When the Rev. David Abbott came here with his family 14 years ago to serve the Belfast United Methodist Church, “all I knew was Perry’s Nut House,” he said. Now the church he has led for nearly a decade and a half is almost as well-known as that Route 1 landmark.

That hasn’t always been true, however. When Abbott arrived, the congregation was housed on Miller Street, where the Unitarian Universalist church is today. Shortly after he came, a study was done to find out if the public was aware of the church; it turned out that even people who regularly went down Miller Street didn’t know where the church was, Abbott said.

Having been born in Blue Hill and raised in Bath, he had returned to Maine after attending Duke Divinity School to take up the Belfast congregation’s invitation to help them discern whether they could grow or would have to limp along as small and dwindling church.

Today the answer is self-evident: with a 9-year-old building on Mill Lane that is close to paid for, a congregation triple the size it was when Abbott arrived (average Sunday attendance these days is around 160, he said) and a number of thriving ministries, Belfast UMC has “grown a lot based on faith,” said Abbott.

To build the new facility the congregation between a capital campaign that raised $300,000 and a loan for $600,000, he said. Now the debt is down to less than $40,000. In addition to the worship space, pastor’s office, and fellowship hall, there is space downstairs for the Greater Belfast Area Ministerium Food Cupboard, complete with refrigerators and a loading dock.

“We’ve become a trusted partner in the community, with other churches and with the city,” Abbott said. He added that by welcoming those who come through the door as “part of the family” from the first time they come, the church tries to be a place where people can turn for help.

The church also nurtures parishioners’ gifts, for example through the Community Missions Team, where members who have carpentry and other skills do a variety of home repairs and chores for people who can’t do them on their own. Other church members have started ministries playing music for the residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the area.

In addition, the church has sent mission teams to North Carolina and Louisiana to help with repairs after hurricanes and has an annual mission trip Down East, Abbott said.

Another church activity he is proud of is the annual Candy Cane Capers sale. Church members donate new – sometimes re-gifted – or very gently used items and the church also purchases items that children ages 5 to 12 can buy as Christmas gifts for their family members for very little money. Parents bring their children to the church, and then the adults are whisked off to enjoy refreshments and conversation while volunteers help the youngsters pick out gifts, which are mostly priced at a dollar or less. The child’s selections are then wrapped, so that Mom and Dad (and brothers and sisters) get a surprise on Christmas morning.

The event draws around 200 children, he said, and allows them “to have the joy of giving,” even though they may not have much cash.

Abbott said during his time at the church he’s seen many members blossom, going from being need to serving others in need.

He said serving the Belfast congregation has deepened his faith and taught him a number of lessons, among them, the power of prayer, the power of many people working together, the fact that “you can make mistakes and still be loved,” and that “many times, others have a clearer understanding of what needs to be done” than he does. His experience here has also confirmed for him that “God calls all people.”

He and his wife, Lisa, will leave for New Hampshire in mid-June, and he will begin a new position as district superintendent for 63 churches there. He said he’s looking forward to sharing what he’s learned in Belfast with the New Hampshire churches, many of which are small and struggling, as the church here was when he arrived.

He is confident that the Belfast church, with its strong lay leadership, will continue to thrive after he leaves. “I’m just thankful that … I could grow as part of this community,” he said.

His new job should allow Abbott to do more of what he seems to like best – encouraging others to use their God-given gifts: “It’s cool to let go and watch people grow.” he said.