Seward UMC: A Tale of Two Churches


By Rev. Jim Doepken, Seward Memorial UMC.

It’s like those old jokes, “There are only two seasons in Alaska. Winter’s coming and winter’s here.” Or, “Company’s coming and company’s here.” Or, “Snow and construction.” Also, some of our communities are very different between summer and winter. And that shapes our ministry. It shapes what you find when you walk through our doors.

The front doors of Seward Memorial United Methodist Church.

During the summer, the City of Seward is an attractive tourist destination on eastern side of the Kenai Peninsula. It sits at the foot of the mountains holding back the Harding Ice Field, right on the waters of Resurrection Bay. From the first whiff of salmon in the air, the town comes to life and becomes a playground for people from across Alaska and around the world.

There is a hustle and a bustle to the four months of summer that is not unlike what you find in other tourist destinations in Alaska. Cruise ships flood the town with tourists and campgrounds are full of RVs with occupants grilling their catch of the day at campfires and drinking their Alaskan Amber beers. Local businesses pull in hundreds of extra summer workers who call this place home for a season to operate fish processing, the hotels, the restaurants, and the gift shops that line both the waterfront and the picturesque downtown.

While there is excitement in the air in April as “Help Wanted” signs appear and locals get ready for the influx of visitors, the activity of summer can be exhausting. Everyone is trying to make their money. Everyone is trying to enjoy the long days while we have them. Like the fireweed that lines our roads we we soak up as much sunshine as possible.

So, by mid-September, when the cruise ships stop coming, the campgrounds begin to empty, and the fish are packed away in the freezer, a sense of relief settles over the town. Four months of seemingly non-stop action comes to a close and so do many of the shops and restaurants around town. It’s hard to be open in winter. There’s just not enough business to go around.

But it’s during this early-Fall season that the community begins to reconnect. School is in session. The boards and agencies of nonprofits and community groups can get a quorum of locals again. At the grocery store and post office we finally see friends and neighbors and have time to chat and catch up.

It’s a stark difference, this transition from summer to winter and then back again. While the population of Seward-proper is only about 3,000 people we may get an extra 1,000 resident workers in the summer. And that’s not counting the several thousands of tourists that may be in town on a busy weekend. But in the winter we find community once again, we nurture relationships, and we are able to share life. With 90 snow-covered miles to the next biggest town and 120 miles to Anchorage, we become a close-knit group when the days start getting shorter.

A quiet Seward waterfront as the sun rises a cold November morning.

To understand Seward, we need to understand it as almost two very different cities. And to understand the work of Seward United Methodist Church we need to see it as almost two very different churches.

Here, as in some tourist destinations around the Alaska Conference, our summer worship may have more visitors than locals. Many our members and friends need to work on Sunday, which is always “a cruise ship day.” The businesses need all the workers they can get. Therefore, church life focuses on opening our doors to visitors who may only be with us for an hour. We greet them with open arms, with a little gift, eager to share our favorite spots to hike or fish, and we listen to their Alaskan adventures.

Seward Memorial UMC in the summer. Photo by Rev. Peter Perry

During these sunny months we look forward to reconnecting with our regular summer attendees who are a big part of our church community, even if they are only here while their camper is at the waterfront or while they earn their paycheck from Kenai Fjords National Park or other seasonal work.

Frankly, there’s not much church programing during these months for our local folks. It’s hard to get everyone together except for big events— like our Pie Sale on the Fourth of July.

But winter is so very different and Seward UMC lives into this rhythm of the town. During this time we can reach out to the community, partnering with other organizations, and trying to take care of those who call this place home.

For years we had a preschool which occupied much of our small building throughout the off-season. But now we’ve switched to a co-op model that uses less of our facility. That has freed up space to welcome groups through our doors to connect with our community in a new way. We’ve had a bell choir for years and now we are the meeting space for the Community Choir and a rehearsal space for our local community theater, “The Port City Players.” Once a month you’ll find our local “Music Association” meeting in our space and and in our movement to being “arts-friendly” we’ve hosted a Bluegrass Camp for kids, a drama camp for the local, city-run kid’s club, and support our pastor’s involvement with the music program at the high school

During winter we can ask ourselves, “How can we bless our community?”

It’s during this time that we are more involved in our local food bank and and work on matters related to homelessness. We are located downtown, among businesses, and we use this season to nurture relationships with those who keep shops open all year round. A few times a winter you’ll find us handing out cookies to all of the businesses and their employees, just as a way to love them. We deliver chocolate around town and partner with businesses to make a safe space for Halloween Trick-or-Treating, even if we may have to do so in the snow. In the past we have gone caroling to the local businesses and bars, trying to spread some Christmas joy in what can be a very dark time in the lives of residents. Because of these relationships we were able to assist during the recent government shutdown that affected up to 100 families.

Headed out into the Seward mission field.

And, in church life, this is when our programing happens. This is when our confirmation class takes off. This is when Sunday School happens. This is when we come alongside some of our other churches for Advent and Lenten soup suppers, building relationships, discovering new ministries.

Every community has a rhythm, a flow to it. Seward’s just seems to be from one extreme to the other; from the frenetic, frenzied excitement of summer to the slower-paced, nurturing time of winter. It’s like a tale of two cities. And, because of this, our church has two very different existences as well as we go out of our doors into the world. It’s a tale of two churches.

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  1. This is a beautifully written story of the town of Seward, and the role the United Methodist Church and congregation plays in this special community. We visited a number of years ago, among the summer tourists and one of my absolute life-moments was the calf-ing of the glaciers on Resurrection Bay Tour. Thank you for sharing this!!!

  2. The church is also very different than it was in the 1960’s when The Jesse Lee Home (residents and staff) were an important part of the life and work and ministry of the Seward United Methodist Church. Change is a real part of the life of any church, but the rhythm of today’s church is very interesting. Thanks for sharing your experience(s).

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