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BANGOR, Maine — The minister of a local church with declining membership and a history of troubled leadership said several factors are to blame for the house of worship’s imminent closure.
Grace Church Bangor’s board of directors made the decision to cease operations on Aug. 22, Senior Minister Russ Hewett said Wednesday. The final church service will be held on Sunday, he said.
Formerly known as Abundant Life Church, Grace Church has experienced a steady drop in membership in recent years, which in turn led to a loss in revenue, making continued operations not financially feasible, Hewett said.
Grace Church also has operated a food pantry and a day care center for the last 12 years that are closing as well.
The independent, nondenominational Christian church had a membership of nearly 800 at its peak a decade ago, according to published reports. Now, however, there are only about 125 members, Hewett said.
He attributed the drop to a variety of factors, including a reduction in the number of regular churchgoers, the relatively new phenomenon of online churches and rising gasoline prices, which made attendance cost-prohibitive for some members who used to travel to Bangor from as far away as Rumford, Winslow and Auburn.
Hewett also said that the church lost many of its more affluent professionals as a result of the recent recession, which caused them to leave the area for work elsewhere.
“It’s not just us,” he said, citing statistics also found on the Christian Crier website that an estimated 4,000 churches a year close and that 80 percent of Protestant churches are stagnant or in decline. Hewett said churches with 300 to 600 members have been the hardest hit.
The church’s building at 1404 Broadway cost $2.5 million to construct in 1999. The monthly mortgage payment alone amounts to $13,000, Hewett said.
According to Hewett, the building was put on the market last year with an asking price of a little over $3 million but there were no takers. Despite refinancing its debt in March of last year, the math just didn’t work out, Hewett said.
“We were backed into a financial corner,” he said.
Hewett said the building likely will be repossessed by the California church lending institution that holds the mortgage. He said church leaders plan to meet with legal counsel on Thursday to see if bankruptcy is an option.
What is now Grace Church has had four full-time pastors over the years. Ginger Walker has remained worship pastor throughout.
Founded in 1987 by a group of 22 people that originally met in a local motel and then in Dow Chapel on Texas Avenue, the church grew to nearly 800 worshippers at its current location by 2003.
The church was known throughout New England and Eastern Canada for its contemporary worship, according to Hewett. It was one of the first churches in the area to incorporate modern musical styles, dance, drama and art in worship services, Hewett said. In addition, the church hosted many regional conferences and contemporary Christian music concerts.
It moved to the facility on outer Broadway in 1999. Its troubles began soon after.
Abundant Life’s founder, Ron Durham, was forced out in 2003 for reportedly refusing to seek treatment for alcoholism.
Darren Farmer and his then-wife moved to Maine in June 2005 from England to pastor Abundant Life. The congregation was in crisis after an audit of the church books indicated Durham had embezzled money, according to a previously published report.
Durham pleaded no contest to theft and was sentenced on July 2, 2007, in Penobscot County Superior Court to five years in prison with all but six months suspended and ordered to pay $40,000 in restitution after his release. He also was sentenced to two years of probation.
Farmer left Abundant Life in April 2007 when his marriage fell apart. Joshua Damon, who grew up in East Millinocket, and his wife, Krystal Damon, were appointed to replace Farmer and his wife and served until Hewett became senior pastor five years ago.
Hewett said Wednesday that it’s not clear where Grace Church’s members will worship in the future.
“We’re encouraging people not to drop out altogether,” he said, adding that he is available to help members find their next spiritual home.
Despite sadness that Grace Church is closing, Hewett said he is grateful of the impact it has had on people over the years, including those who have been healed of physical ailments.
BDN writer Judy Harrison contributed to this report.