Westhampton is part of the famous “Hamptons,” known for their many wealthy summer residents living next to the sandy beaches of the Atlantic Ocean. The church is just a mile from the beach. The effect of this location is that many of our neighbors are part-time residents coming out to summer homes from the New York metro area. Our members also come from fully twenty-five area communities (East Quogue is not the same as Quogue, for example). We have a significant number of snowbirds, who are here in warm weather and in Florida when it is cold. Finally, since this is a resort community, both adults and high school students have summer jobs that keep them out of church all summer. Here’s the point: We are very economically diverse. There are multi-million dollar homes within a bicycle ride of homes where the residents are grateful for our rummage sale $5 a bag for clothing. Maseratis drive past day laborers who are standing at 7-11, hoping to be hired for a day.
First, we are proud that a number of our pastors have been deeply involved with community work, serving on the Board of Education at the school and being chaplain on the Fire Department. This has helped them know what community needs are. Clearly we would be proud to have a new minister who involved him or herself into the community discussions and policy. We are also known for local work including Thanksgiving baskets for the poor, Maureen’s Haven to house the homeless in the winter, Habitat for Humanity which our members support, our deacons’ closet which gives wheelchairs and crutches to anyone who asks, the Adopt a Family at Christmas, and our rummage sales, which are very popular with our Latina ladies. In addition we open our building for outside groups such as Boy Scouts, a pre-school, Bridge players, Alcoholics Anonymous, a new Spanish church group, and Hospice (for training new members). When we were interviewing the Fire Chief for this document he lit up with excitement at our name because he helped twelve young men achieve Eagle Scout rank this year, and had produced twenty Eagle Scouts in seven years at our church, a Suffolk County record. Both the school superintendent and the public librarian noted that the Latino population is increasing rapidly. There is much more need for remedial help for students and adults learning English. The mayor tells us that she is trying to include more community events for people to get together, such as Movies on the Green in the summer, plus a tree lighting ceremony at Christmas, kayak rentals in the bay, tours of the bay, and a harvest festival. Community events create happy people. We don’t yet have the opioid problems other places have, but the police have the Narcan to save those who overdose. We wanted to know if these organizations wanted volunteers, but each thought the community was under control and doing well. The school system is highly rated, the crime rate is low, and the town is moving forward nicely with new programs. The public library, which has 14,000 card-holders, offers an ESL program and citizenship training, and its Friends volunteer group raises $9,000 a year selling used books. This is our community, and we are among the volunteers. Also, our memorial garden is open to any member of the public who wishes to be cremated, buried, and memorialized on our wall.
The first question would be how we differ from any other church, and the answer is that the goalposts of our faith-acceptance are set wide. We are accepting of all, regardless of sexual preference, for instance. We have found that a high percent of our membership is involved in community service outside of the church, so we say that we live out our beliefs.
If you asked most people why they come to this church they would say these two things: the uplifting quality of the sermons and the beauty and technical level of the performances of the choir and organ/piano. Others count the classic feel of this historic church building as a strength. Many say that they have strong friendships, which keep them coming. Certainly the cushion of money in Memorial and Endowment gives a feeling of safety and is a strength. Finally, although many people just show up to services, there is a very dependable pillar-of-the-church contingent that keeps things going. It is interesting that although we struggle for the weekly dollars to meet the budget, money flows easily when big projects come along. For example, an anonymous donor paid for an entire new wing of the church; another didn’t like the summer heat in the sanctuary and had air conditioning put in. A year ago an appeal was put out for $30,000 to effect repairs before a new minister came, and $37,000 came in. This year a $10,000 appeal asked to upgrade our communications system and $13,000 was donated by a group of people. There is generosity here.
