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Saving Grace

WHEELING — A nail that could easily take out a tire is on the pavement just outside St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church. Father Josh Saxe pounces to retrieve it before peering up toward the mammoth, slate-covered roof from whence he knows it came.

The 1866 building took a hit during a double derecho earlier in the month and roofers are literally on site to assess the damage.

Saxe is the newly minted rector of a church whose pastoral line stretches back to the time of fluffy white mutton chops, as evidenced by a long wall of portraits in a stairway. He has spent the last hour or so talking about both his spiritual goal of fostering joy and hope during his tenure and the reality of where the congregation is in time.

(On the latter: Such mainline Protestant churches around the nation are shrinking — dropping from 41 million to 36 million adults from 2007 to 2014, according to the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study. Aging is also an issue — the study found mainline Protestant adults’ average age to be 52, higher than any other major religious tradition.)

But, he can’t help but also be thinking about buildings and grounds. Like many of the architecturally spectacular churches in the downtown, St. Matthew’s tops 150 years. “Our buildings are one of our greatest assets, but also one of our greatest liabilities,” he acknowledged.

Indeed, in addition to the roof at the downtown church, he had fielded multiple downed trees at St. John’s, the parish’s satellite campus in Woodsdale, in just the last week. That chapel maintained electricity throughout the derecho fallout, prompting Saxe to open its education building to both church members and the neighborhood as a cooling station and a place to charge devices.

Prior to the storm, he had already embarked on an ambitious deferred-maintenance campaign at St. John’s that includes everything from a fresh coat of red paint on the doors to the kind of drainage re-do that will require earth movers.

He sees a day when the downtown campus’s extensive music program and the suburban campus’s grassy grounds — smack in the middle of a neighborhood rife with families — may come together for special events.

And a day when parishioners will hike together and break bread together and come to a recently restored mid-week service for prayer when they are sick or injured. A day in which the church will bustle with external as well as internal activity — multiple recovery groups are already meeting at both campuses, and there is a long-standing food pantry at St. Matthew’s to that end.

That’s a lot on his pastoral plate — and Saxe has a wife, Catherine, and two daughters, Willa, 6, and Clara, who’s not quite 2.

“In seminary, you learn theology,” Saxe says with a grin that suggests that, at the profession-comparative young age of 39, he’s feeling up to the multi-faceted challenges that are ahead.

MR. FIX-IT?

Ironically, Saxe has also learned how to support the literal body as it heals.

After growing up in both Culloden and Morgantown — the son of doctor/lawyer parents — he did an undergraduate degree in athletic training and sports medicine at West Virginia University. He worked a couple of years at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center before attending seminary in New York City.

That combo might suggest Saxe is peculiarly qualified to be a Mr. Fix-it for any congregation. But, having already ministered two years in an assistant capacity in Parkersburg and eight years as pastor in Lewisburg, he sees himself differently.

“Every church is looking to increase its membership,” Saxe says. “They want (a pastor) who’s going to go out into the community and bring people in.”

He gets that and says he wants and plans to do that — citing fellow clergyman Rabbi Joshua Lief of Temple Shalom in terms of model for such community-building presence. But, Saxe adds that a congregation that wants a proverbial matchstick needs to offer a strike plate, something he feels St. Matthew’s does.

“I don’t get the sense that we’re in like a panic mode,” Saxe says of taking advantage of the blank slate COVID-19 brought to calmly evaluate the logistics of church programming and facility use.

He cites regular weekly service times as an example of that reflection. Prior to the pandemic, he says there was one noontime Wednesday and two Sunday morning services at St. Matthew’s and a Saturday evening service at St. John’s.

COVID nixed the mid-week service, the 8 a.m. Sunday service and, for a time, the Saturday night service. Saturday night came back in early 2021 — and Saxe says attendance at St. John’s is now running 15-20 per week. The recently restored mid-week service, which includes prayers for healing, draws six to eight attendees, he adds.

Some St. Matthew’s attendees have raised the issue of restoring the 8 a.m. service, but he’s doubtful that makes sense given the parish of technically 300 or so has only 80-90 active members.

He suspects the church would be better served to put its time towards other types of programming that reflect the neighborhoods in which they are situated.

At residentially sited St. John’s, for example, a Vacation Bible School is scheduled for later this summer.

In contrast, the downtown church — for better or for worse, he notes — has a number of homeless people with a variety of needs in close proximity.

“What is in the neighborhood?” Saxe says he keeps asking himself and others. “There might be an opportunity for ministry that wasn’t there 10, 20 or even 30 years ago.”

Responding positively to such changing conditions is largely a matter of perspective, he adds.

“There are people that remember 200 people, 300 people in church,” he says of some longer-term members who might lament what once was. “But, we need to look at things from a glass-half-full perspective.

“We’ve got some kids. We do good liturgy that I think is enriching and joyful and … that is key to any church. It gives people joy and that leads to hope. When we look to the past and how things used to be, that affects our energy.”

He says his energy right now includes a desire to take part in making the city, particularly the downtown, a good place. Surroundings that include safe areas for kids to play, some shopping and some dining choices are good for downtown churches as well as the overall community, he says.

“When we’re in decline, it’s easy to be insular,” Saxe adds of it requiring an active decision for the church to just do what needs to be done in 2022 and beyond. “We need to keep our focus outward.”

And, so far, so good. In addition to the facility improvements that are in the works, Saxe says there is also a bit of growth. A couple of families have been baptized in recent months and he’s hoping the congregation will be stirred.

“Joy and hope — that’s what brings people in,” he says, adding that the other side of change, even the death of certain programs or situations, should be viewed eternally rather than against history.

“As Christians, we are a resurrection people,” Saxe says of moving forward into the future that the parish actually has. “We shouldn’t fear death as much as we do. Jesus’s death brought our life.”

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