Centenary United Methodist Church’s pastor describes them as “a small congregation filling some big needs in the Skowhegan [ME] community.”
Substitute a different community, and that description would likely fit many of our churches in New England, but the way Centenary is going about its ministry is a bit unique, and it’s earning some recognition.
In September, Centenary UMC and its nonprofit Common Unity Place (or CUP) were honored by Somerset County Public Health with the Redington-Fairview General Hospital Award for a Business or Organization's Commitment to Public Health.
The award specifically recognized the efforts to provide meals amid COVID-19. Since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, the cooperative program served approximately 6,000 meals.
One unique aspect of how Centenary works is the role of the pastor. As Part-time Community Pastor, Reed is responsible for networking with organizations and individuals in the area to help support the community; she serves as executive director of CUP.
Rev. Rick McKinley, Conference Director of Congregational Development, explains:
“The original idea at Centenary was to reduce the amount of time the part-time pastor would preach to enable her to devote more time to building relationships beyond the walls of the church.”
It began in 2018, with Rev. McKinley taking on the bulk of the preaching responsibility.
“Now after three years, the church has claimed the idea of their part-time pastor preaching part-time by creating a ministry team of lay
people who share the responsibility of preaching,” said Rev. McKinley, who has stepped away from that role.
“And so, over the over three years. I developed some very strong relationships in the community,” Pastor Reed said.
And those connections helped her get ideas and learn skills, such applying for grants and nonprofit management, that would allow the church to create the other unique aspect of its ministry: the nonprofit CUP.
Pastor Reed explains the genesis of the idea:
“We have this giant facility here, the church; we've got a huge Fellowship Hall, we've got a big church basement and multiple classrooms. How could we become kind of a civic asset for the community?”
The church’s longest-running mission is its Clothing Closet, which occupies 5,000 square feet. It is run completely by volunteers and serves more than 50 people every week.
“Noticing that the people who were coming in to get clothes also benefited from being in a safe space where they were able to connect with others facing similar challenges, the volunteers suggested that, in addition to the Clothing Closet, they also host an open cafe where people waiting for their turn in the Clothing Closet can get a cup of coffee, a bite to eat, and stay warm through the winter months,” Pastor Reed said. “Through conversations and collaborations with other community groups, they started the Common Unity Place (CUP) Cafe earlier this year.”
The church revamped its adult Sunday School room with a Together for Tomorrow grant with cafe-style tables, a baker's rack that now holds free personal hygiene items, and a TV monitor that plays soft jazz music.
The monitor also displays a PowerPoint slideshow of information from various community partners about other resources available in the community.
The bringing of multiple services together as CUP does, Pastor Reed said, was “for me, all inspired out of the Book of Acts and the coming together, the building of the church, the birth of a new kind of church, and the power of the Holy Spirit … all together in one place.”
CUP is not a separate 501(c)3, but an extension of the church’s non-profit status. This allows CUP to be a connected but separate entity, which opens up more funding sources. For example, CUP was awarded a $15,000 grant from the United Way; money that would not be available to the church as a religious organization. CUP makes a donation to Centenary UMC for the use of its space.
As churches find they have fewer and increasingly older members, this model can help their ministries continue to be vital and effective, Pastor Reed said.
“It's all about asset-based outreach,” she said. “We have working professionals who are out there every day that know the needs of the community. The church has a lot to offer about spiritual formation and faith and how that can be part of a holistic approach to a person's health, but there's a whole lot that our community partners bring to the table that we have no idea about.”
“Christ is at work everywhere in our neighborhoods,” Pastor Reed said. “[That] was something I read in a book, and then I start going to these [community organizations’] meetings and I could see it. And as I built relationships, I would tell folks, ‘As spiritual leader in here in the community, I see God at work in the work that you're doing, and I want to support that.’ That was received with such gratitude and almost surprise, and it makes them then interested in ‘What can we do to help support you?’”
Rev. McKinley sees what’s happening at Centenary as a viable way forward for churches.
“Restructuring how ministry happens, along with the focus on building relationships with other organizations in town, can lead to a sustainable model of ministry that reimagines how the building is used, how the pastor “pastors” to the community and the congregation,” he said, “and demonstrates how a church can broaden its streams of revenue beyond the offering plate.”