Vermont congregation goes from two buildings to none
July 11, 2023
When United Church of Thetford formed from the merger of North Thetford Federated and Timothy Frost UMC in Vermont, it had both church buildings in its care. Now it doesn’t have any – and the congregation couldn’t be more pleased.
Not long ago, a young man came up from the fellowship hall at the Thetford United building and said he hoped congregation members who were in the building at the time wouldn’t be disturbed by a group using the downstairs space.
We might be a little loud, he told Rev. Brigid Farrell. We’re going to roller-skate.
Rev. Farrell, who serves as pastor in North Thetford, VT, said, “We wanted young people; we wanted the building used in different ways. Did anybody ever think of roller-skating in there? But if you open your minds about what the building could be used for …”
The church building is being used for a lot of different things now that it belongs to the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust (NEFOC), which has a resource library, a soul food café, and plans for a farmers market. NEFOC took ownership in January 2023.
The BIPOC-led nonprofit is “an informal alliance of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian farmers making our lives on land in the Northeast region … [with] a total of over 515 farmers, land stewards, and earth workers in our network.”
The congregation continues to worship in and use the building, but now they are NEFOC’s tenants. That’s a huge relief, said Treasurer Curtis Richardson.
The congregation’s second church building, the former Timothy Frost UMC, which sits next to the Thetford Town Hall, has been donated to the town. The building became town property in January 2019; it is empty at this time.
“They might have been well maintained, but they were not well used buildings,” Richardson said. Rev. Farrell estimated the building use at 2-3 hours a week.
While churches were once central gathering places for communities, “we had to acknowledge that we didn’t have the ability to make them a community center again,” Richardson said.
They decided, instead, to donate both buildings to a public entity or nonprofit.
“We did not vote to sell the buildings,” Richardson said. “The intent was to do something to further the greater interest of the larger community. I don’t think people would have voted for selling to a developer.”
The process began with the 20 or so congregants deciding who they want to be corporately and what their priorities are with questions such as: Why do we come to church on Sunday? What do we really value?
Through their visioning process, they determined that their two priorities were worship (combined with music) and “caring for ourselves and the larger community.”
Owning and maintaining buildings “did not even make the top 10,” Richardson said.
“We were spending all of our time and a great deal of money doing something that no one in the congregation particularly cared about,” he said.
Even so, Richardson said, it was “a difficult decision to come to because everybody had memories of one or both of the buildings … Everybody had emotional attachment to the buildings but the question was: Was an emotional attachment to the building worth spending all our time, energy and money repairing it?”
Having decided the answer to that question was no, they had to find the right recipients for the buildings – and that required thoughtfulness and planning as well, Richardson said.
Divesting of Timothy Frost building was “a walk in the park,” Richardson said. The Town Hall (built from the same brick as the church), is land locked; acquiring the church opened expansion possibilities.
As for the North Thetford property, the congregation decided that they did not want to be landlords (“That was leaving us in the position of constantly talking about church repairs,” he said.) There is not enough water capacity to create low-income housing nor enough outdoor space to use the building as a daycare center.
There were no shortage of nonprofits excited to hear “free building,” Richardson said, but the congregation wanted to be sure the nonprofit they chose had the financial and administrative capacity to put the building to good use.
They talked to several organizations including the Abenakis, who ultimately withdrew themselves from consideration. A theater company that was a serious contender saw its goals and mission change during the pandemic.
In September 2022 the decision had been made to offer the building to NEFOC. In a letter to the congregation written at that time, NEFOC wrote:
“We are excited to become next stewards of this historic building and to continue the tradition of maintaining a shared gathering space for North Thetford and the surrounding communities as your congregation has done for many years.
“… The building will serve as a community center and gathering place for numerous events and activities including skill shares, youth programming, concerts and performances.
“… The future of the North Thetford church is overflowing with possibility …”
With that decision made, it was time for the congregation to prepare for the transition.
“We did a couple of things in worship – because that’s where I think we can do these things –
we cried about it, we laughed about it, we remembered things … we talked about hopes and dreams,” Rev. Farrell said.
Two years after the congregation voted to donate the buildings, COVID shut the church doors in March 2020, and the congregation had the chance to see what life without a church building might be like.
“It really was testimony to what we had decided: That worship, caring for each other, caring for the larger community, that was what was important. And all of a sudden that’s all that we actually had,” Richardson said. “Talk about an unplanned for experiment in doing exactly what we said we were going to do.”
For churches discerning if or how to leave their buildings:
In many ways, churches are small businesses, Richardson said, and just like a family business, churches need a succession plan.
“… If you’re still bringing in people who are 25 years old and have three kids, bless you, that is, in part, your succession plan, but that’s not the story of most these congregations the conference is dealing with.”
He shared the following:
Take the time to come to an understanding among your congregants about what road you want to take. “In our case, he said, “it turned out to be divesting ourselves of buildings. There are all sorts of other answers.”
Make sure you have enough time and patience to see the process through. The vote to divest themselves of the two buildings took place in August 2018, the donation to NEFOC was official in January of 2023. Richardson said he doesn’t think COVID was a factor in that timeline. “Be prepared for it to be a slow process,” he said. “Expect for there to be bumps in the road.”
Make sure you’ve got “your legal ducks in a row,” Richardson said. Thetford United had an attorney with real estate expertise who was willing to do the work pro bono.
Knowing your building, knowing your community, and knowing how you want to present yourselves is critical, Richardson said. He acted as the primary contact and spokesperson for the congregation to ensure that every interested party got the same information presented in the same way. “It’s important to be equitable to all parties,” Richardson said.
And, finally, he said, “You can’t wait until your building is a disaster or your finances are a wreck or your congregation is too tired to cope with this … These are emotional decisions.”
Rev. Farrell, who is now pastoring Lebanon (NH) UMC as well, said she sees her role, in part, as “… helping a church, like our church, go from seeing themselves as just senior citizens, dying senior citizens, to seeing themselves as elders. I think this church has made that leap. They see themselves as people who have something to offer.”
Richardson and Rev. Farrell said they are happy to talk with other churches about Thetford United’s experience. Contact them at email@example.com