In the days of ancient Rome, philosopher Seneca the Younger said that “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” And that’s exactly what Valley Stream Presbyterian Church is facing as it says goodbye to its longtime pastor, the Rev. Kymberley Clemons-Jones.
It’s not that it’s simply a time to move on for the good pastor. Instead, she feels she has no other choice.
“My salary, you know, is a hit to the congregation,” Clemons-Jones said. “It’s just something that we have to worry about every two weeks.”
Eliminating her salary would give the South Central Avenue church a little room to breathe financially, but it also means losing a pastor who, over the course of nearly 15 years, increased the size of the congregation four times over.
Yet, the Presbyterian church’s woes are hardly unique. While Covid-19 has exacerbated a lot of these issues, religious institutions have been under significant financial strain in recent years. Churches and synagogues have been sold, congregations scattered or merged with other communities, staff cut.
While there are a number of factors involved in all of this, the one that stands out the most is also the one that might be the hardest to fix: Many just aren’t joining their faithful brethren seeking to visit houses of worship.
Last year, for the first time in its 80-year history, Gallup found that more people didn’t belong to a church, synagogue or mosque than did. Just 47 percent of those polled frequented a religious institution in 2020, according to researchers, compared with 50 percent in 2018 and a whopping 70 percent in 1999 — a number that had remained mostly consistent since 1937.
Church membership has dropped because the number of people expressing no religious preference has been on the rise, Gallup found. The portion of Americans who didn’t identify with any specific religion grew from 8 percent in the late 1990s to 1 in 5 today.
Yet waning faith isn’t the only culprit here. That same Gallup poll also revealed a significant drop in church membership even among those who did identify with a faith. Between 1998 and 2000, three-quarters of religious Americans belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque. In the years leading up to the pandemic, that number had fallen to 60 percent.
That ultimately leaves churches like Valley Stream Presbyterian in the lurch.
“People are still afraid to come out,” Clemons-Jones said. “Our tithes and offerings have taken such a huge hit.”
Valley Stream Presbyterian has served parishioners for nearly a century. Church leaders are scrambling to make the transition from having a pastor to not having one as smooth as possible, but it won’t be easy. While religious institutions offer their communities a range of services and activities — from youth outreach to food pantries to other charitable work — the spiritual leader still remains the central focus of each of them. Without that leader, an already struggling institution inches that much closer to non-existence.
The beauty of America is that it’s a country where all of us are free to believe, or not believe, what we want. But for those who do still believe — a segment of our population that is still in the majority — let’s not forget the very institutions that are the bedrock of our faith.
Valley Stream Presbyterian may very well pull through this, just as it has past challenges. So many houses of worship aren’t so fortunate, yet we can create a new beginning from some other beginning’s end simply by showing up.