As Sandra Carnes, 77, walked up Roland Avenue to attend Sunday services at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Hampden, the Rev. Bonnie McCubbin, 27, the new pastor, was there to greet her with a hearty "Hello there!"
"She's a lot younger" than the previous pastor, the Rev. Amy Lewis, observed Carnes, who has attended Good Shepherd since her last church, Mount Vernon United Methodist in Hampden, was heavily damaged in a lightning strike in 2008 and its congregation merged with Good Shepherd.
But youth is not necessarily a bad thing, Carnes said as she took her seat among 25 mostly older parishioners.
"We're becoming used to her," Carnes said.
Though attendance was sparse, McCubbin held out hope, noting that daylight savings time had just started.
"I'm taking bets on how many people show up in an hour," McCubbin said.
And sure enough, six more did.
McCubbin is on the fault line of change in Hampden's religious community, where many longtime pastors have left, several churches have merged, some congregations are in transition and the mostly part-time local clergy are searching for ways to remain relevant and reach out to younger churchgoers.
"For me, it's all about the people, serving God and making relationships work and figuring out how we can all be closer to God," said McCubbin, who came in July and said she is the only full-time United Methodist Church pastor in the area — and one of the few full-time pastors in any denomination in the area.
Good Shepherd is one of only two independent United Methodist churches in Hampden, where there were as many as six as recently as 1999. The other one, Hampden United Methodist, is going through changes of its own, and is in a partnership with Sharp Street UMC, a mostly black congregation, to do mission and outreach work, such as feeding the homeless. Sharp Street's pastor, the Rev. Cary James Jr., has been appointed by the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church as lead pastor for the two local churches.
The Rev. Robin Johnson, pastor for the past 10 years at Hampden United Methodist and former pastor of Mount Vernon until the lightning strike, said his own future is unclear and he has told his small congregation that this might be his last year there if he is not re-appointed.
For now, Johnson said, "We're hanging in."
The former Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Hampden has merged with Mount Washington United Methodist. Mount Vernon UMC never reopened as a church after the lightning strike and was sold to Chesapeake Systems, a computer company that renovated the church as its headquarters.
United Methodist churches that have merged with Good Shepherd include the old Otterbein Memorial, Roland Avenue-Evergreen, and Mount Vernon.
"We are the merger of most of the Methodist churches in Hampden," said McCubbin.
The Methodists aren't the only ones affected by leadership changes.
At the Salvation Army's Center for Worship and Service in Hampden, the new co-pastors, lieutenants James and Erica Huse are in their 20s, succeeding Majors David and Susan Dewan.
At the 130-year-old St. Luke's Evangelical Lutheran Church on The Avenue, the Rev. Michael Dubsky has left and the Rev. Bill Gohl, dean of the Baltimore City Conference of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, comes one Sunday a month. Gohl, who is also pastor of Epiphany Lutheran in northeast Baltimore, is also supervising and training St. Luke's vicar, Jim Muratore, a seminarian at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pa.
"We're in a time of transition, determining what our ministry will look like in the future," said Muratore, 32, who led Sunday's service at St. Luke's. Muratore said the days when churches were at the center of community life are over and churches need new ways "to engage with the community."
Dubsky said that's especially true in Hampden, once a blue collar town, which now skews younger with the advent of artists, young professionals and hip boutique stores.
"People have new societal ways of connecting. Churches were built in an earlier age. Everybody is more mobile," said Dubsky, 42, who used to lead two churches, St. Luke's and Messiah Lutheran in Sykesville. He's still part-time at Messiah and is executive director of the Lutheran Home and Hospital Foundation.
He left St. Luke's, he said, because he felt he had reached "a sense of completeness" after 13 years of being "a bridge" between the old and new Hampden.
"I just felt like they needed someone with fresh ideas and energy," Dubsky said. "I went from the person introducing new ideas to the person being reluctant to (try) new ideas."
There are also several newer, nontraditional churches in the Hampden area, including the Village Church, the City Bible Church, which holds services in a screening room at the Rotunda Cinemas, and the 2-year-old 6:8 United Church of Christ, whose name is taken from Micah 6:8 in the Bible, which says to "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God."
"A lot of our families live in Hampden," said the Rev. Amy Sens. "It seemed like a good place to start."
At St. Luke's, Muratore welcomes the opportunity to be part of the church's transition.
"It's a challenge," he said. "It's a little scary. But for me, it's more exciting than anything else. We get to try new things, and we get to fail. We'll get there."
At Good Shepherd, McCubbin appears to be full of energy, and, said Carnes, the parishioner, "She has a lot of new ideas."
McCubbin is in a unusual position at a time when churches around her are seeing fewer churchgoers and scraping by financially. Money from mergers and church building sales went to Good Shepherd, where McCubbin has used it to start a Sunday school and an after-school program for children from Hampden Elementary/Middle School, Roland Park Elementary/Middle and St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School in Hampden.
She also led several local churches that participated in the national Ashes to Go movement on Ash Wednesday. At 6 a.m., she and Sens stood in the cold at the Woodberry light rail station, wearing a cap with her vestments, and later in the morning stood outside Cafe Hon, holding a cardboard box that said, "Get Your Ashes Over Here."
On Friday, McCubbin was at a mission house that Good Shepherd owns nearby, where 15 children in thew after-school program were playing games, sitting at computers or baking cakes and making masks for an upcoming Mardi Gras event at the church.
"You get to do really fun things and projects, like make masks," said Italia Collavini, 10, who attends St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School.
A separate Sunday school program began with one child in July and now has 14, including a 5-year-old girl who helped serve communion recently and a boy who told McCubbin he wants to be a church usher.
The congregation now numbers 55-60 people.
"We've been growing since I arrived," McCubbin said. "We hit 70 on Christmas Eve. Yes, we are small, but we are headed in the right direction."