SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Negotiations this week between the Rock Church, the Southwest Harbor Historical Society and two real estate agencies may decide the future of the Manset Union Church in the next few days.
Built in 1831, the white clapboard church on Route 102A was the oldest continuously operating church on Mount Desert Island when, last year, the Bangor-based church that owned it closed its doors and put it on the market.
The church had operated for most of its history as a United Church of Christ congregation. The nondenominational Rock Church assumed ownership of the church in 2015.
Several former church members and residents at large have been distressed by the possible sale of this community landmark and by the process that put the building in the control of the Rock Church in the first place.
Some, like Amy Chalmers Kaplan and her brother Danny Chalmers, who said their grandmother played the organ at the church for many years, believe that some sort of “unholy alliance” was formed by former Pastor Chuck Ives and Rock Church founder Kirk Winter.
“If nothing is done to intervene,” wrote Kaplan in a letter to the Manset community, “the money this hardworking community used to build and maintain this beacon of God’s love and word is on the verge of being deceptively sold and going into the coffers of those far from here, strangers to this community, opportunists.”
In her letter, she accused the Rock Church of a practice called “steeple jacking.”
Although the word “steeplejack” refers to a person who repairs steeples, “steeple jacking” is a relatively new term for the more recent prevalence of new church organizations, such as the Rock Church, targeting older, failing churches, convincing the leadership to turn over the “keys” to them. The new group can then take control of the theological message and, often, valuable real estate.
Chalmers speculated that the Rock Church actually stacked the pews with congregants from its Bangor church until they had the right to vote and then used their votes to give the church to Winter’s organization.
He is especially upset that, before joining the Rock Church, during Ives’ tenure, the church used a $100,000 endowment to make long overdue capital improvements on the building and its attendant Gleaner’s Hall. This included mold removal, a new foundation and heating system.
“Well, it stinks!” said Chalmers. “All the proceeds and benefits of those capital improvements will go to [the Rock], not to the community that supported this church for decades, centuries.”
Even Ives, who initially invited the Rock Church to Manset and is still a member, said last week that he regretted how it all seemed to have turned out.
“They really tried to make a go of it, Ives said. “They invested a lot of time and money here, trying to bring in new, young members, families. My wife and I were so impressed by the vigor and enthusiasm we saw when we visited the Bangor church, we all hoped we could make it happen here, too.”
In the end, the effort failed. When it became clear that the Manset church could not sustain itself, it was closed.
While most are resigned to the reality that the days of this neighborhood church as a place of worship may have come to an end, they would like to see the building continue to be a community resource as, for instance, a branch of the Southwest Harbor Historical Society. Chalmers is adamant that, at the least, any profits from the sale of the church benefit the Manset community rather than Bangor.
While Ives said he empathizes with that view, he points out that in addition to being a religious organization, the Rock Church also is a business, and he can’t fault them for being fiscally responsible.
As local resentment about the sale of the church has been swirling about the past couple of weeks, Kirk Winter was out of state and out of touch, camping in Alaska with his family.
He did respond to phone messages when he returned last week, and was reached Tuesday. He said when he returned and learned of the turmoil and the Southwest Harbor Historical Society’s serious interest in the church, he took steps to resolve the situation in a way he hopes will satisfy all concerned.
Winter said he had recently talked with the real estate agent with whom he listed the church, with the object of working something out with the historical society.
“Look, I understand the perception,” he said. “That we swooped in, took over a beloved local church, then turned around to sell it to profit our organization.
“But, frankly,” he said, “when we arrived, the church was dying. There were only 11 members left.”
He said it was these longtime Manset church members who, in an attempt to save their church, voted to join the Rock Church organization, which also has affiliates in Orono, Scarborough and Sullivan.
Ives affirmed that it was the established Manset church members and deacons who made the decision, first to join the Rock Church spiritually, and then, in order for it to financially invest in its new Manset affiliate, voted to turn over ownership of the real estate.
“We had great hopes for this church,” Winter said. “We made renovations, painted it, paid Pastor Ives’ salary and put in a sound and video system. Closing the church was not anywhere in our thinking. But after two years of our best efforts, we just couldn’t turn the ship around.”
The physical and spiritual changes that were made to the old church included removing the pews and installing more comfortable seating, offering more contemporary Christian music and preaching a more fundamental-leaning message. These innovations have been critical to the Rock Church’s success in its other Maine locations.
Winter said having a good relationship with the towns in which they have become a presence is vitally important to his organization.
“The last thing we want is a bad name,” he said, adding that they hope to continue their mission of bringing their message to churches in other Maine communities and want to be perceived as bringing new life to failing churches, not as religious carpetbaggers.
While the church is currently listed with Sotheby’s at $229,000, likely beyond the reach of a nonprofit such as the historical society, Winter indicated that the price, under some circumstances, could be negotiable.
“We hope something can be worked out,” he said, “where we can both recoup the money we put into the church and come up with a price that will be affordable for the Historical Society.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Karen Craig, president of the historical society said she had met with her board earlier that day. At the meeting, the board unanimously agreed to make an offer on the church, which they relayed to their agent. They hoped to hear back in a couple of days.
“We would love to continue the church’s relevance in our community,” Craig said. “It already has so much history here it should have a future here as well.”