The formal name of that little church by the side of the highway at the island’s north end is the United Methodist Church at Seabold.
Historically, that name puts the “men” before the “ah” – the church was a thriving community congregation years before it was affiliated with the United Methodist denomination.
“We had a Lutheran pastor who rowed over from Poulsbo,” said long-time member Joan Bickerton, “and we had Congregationalist pastors. But it was for the neighborhood – you noticed when somebody came from all the way across the island.”
A pastor in the 1950s suggested that the church should affiliate with a denomination. When that decision was adopted, the Methodists were selected for a very practical reason, Bickerton said.
“There weren’t any other Methodist churches in the area. That’s where the need was,” she said.
In the almost 50 years since that affiliation, what was once Seabold’s neighborhood social center has morphed into a diversified congregation of roughly 200 members, an estimated half of whom come from “the other side” of the Agate Passage Bridge.
The quaint appearance and the well-kept grounds – with some 50-odd species of rhododendrons – may be as much of a draw as the denominational particularities of Methodism.
“I was looking around for a church, saw this one from the highway and thought I would give it a try,” said Malcolm Campbell of Poulsbo, a six-year member who said that deep inside, he may still be an Episcopalian.
He’s not alone in putting denominational identity in the back seat.
“I don’t think more than half of the people here are really Methodists,” he said.
Bill Bysinger of Poulsbo, a former Presbyterian, was attracted to a combination of intimacy and diversity.
“It’s not one of those huge churches where a few ‘pillars’ really run things,” he said, “and I like the fact that we see people of all ages here.”
Campbell sees another advantage, arising from the church’s age.
“With the building paid for, most of the money that comes in goes out,” he said. “We’re spending it on others instead of ourselves.”
The emphasis on outreach and mission characterizes the Seabold congregation, said pastor Dennis Magnuson, who will observe his sixth anniversary at the pulpit there in June.
During February, the parish is collecting school supplies and sports equipment for Bainbridge High School students to deliver to Ometepe, Nicaragua – Bainbridge’s sister island.
Christmas in July is another church tradition – a drive to bolster the resources of Helpline House during the summer, when the needs remain high but donations have fallen off from the holiday season.
When members travel, they bring back the shampoo and soap samples from hotels, then make them into gift packages for the homeless in Seattle.
“This church has more of a heart for mission than most on the island and in the area,” he said. “When an appeal goes out for something, I’m surprised at the response.”
Like most Protestant denominations, Methodists believe that salvation comes through accepting the Grace of God, part of which they define as “the unconditional acceptance of everyone, regardless of where and who they are or the different stages of their spiritual journey.”
And as is true in many other churches, that credo of acceptance is being tested by the question of homosexuality.
The Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline says says homosexuality is “incompatible” with Christian doctrine, and therefore bars “self-acknowledged and practicing” homosexuals from the clergy, although affirming their individual dignity as parish members.
After two other island churches – Eagle Harbor Congregational, and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship – last month proclaimed themselves as welcoming to sexual minorities, Magnuson and his wife Lynn led a dozen parishioners in a forum on the issue on a Sunday morning.
“We pride ourselves on our inclusivity of all races and genders, but this raises the hair on the back of our necks,” said Magnuson.
Most in attendance saw the issue as one where the church ought to revise its thinking.
“They are created that way, and I don’t feel that God makes mistakes,” said one woman. “There is a reason for those differences.”
Noting that a Methodist minister from Seattle was recently forced to leave his church position after proclaiming his own homosexuality, another audience member asked if a married pastor having an affair would also be removed.
“In almost every instance that I am aware of, they have resigned,” said Magnuson. “Fidelity is called for in the Book of Discipline, but I’m not sure why – you’d think we in the clergy would know that ourselves.”
On a more local level, Seabold is coping with the problem of growth. It now offers two Sunday services to accommodate all its members in the small 1910-era sanctuary. And it is awaiting the necessary permits to build a new social hall on the west side of the five-acre grounds.
But they won’t stop being “the cute little church,” as Magnuson said the building is often described by those looking for a place to hold a wedding.
“We’re not going to disturb anything on the eastern side,” Magnuson said. “We value the look of the property from the highway.”