Celebrating 20 Years of Cluster Ministry in Aroostook County

The weekend of October 15, 16 and 17, Gretchen and I had the great pleasure of joining the people of Aroostook County for the 20th Anniversary celebration of their life as a Cluster. Not even a driving rain, the remnants of a late Fall hurricane could dampen the spirits of those who gathered for the party.

It was a full weekend that included a meeting with the Cluster Council, a celebratory dinner with many members of the cluster, and a joint Sunday service of all five congregations at St. Paul’s, Fort Fairfield.

At the meeting of the Cluster Council, we talked in depth about the ordained leadership currently provided by Bob Smith and about planning for future leadership in the Cluster. The Cluster has developed a unique shared ministry with a single priest, five deacons, and numerous lay leaders. All hope to continue that pattern in the future.

At dinner, we got a flavor of the history of the Cluster by means of a wonderful review of pictures through the years. Then we heard from a number of those who were directly involved in creating the Cluster. The process of founding of the Cluster was not an easy one. Despite the obvious benefits of joining forces, it was hard to let go of long standing habits of independence. It took great deal of conversation and negotiation, some of it difficult, and a real desire to look to the common good. Things started slowly, according to a number of speakers at the dinner, but picked up when folks began talking about “us and ours” rather than “me and mine.”

A number of the clergy who have served in the Cluster returned for the celebration, including the Rev. Perry Kingman, Deacon Donna Kingman, the Rev. Susan Murphy and Deacon Wanda Thompson. They spoke movingly of their time in the Cluster and how that experience had shaped their ministries ever since.

The Cluster has worked ecumenically with its neighbors over the years. St. Luke’s, Caribou, shares its space with Faith Lutheran Church. And there are close relationships with other Lutheran Clergy and with neighboring Canadian parishes. Representatives of these friends and partners were present for the dinner.

The declining economy and diminishing population that led to the formation of the Aroostook Cluster 20 years ago continue to impact the life of the County. Once there were two full time priests in the Cluster. Now there is only one. And the congregations are smaller as well. But each of the five churches continues to minister energetically in its community. That vitality was on display on Sunday at the joint service at St. Paul’s. With special music and the renewal of vows, the members of the Cluster proclaimed their intention to minister faithfully for many years to come.

It was a terrific weekend, and one that offered hope for all of us faced with doing church in new ways.

Bishop Steve

Heading North: Engaging in conversation with the Aroostook Cluster

Having traveled to the County for Holy Week and Easter, a different sort of visit, Gretchen and I returned to the County the weekend of October 10 – 11 for an official visit. We left Portland on Friday and drove north through lowering fall skies. We made very good time and arrived at the home of Bob and Thelma Smith in time for me to meet with Bob and prepare for the weekend. Then we joined all the clergy and some spouses for dinner at the Presque Isle Inn and Convention Center.

One of my objectives was to have private time with each of the clergy, so much of the weekend was given over to those conversations. I deeply appreciate the willingness of the clergy to make time in their schedules and to bring me up to speed on their lives and ministries. It was truly sacred time.

Saturday afternoon, I met with the Cluster Council – consisting of members of the five parishes of the Aroostook Episcopal Cluster – and we had some of the frankest conversation I’ve yet had with congregational leadership. The declining economy of Maine is deeply felt in Aroostook County, and several of the congregations are feeling small and old. One, at least, is worried about closing, and we had good conversation about worship, ministry and buildings. These conversations will need to continue, but I think we made important first steps.

It’s hard in the midst of all the challenges are churches are facing not to think that we are doing something wrong, that we’ve failed. But the fact is that the world has changed, and our expectations about how to be church must change as well. We’ve not done a bad job. Rather, we must find new ways to meet the challenges of our time. It’s hard to let go of the way we’ve done things for so long and to consider new ways of being church. I suspect this is the particular task of our day.

On Sunday, all of the congregations of the County met at St. John’s, Presque Isle, for worship. With so many folks in one place, we had a glorious service with special music and a grand lunch. After time for a few bites, we joined in conversation about youth ministry, about concerns in the cluster, and about General Convention. A good morning.

We stayed another night in the County to have opportunity for further conversation with clergy and families. On Monday (Columbus Day) we were up early to get home, but the traffic was so heavy that it took most of the day to return. And we dawdled a bit on the way. The skies had a winterish look… but it didn’t snow.


Finding my way around the County over Holy Week and Easter

The life of a bishop really slows down during late Advent and in Holy Week. Parishes are completely and properly focused on their liturgical life, and no one has much time to consult with, let alone visit with, a bishop. The flow of e-mail slows, the phone stops ringing, and it gets very quiet at Loring House.

Having experienced the slowdown last Advent, I decided to spend Holy Week and Easter in Aroostook County. With the generous invitation and support of the Rev. Bob and Thelma Smith, I left for the County following the Clergy Renewal of Vows and Chrism Mass at St. Patrick’s, Brewer. Over the next five days I had the opportunity to worship and preach in each of the five congregations, most of them twice. I won’t describe here each of those services or try to thank all of the folks who so warmly welcomed and accompanied me. But I do want to share some of what I learned from that time.

It was wonderful to celebrate the services of Holy Week. Having spent the past eight years out of parish ministry, it was refreshing to be part of that rhythm again. And I enjoyed both the several Prayerbook services and the Good Friday ecumenical service in Caribou.

Meeting people before and after worship, sharing a Bible study and informal meals is a very different experience than a parish visitation. The formal expectations, the serious conversations with Vestries, the question and answer periods are replaced by casual and friendly chat. I learned a great deal about people and communities that I wouldn’t have otherwise have learned, and folks saw me differently as well.

The extended time in one place allowed for relaxed time with the clergy and for some touring the countryside and, even, for a long walk. Again, a different way of learning about people and places.

I returned home Easter afternoon both tired and refreshed, with a renewed appreciation for our state and church. I now can find my way around the County. And I know a number of faithful Mainers much better. I think it would be a good idea to do this sort of visiting in another part of the state before too long.