Jason Byassee: A “UCC bishop” shows traditioned innovation

Vibrant institutions, thriving community, and traditioned innovation all come together at a church in the increasingly stony ground of New England.

In his fine recent book on Christian leadership, Roger Parrott, president of Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi, describes his practice of meeting with the “local burial society.” As a college president, he knows he has been hired for a time and then will likely move on. So when he makes key decisions he wants to meet with and get input from those who will spend their lives in that institution before being buried out back.

The pastors at All Souls Church in Bangor, Maine, have no need for such a practice. Between the two of them they have been at the church almost 50 years. “We feel like we’re just getting started,” Pastor of Nurture Rene Garrett told me when I visited the church recently. “I think they’re beginning to trust us.”

All Souls is an embodiment of traditioned innovation. Though a Congregational Church (UCC) and so low-church in its DNA, it boasts one of the finest French-style neo-gothic sanctuaries I’ve ever seen. The Rev. James L. Haddix, All Souls Pastors and Teacher, made a point to show it to me at dusk, when the rose-window would be its most glorious. Dark wood graces the space in all directions, including balconies on both sides and in the back, nicely contrasting with the stone. Yet for all this luxuriant architecture and stained glass, All Souls is still a good Congregationalist Church. Following their pilgrim forebears, they refer to the space as their “meeting house.”

The pulpit rises over the congregation in good Puritan fashion, reflecting the elevated status of the Word in their tradition. Yet Haddix, a staunch traditionalist in most things, no longer preaches from there. Instead he comes down among the people, scotches his notes, and looks them in the eye. He made this dramatic change only three years ago. “He had them in the palm of his hand when he went off manuscript,” Garrett explained. “When he’d introduce the scripture or give the benediction they’d eat it up. But then his sermons seemed too learned and distant.” So, on her suggestion and with much trepidation, he changed his practice --after more than 40 years of ministry dedicated to using the manuscript. “He has everyone’s attention now,” she said.

Garrett’s children’s sermons are another example of traditioned innovation. Most ministers lament doing them, as she once did. Then she made them into more substantive teaching opportunities, not object lessons, or even worse, chances to hear “kids say the darnedest things.” A book of her sermons is due out next year (who publishes their children’s sermons?!). The result is a booming children’s program: a church with 580 members has 220 kids involved. That’s no small contingent for a mainline church in increasingly post-Christian New England.

The church also believes deeply in mission, Haddix said, citing Emil Bruner’s adage about a church being to mission as fire is to burning. The church’s mission teams dedicate themselves to particular places and people and stay in relationship to them. “This is not a vacation,” Haddix explained. They go both local and international, ministering to poor communities on the Maine coast and in Honduras. And -- this is key -- they go back to the same places every year. “Gringos always say they will come back,” the Honduran church leader told them. “You actually do.”

Haddix heads a pastor-theologian group in town that features a remarkable thing: genuine theological diversity. It includes Haddix’s colleagues from the liberal Bangor Theological Seminary and faculty from the conservative startup across town, Grace Evangelical Theological Seminary. Women pastors from the UCC participate alongside protégés of the late Jerry Falwell; the Catholic priest sits by the Adventist minister. They meet monthly for half a day to hear from a scholar and make her or him sweat over concrete, pastoral questions. This small institution Haddix has founded, housed in another institution (the local college), enhances ministry for its 25 or so participants who come from as far as an hour away.

As Haddix escorted me on my tour of Bangor, working the crowd in one public setting after another, his wife leaned over to me and said “You can see why they call him ‘the bishop’.” A UCC bishop! Sure enough, he seemed to know everyone in town. In his first parish in New Hampshire, where he also stayed more than two decades, his congregation was the only church in town. It was a re-creation of the New England town church, and he was the pastor to everyone. Watching him work in Bangor, a town of 35,000 with an international airport, I saw something of the same thing -- a pastor dedicated not just to having a vibrant church, but to building a thriving community for all.

As we sat together at a booster club meeting for the University of Maine Black Bears hockey team, their coach (a member of All Souls) teased Haddix. Surely he had some more important civic duty to attend to that night. Several were going on across town.

“No,” Haddix said, “I belong right here.”

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.