Our surveys showed that we have cliques who make new people feel left out. Although we say we are welcoming to all, it seems that many of us have a group of friends that we sit with and visit with during coffee hour to the exclusion of those we don’t know. We got comments that this was “our biggest blind spot,” and that “our philosophy is welcoming but new people still get ignored.” Many will admit in conversation that it would help a great deal to be able to sneak a look at a name tag while sipping coffee, but only about ten people wear name tags. People don’t know each other’s names. We found that through all of the church groups, people tended to know by name only about half of those who come to church. Another person lamented that we don’t reach out to those who drop away, a similar problem. This explains why many of us say we are a friendly church: we are welcomed each week by the small group (clique) who are our regulars, and why others say we are not friendly, because they don’t have a group yet. This happens because of our diversity—which community you are from, which economic group, your longevity in the church. We are not a brother/sisterhood right now; we are a collection of smaller groups who greatly enjoy good sermons, good music, and meeting our friends over coffee.
Serious commitment is lacking. The Team got angry comments that we need to get hiring, not surveying. We are hemorrhaging people in the pews because we don’t have an installed pastor to lead and inspire us. One person said that the congregation is fickle, with attendance dependant on how well the pastor is liked, an unfortunate truth. All of this means that the “pillars” of the church are under pressure to work harder because of the lack of willingness of the broader congregation to volunteer to serve on boards. Here’s the point: In the question of the one core thing that God wants us to focus on today, “getting the new minister” was a popular answer. That is the response of people who want and expect the minister to do it all. We congregants will just sit back and judge the sermons. A true brother/sisterhood would be encouraging and loving each other and could better survive a time between ministers.
Because of our incredible diversity, and because we each know one group in the church and not most congregants and especially not the new members, we are running an institution that depends almost entirely on the pastor to hold these diverse constituencies together. Our numbers are going down slowly every year. Small and decreasing numbers of hard workers are doing heroic work in music, teaching, volunteering for the Boards and things like that, but they are feeling burnout. Instead of feeling like part of a brotherhood that is working for common goals, there is a feeling of individuals wanting their individual goals met, such as inspiration. The Plumb Line Team feels that the one core thing God wants us to focus on today is us as a body of believers, looking to Jesus Christ with the leading of the Holy Spirit. We need to see and treat each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, not individuals looking for personal goals. We do it sometimes—witness the recent funerals that filled the church, witness the happy picnics and brunches that we have. God wants us to take ownership of the church so that the pastor is working with us, not carrying the whole load. The two suggestions that came out of this study are that we must learn each other’s names (name tags?) and there should be many more opportunities to get together in small groups, like progressive suppers or the like. A third suggestion is that communication is a key to understanding, and understanding is a key to acceptance and satisfaction. The Boards should constantly have articles in Tidings so that the people feel that they are a part of decisions that are being made.
We quote from 2nd Peter, 1:5 ff (Living Bible): “But to obtain these gifts, you need more than faith; you must also work hard to be good, and even that is not enough. For then you must learn to know God better and discover what he wants you to do. Next, learn to put aside your own desires so that you will become patient and godly, gladly letting God have his way with you. This will make possible the next step, which is to enjoy other people and to like them, and finally you will grow to love them deeply. The more you go on in this way, the more you will grow strong spiritually and become fruitful and useful to our Lord Jesus Christ.”
We are a proud and dignified church with ancient roots. We look forward to overcoming our handicaps and enjoying many years of love and fellowship together.
Westhampton Presbyterian Church has a history dating back to 1742. It is a solid, well-maintained structure with air conditioning, live-streamed services and modern accounting, flanked by a private memorial garden for remains and contemplation. Note that this church not only has no mortgage, but also has a million and a half dollars in Memorial and Endowment funds. Across the street is a six-bedroom manse from the 1800s, recently renovated and ready for the next fifty years. The church also owns a charming chapel a village away that is used for summer early services as well as smaller weddings and funerals. The chapel has heat and air conditioning but no bathrooms.
We thought it of note that the last installed pastor had been here for a very long time. He came in 1985 and stayed until his children had grown and gone to college, which was 1999. He then went on to teach at his seminary, work as an interim and then as pastor in a Florida church. For his last church before retiring he wanted to return to this favorite area where he now had children living, and he was welcomed back. Now, seven years later he has retired from installed ministry and lives not far away. This very unusual history explains why he is still thought of well in this community. He is now seen as a friend who has moved on. The church population is all looking forward to a new minister and a new set of gifts and experiences.