Changing Demographics Lead To Change In Leadership At Chatham UU Meeting House

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Churches and Faith

Edmund Robinson, the minister at the Chatham Unitarian Universalist Meeting House since 2008, will retire on Jan. 1. Because of declining membership and finances, the congregation won't be hiring another full-time minister. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – The demographic shifts that the Chatham 365 task force was established to address aren't just affecting young families. Local institutions are also being forced to make tough decisions as the makeup of the community shifts.

When Edmund Robinson, minister at the Chatham Unitarian Universalist Meeting House for the past 11 years, retires on Jan. 1, he won't be replaced by a full-time minister. In fact, he may not be replaced at all.

“We're kind of feeling our way,” said Joan Caputo, president of the board of trustees, which hasn't decided yet if it will hire a part-time minister or go with another form of spiritual leadership. “There's a whole lot of different models for how you can do it,” she said.

Attendance, membership and finances have all been going down, contributing to his decision to retire, Robinson said.

“It's been a declining slope for several years,” he said. The drop hasn't been steady—it's been more “bumpy,” he said—but he and the church leadership came to the conclusion that the overall trend is unlikely to change in the near future. The average age of members has increased, and in the past few years the number of members who have passed away has outpaced new people joining the church.

“We're not getting the kind of families that we might have gotten years ago,” Caputo said. Only a handful of kids attend the meeting house's children's program, and they're the grandchildren of the program's director, Robinson said.

As would be expected, attendance is highest in the summer, Caputo said, and many of those people end up joining when they retire. Currently, the meeting house has a membership of about 120; it peaked at about 200 around 1996, Robinson said, after the Chatham Unitarian Universalist Fellowship bought the Main Street building from the local Christian Science church after its membership had shrunk. The Chatham and Harwich Christian Science churches ended up merging and using the Harwich Christian Science church on Route 28.

The Universalist church's roots in Chatham go back to 1822. Its first meeting house was built in the 1850s. After it burned down, a new meeting house was built on Main Street in 1879. The congregation dissolved in 1954, according to the current fellowship's website, and the building was sold and became St. Christopher's Episcopal Church.

The current fellowship was established in 1986 with the help of Rev. Jim Robinson of First Parish Brewster. The group originally met at the Creative Arts Center on Crowell Road. Its first minister was Ed Hardy, and despite having just 37 members, the group was able to purchase the Christian Science Church. Edmund Robinson has been its settled minister since 2008.

Both Caputo and Robinson see the meeting house continuing, although reaching a level of sustainability will be a challenge.

“I think we have to find our balance point,” Caputo said. On the Lower Cape there are three Unitarian Universalist meeting houses – First Parish Brewster, the UU Meeting House in Provincetown and Chatham – and two fellowships, in Eastham and Orleans. Unlike other denominations, she noted, there isn't a UU meeting house in every town. The Chatham meeting house, like most UU congregations, is decidedly liberal and officially an LGBTQ welcoming congregation.

“We all think it's very important a place like Chatham have a liberal place where people can feel comfortable coming from a lot of different religious persuasions,” she said. “We feel an obligation, a responsibility to the community to maintain it as an option. I strongly feel we need a presence.”

Robinson, who is also a musician, has tried to create different programs to bring people into the meeting house—a program marking Pete Seeger's 100th birthday is being planned—but said battling for attention, especially of young people, is a challenge. He's attended both Chatham 365 task force public forums, and said he was struck by the different interests of summer and year-round residents. Meshing those is just as big a challenge for the meeting house as it is for the town.

Although he is retiring from the Chatham meeting house, Robinson said he is not retiring from the ministry. At 70, he still plans to work, perhaps as an interim minister. That may have to happen off Cape, where there are many more Unitarian Universalist congregations. He and his wife, musician Jacqueline Schwab, live in Brewster but also own a house in Lexington; he was minister at the Belmont Unitarian Universalist Meeting House before coming to Chatham. But he'd rather not leave the Cape.

“My wife and I have grown very fond of the Cape,” said Robinson, who was a trial lawyer in his native Charleston, S.C. before attending Harvard Divinity School and becoming a minister in 1999. “If there's a way to stay here, we'd like to stay here.” He added that he'll use a four-month sabbatical generously given him by the Chatham congregation to work on book he has been writing for several years about the nature of evil.

Despite these developments, Robinson said the fellowship has potential and “could go on for years this way. I hope they do.”