ELLSWORTH, Maine — The members of St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church have spent the last two years learning how to make do with less.
The congregation not only has had to get by with fewer financial resources, it also has had to adjust to having a part-time rather than a full-time priest.
The Rev. Christopher Chornyak will conduct his last service at St. Dunstan’s on Christmas Day. The 61-year-old priest, who came to Ellsworth in 1994 as the church’s full-time rector, resigned to pursue other interests and to ponder the role of the church in the digital age.
The transition over the past 24 months has been difficult for some in the congregation, but has allowed others to become more active and take on new responsibilities, Senior Warden Jo Cooper of Lemoine said after Sunday’s service.
“I was one of only two people on the Vestry who voted against it, but the financial handwriting was on the wall,” she said of the decision to go from full-time to half-time clergy. “I feel pretty amazed at how it played out.”
St. Dunstan’s is not unique. The majority of the congregations in mainline denominations in Maine and New England can’t afford to pay the salary and benefits for a full-time minister due to declining membership.
Maine has fewer residents who claim a religious affiliation than any other state in the union, a study released earlier this year showed.
The Pine Tree State is the only one in the country in which less than 30 percent of the population belong to a religious denomination or independent Christian church, according to a census conducted every 10 years by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.
This followed a Pew study that found 40 percent of Mainers pray daily — the lowest percentage in the nation.
The Rev. Robert Grove-Markwood, president of Bangor Theological Seminary, cited the lack of demand for full-time clergy and the state’s secular leanings as a partial explanation of why it decided to stop granting degrees in May 2013 and focus on providing resources to lay leaders.
Grace Evangelical College & Seminary President W. Lyman “Terry” Phillips has said that the school advises those seeking to go into ministry to be prepared to follow a dual-career track with health care and other benefits most likely coming from the non-Sunday job.
Many part-time pastors work Sundays and a couple of days a week.
Chornyak, however, forced the laity to take on a larger liturgical role by taking off at least one Sunday a month after he went to part-time status.
“That forced people to get out of their comfort zones,” Dianne Kelley, director of lay readers and acolytes, said Sunday after the service. “I help conduct morning prayer services [when a priest is not available]. That is not a comfortable place for me or some others but we are working that out and I think it will become easier.”
Deacon Joan Preble has lived in Ellsworth and attended St. Dunstan’s since 1965. She said that Chornyak’s move to part-time rector caused “people to come out of the woodwork to help” with the church’s outreach ministries and other needs.
Preble said that she has seen the congregation go from one made up of families with young children to one of mostly retired but still active seniors. The children of long-time members either no longer live in the area or do not attend church regularly. She also has witnessed the congregation’s interaction with the community change dramatically.
“We’ve gone from not being fearful to being fearless and to reach out into the world around us,” she said. “The most fearless thing we’ve done is the Everybody Eats program. Last week, we fed 90 people.”
The church offers a meal from 3 to 6 p.m. each Monday at the church. People come from all walks of life, Preble said. Those who can afford to, leave a donation. Others, get take-out meals to take to shut-ins or hungry friends.
St. Dunstan’s also works with the Friends in Action program, which provides transportation to seniors who can no longer drive, and works with the Emmaus Homeless Shelter.
“Whatever comes next, we will weather it,” Bobby Stark, who lives on Green Lake, said Sunday. “This is a strong body of Christian people. Whatever needs to be done, people will do.”
The church continues to hold morning prayer services when a retired priest is not available to conduct services over the next couple of months, Preble said. The Maine Episcopal Diocese is expected to appoint an interim priest to serve part time over the next year or two while the congregation searches for a new priest to serve it on a part-time basis.
The Rev. Christopher Chornyak will preside at services at 5 p.m. Christmas Eve and at 10 a.m. Christmas Day.