Three years ago, the Sag Harbor Methodist Church congregation found itself in a dire situation. Only 15 parishioners consistently attended Sunday mass – a meager number by congregation standards – and the average age of a church member was around 72, said Pastor Tom MacLeod. After completing a full assessment of their former Madison Street home, a towering building – with a columned entrance – dating back to the 1800s, the congregation learned the space was in need of repairs totaling $1 million.
“My predecessors were in a crisis mode trying to figure out how to keep the building open,” said MacLeod, who took over the church in 2002, of the pastors before him. “It was overwhelming just figuring out if we had enough money to put the heat on … It would have been a matter of time before the church would have been ‘aged out.’”
Although unfortunate, the predicament of the Sag Harbor Methodist Church was far from unusual. According to MacLeod, Protestant churches have noticed a steady decline in numbers since the late 1960s. In fact, this phenomenon was one reason MacLeod entered the church.
“I was first involved [with the church] as a layperson … But one of my calls to the ministry was the decline of the church … It really grieved me to watch a church in decline. I wanted to know why we were accepting this … Why there wasn’t anything that could be done to stop it,” said MacLeod.
The Sag Harbor Methodist Congregation voted to circumvent certain death by selling the building to former Southampton Town Councilman Dennis Suskind for $2.9 million in spring 2007 and relocating.
“Almost all of us agreed that it was necessary for the survival of the church [to sell the building],” said church trustee Bruce Saul. “The survival of the church was more important than the survival of the building.”
As part of the agreement to move, MacLeod found an interim space for the congregation and a plot of land for sale just outside the village on which a new church would be constructed.
Coincidentally, the members of the Sag Harbor Methodist Church found themselves temporarily located in the former St. David African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church on Eastville Avenue. The AME Church, founded in 1840, had closed its doors nearly a decade ago because of dwindling membership and the steady aging of its parishioners.
Although the fate of the AME church serves as a constant reminder to the Sag Harbor Methodist congregation of their once possible fate, the church numbers are now booming and they are preparing to break ground at the new property. The plan was in front of the Southampton Town Planning Board for the first time last week. CHECK THIS
“When Tom came, we started to grow,” said Carol Elmslie, a 21-year member of the congregation. “Tom brought a new openness and freedom to the church. He brings people from great distances and a big draw is the praise music instead of the organ.”
In an effort to attract new parishioners, and cut down on costs, church member Suzanne Lewis began to sing and play the guitar every Sunday.
“In all of the handbooks on church growth, they tell you to hire a music director and youth group leader … We didn’t have the funds available, so we decided to keep things simple and do the best we could with what we had,” said MacLeod.
The change in style seems to have paid off for the church. On Easter Sunday, almost sixty consistent members attended mass, as MacLeod preached with humor and humanism while describing the struggle between the Philistines and the Israelites. The congregation, however, squeezed into the space and only a few seats were left open.
“We are all looking forward to the new space,” said recent member Carol Jaswal. “Even on regular Sundays there are not many seats left.”
The public hearing on the church’s plans for their new space was closed without public comment on Thursday, April 9, at the town’s planning board meeting. Architectural engineer Matthew Sherman, of the Shelter Island-based firm Sherman Engineering and Consulting, gave the board a brief presentation on the church’s intended plans for the site. The church would like to construct a 6,776 square foot building, complete with sanctuary, basement, fellowship hall, kitchen and bathrooms at the corner of Carroll Street and the Sag Harbor/Bridgehampton Turnpike. The neighbors adjacent to the property, including Sag Harbor Village Trustee Brian Gilbride and Pamela Kern of Harbor Heights, are in favor of the project.
Paul Mott, however, of the Mott Family who sold the church the parcel, said he would like to see a 50-foot buffer of land between the edge of his property and the proposed church parking lot. As the plans stand today, there is 20 feet between the parking lot and Mott’s land.
To ameliorate the problem, Sherman suggested taking away a few parking spaces.
“We proposed 54 spaces … But we really need only 48. If we take six spaces out that would pull back [the space between Mott’s property and the parking lot],” said Sherman.
Overall, MacLeod expects the project to cost between $1.3 to $1.5 million, in addition to the $695,000 cost to purchase the land. MacLeod added that the church – after paying various taxes and agents’ fees – netted nearly $2.7 million in the sale of the Madison Street building.
Although, the property on the turnpike will no doubt serve the congregation for many years, MacLeod noted that the church moved four times since it first began in the early 1800s.
“We had to adapt to the needs of the church … But the church is not the building,” said MacLeod. “When I go to visit people in the hospital and tell them the church is praying for them. They don’t envision the building. They envision the people.”