Though the story is unfolding in 2013, it actually began a few years back.
In 2010, a church in Poughkeepsie — within Hudson River Presbytery — closed. The members wanted money from the building’s sale to fund creative and transformational ministries.
Thus was born the Nyack Project — at least its current manifestation.
The presbytery once had a church building in Nyack, a funky, eclectic, artistic community along the Hudson River, but that church closed in the early 1990s. The presbytery decided to “sell” the building to the community for $1 to be used as a community center. Hudson River maintained ownership of the land.
“Watching that community grow and change through the years — it is just too bad that we have not had a presence there, that we haven’t been active in some sort of ministry,” said Rhonda Kruse, who is responsible for ‘Connections and Change’ in the presbytery.
It was from that sense that there was something of God at work in Nyack that a small group — primarily pastors in the presbytery — began to brainstorm what something new might look like.
She hopes that Nyack will be the first of many such experiments around the presbytery.
“Some in this presbytery have joked that what we really need is a good arsonist to get rid of all the buildings so that we aren’t encumbered by structure and the institution but could be free to really engage what we are called to do as Christians,” said Kruse.
The Rev. Laura Cunningham was one of those in the small group whose brainstorming led to the Nyack Project. Although it is intentionally open-ended and somewhat undefined in terms of practices, the project’s goals are clear: the plant and nurture a ministry presence in a particular area. The hope is that this planting will grow organically to become a new worshiping community that is native to Nyack’s unique soil.
“The Nyack Project is a dying and rising story,” said General Presbyter Susan Andrews. “Proceeds from the sale of one of the oldest and most traditional churches in the presbytery have been re-traditioned by the Spirit to help support the newest, most entrepreneurial ministry in the presbytery.”
“It is interesting as a presbytery to do this because it is obviously something that we don’t have experience in,” Kruse said. “It is all new and different, so we are all learning together.”
“We as a committee didn’t want to impose an agenda on what would happen in Nyack,” she said. “We knew that a lot of what it would look like would be based on the person we called — the gifts and interests and where those connected with the community.
“We hope that whatever happens can be a source for asking questions like, ‘What if church doesn’t have to be traditional? What if it could be something else?’” Cunningham said.
Finding the right person meant a job description that includes phrases like ‘coffee budget’ and ‘comfortable walking shoes.’
“We assume this person will be in the community rather than in an office,” Cunningham said.
The group found that person in the Rev. Abbie Huff, who started her part-time position with the Nyack Project in March.
“Part of what Abbie is doing is listening for where the energy is in Nyack and how she can gather a community around some of the energy and some of the work that God is doing there,” Kruse said.
It is a different model: one of waiting and discernment, of meeting and joining in where God is already working.
Cunningham is quick to point out that ‘doing something different’ does not mean that traditional church, or “inherited church” — as many are calling it — is necessarily all bad. But “we need to have a much bigger understanding of what it means to be church,” she said.
This shift brings challenges, including that of finding funding. Churches that are already in tight financial situations can find it difficult to pay for an additional salary.
“What we have also recognized is that half time or three-quarter time is likely going to become the norm for ministry,” Kruse said. “We figure we might as well begin to figure this out.
“I think what we are called to do as presbyteries is to take risks and be bold in our leadership and encourage these kind of creative and innovative ministries and not to worry so much about failure,” Kruse said.
The Rev. Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico, when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.