hampshire. (The top picture is the road I live on, about a mile from my house. The building shown is not my church but somebody's barn. Actually, beffitting our town as described below, it's really, I've been told, a state of the art home gym that looks like a barn.) Sitting along the border with Massachusetts, our town has maintained its rural character at a steep price: by curtailing development. While this makes the town very desirable to people attempting to escape the crowds and taxes of the nearby Boston sprawl, it also causes real estate prices to skyrocket. And along with that: real estate taxes—the Live Free or Die (how cool is that?) state's major source of revenue, given that we have no income or sales tax.

This strange calculus produces a tension between the old-timers, mostly farmers who lived here when the town was genuinely rural, and the interlopers (like me) whose influx has produced a sort-of Potemkin village. (Example: there was contentious debate about whether to allow a Dunkin' Donuts in our town. This even though there are more Dunkin' Donuts than people in New Hampshire. The store was finally given the go ahead, although it wasn't allowed to look like a Dunkin' Donuts, and could have only a modest, town-approved, in-good-taste, sign. I must tell you: It is the most beautiful, most efficient Dunkin' Donuts in the history of Dunkin' Donuts.) The tension surfaces in local politics, made manifest at yearly town meetings—the manner by which most New England towns operate. After attending a couple town meetings when I first moved here—because it seemed like the right thing to do—I have avoided local (or national, for that matter) politics.

We are in a strange situation. "The" church in our town (shown in the picture) is the Congregational Church (naturally) in the prized location at the town center, a church Jonathan Edwards once preached at. (I don't think he would approve of its current theological stance, but that's a different story.) Everyone in town will know about the Congregational Church. Many, however, will either not know there is a Baptist church in town or will not know where it is. And a fair number will assume that all Baptists are mouth breathers. We're something like the crazy aunt in the attic.

Our church also has a mix of old timers and interlopers, but there seems to be no tension along those lines. While we have people, like single moms, who struggle financially, the demographics of our town means that, in general, the church families are upper middle class. However, our situation is precarious in that we are not huge—a typical Sunday attendance being around 100, which translates roughly to about 25 families.

That means when a family leaves, on average, the coffers take a four or five percent hit. Over the last few years we have a suffered net loss of maybe five or six families. (So far the pastor has been too kind to point out that it coincides with my tenure of teaching the adult Sunday School.) That's a big hit—and we have, during that period, gone from being very flush to having to "rely on God" (how awful is that!) more than we were accustomed to.

Last night we had our quarterly meeting and talked about ways to raise funds. There aren't many options. Our facilities are spartan and in need of repair—even if we wanted to rent them out it wouldn't be worth it—the modest fees it would generate would be offset by the increased paperwork. Plus we couldn't avoid renting to the Wiccans from nearby Salem, and we don't want all those newts running around the building and getting into the sacramental grape juice. So we'll continue to simply make our building available free of charge to groups like the Senior's Club and Women's Club. Bingo is, of course, out of the question—we already live dangerously by having a yearly dance in our Baptist church, which must bring the poor building near to the point of spontaneous combustion—Bingo would surely bring the roof down on our heads.

My suggestion was not adopted. I recommended that we sell indulgences. It seems to me would could, with total honesty, say: "For a thousand dollars, we guarantee that your Aunt Agnes will not spend one minute in Purgatory!" Our friends the Catholics created the market—we'd just be filling a need.

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