Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland is weighing options for the future of its property. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — Woodfords Congregational Church, with a shrinking membership and rising operation costs, is at a crossroads.

The 44,000-square-foot building on Woodford Street has more space than needed and it’s difficult for the 350-member congregation to maintain it, said Amy Johnson, a member of the church council.

“This is not an easy or quick process,” Johnson said.  “The work ahead of us is to explore as many options as we can, weigh their pros and cons, and discern the best path forward.”

The situation is not unique to the landmark church. A drop in congregation size and rise in operational costs has forced several other churches in the area to sell their buildings and start anew in other locations. The congregation heard at a panel discussion Jan. 28 from six leaders of other churches, First Parish in Waterville, Coastal Church in Portland, The Neighborhood in Bath, HopeGateway in Portland, Faith Lutheran Church in Windham and Williston-West/Immanuel Baptist in Portland, whose congregations have successfully made that transition.

The Woodfords church’s options range from selling the building and leasing space back; selling it and moving; selling just the parish house; find a non-profit to move in and take over day-to-day operations of the building; or simply do nothing.

The congregation has wrestled before with the question of what to do with its property. About a decade ago, it took a serious look at selling or developing the Parish House, which includes a gym, kitchen, assembly hall and three floors of meeting and office spaces. According to a 2011 Forecaster article, Avesta Housing and Community Housing of Maine were interested in using the space for housing, and the Portland School District was interested in using some of space for the West School, a program for children with behavioral and emotional disorders


“In the end, the congregation was not ready to make permanent changes,” Johnson said. “We voted instead to increase our efforts to bring in non-profit community partners to the space to help share the costs of maintaining and operating the building, and use our space as a community asset.”

Johnson said by and large that approach worked. Many community groups now use the space for meetings, performances and other events and worship services.

“On any given day we have numerous people of all ages and walks of life using our space to engage in the arts as performers or audience members, attend (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings and receive food assistance through Project Feed or a Wayside community meal,” she said. “For four weeks a year, our building is a temporary home to families in need of shelter through the Greater Portland Family Promise program.”

Although the financial support Woodfords gets from those organizations covers operational costs, the congregation has not been able to keep up with major repairs and improvements. Recently, for example, more than $150,000 had to be raised to update an old elevator in the building to keep it handicapped accessible. Now a heating system needs to be replaced.

These rising building costs could “be our undoing if we are not proactive and creative in our thinking,” Johnson said.

“We are still on a solid financial footing, thanks largely to the generosity of our predecessors, and we want to keep it that way,” she said.


Woodfords Congregatgional Church first opened its doors in 1872 in a building across the street near where Jones, Rich and Barnes Funeral Home is now. The current church building was built in the mid-1950s. The Parish House dates back to the 1920s.

No matter which direction the congregation decides to go, Johnson said the key is to make sure “this space, which our forebears have entrusted to us, continues to serve our church’s mission to our community.”

The Rev. David Zigler, lead pastor of Coastal Community Church, said at the panel discussion that selling his church’s building on Route 1 across from Scarborough Town Hall was what his congregation needed to continue to thrive.

The building was purchased in 2005, but when Zigler took over in 2012 the shrinking congregation still had a huge looming debt and a building that was in need of a lot of work, he said. He was convinced that getting rid of the building would put his church on better footing.

“I knew we couldn’t stay in the space and carry on the mission of God,” he said.

Coastal Community Church sold its Scarborough building in July 2018 and has been holding services at the Woodfords Club in Portland. That move, Zigler said, was a breath of fresh air for church members and further connected them.

The Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill, former co-pastor of HopeGateway, where his wife, Sara still leads worship, shared the story of how he and his wife began a new ministry in Maine that included members of the Chestnut Street Methodist Church, a dwindling congregation that had just sold its historic building. After a series of moves and transitions, the church, now known as HopeGateway, calls 509 Forest Ave home.

“The decision to sell the (Chestnut Street) building was a decision of desperation. This was not a thriving congregation that had multiple options to consider. This was rock bottom and the only way to go,” said Ewing-Merrill, who came to the church in 2007, a year after the 1856 building was sold. The building reopened as Grace, a bar/restaurant that is now used as an event center.

Ewing-Merrill, now the executive director of The BTS Center on India Street, said there were many moments of doubt along that journey, but “by the grace of God,” HopeGateway became the faith community it is today.

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