For many churches, dwindling membership can often lead to closure. But what happens when a congregation, despite their shrinking size has a vibrant community that its neighbors have grown to rely upon – and has helped bring people to Christ?
That was the situation facing Reading Moravian Church in Reading, Pennsylvania. While the congregation was dwindling as a church, their strong food ministry was meeting the needs of many in their inner-city neighborhood. So they got creative and, thanks to a unique new partnership, will continue their ministry even as the congregation ceases to be.
A unique agreement
In May, the members of Reading voted to form a covenant agreement with the Lititz Moravian congregation and the Northern Province Provincial Elders’ Conference. With this agreement, which is a first for the Northern Province, Reading is no longer a stand-alone congregation; it is now an outreach of the Lititz congregation called the Reading Moravian Center of the Lititz Moravian Congregation.
Reading will be able to continue its ministry of feeding low-income people in their community. Its food pantry helps more than 100 families each month by purchasing and distributing food through the Berks Food Bank. They also host a free community meal once a month.
In addition, the Reading building will remain open, and will still hold worship services on Sundays. “Instead of the chartered congregation it was for 102 years, it is now going to be a satellite campus of Lititz,” explains the Rev. Dean Jurgen, pastor of Lititz. “Under the governance of Lititz, its expenses are reduced, its longevity is enhanced, and its ministries of caring outreach to their neighbors not only can continue, but hopefully expand with more helping hands from Lititz – many of whom have been helping for some time.”
“We’ve been doing more than feeding people over these past eight years,” says the Rev. Ron Rice, who in June retired as pastor of Reading after completing the transition. “We not only tend to their physical needs, but to their spiritual needs as well.” The food ministry has invited people into the church; some of those who have received assistance in the past are now part of the ministry itself.
Facing a reality
“The Reading congregation had been in decline for years,” explains Ron. “When we lost the additional income from a daycare center that had been hosted at our church, we found ourselves in a difficult financial situation. Our joint boards realized that we couldn’t afford to continue as a church, so we needed to look at alternatives.”
According to Ron, the congregation weighed the possibility of joining with a UCC congregation and an Episcopal church in the area, but both options would eliminate the important food ministry that Reading had built. They went through a process of discernment and prayer with representatives from the Eastern District, with an initial determination that they could stay open as long as possible, then close forever.
But through that discernment process, the board at Reading came up with another option – what if they were to be “adopted” by another congregation and became a mission outreach of that other congregation? Doing so would allow their ministry to continue.
The Reading congregation invited Lititz to consider being that “adopter.” Lititz is relatively close by and is a large congregation with many outreach programs; in fact, Lititz members had already been volunteering for the food ministry at Reading.
As part of the proposal, Reading would cease to be a free-standing congregation, turning responsibility for their assets and property over to Lititz. As a satellite of Lititz Moravian, Reading members could become members of Lititz. A retired pastor for Reading could be hired by Lititz, and not called by the Province as most other pastoral appointments are made. With the agreement, the church building in Reading would still be used as the location of the food ministry, operating under the authority of Lititz.
The Elders and Trustees at Lititz deliberated over the opportunity for more than a year, then voted unanimously to approve the arrangement in May.
The Covenant Agreement reads: “A ministry of body, soul and spirit to the people of Reading, Pennsylvania around 1116 Perry Street, shall be established between the Lititz Moravian Congregation and the Reading Moravian Church. This ministry recognizes the need to follow Jesus’ direction that we should do unto the least of these as we would do unto Him. This ministry will include feeding the body through a food pantry and community meal. Feeding the soul will include regular worship and sacraments. Feeding the spirit will include professional pastoral presence and programs to help people deal with their needs. The name of this ministry shall be called Reading Moravian Center of the Lititz Moravian Congregation. The ministry shall operate under the authority and direction of the Lititz Moravian Congregation.”
This is a unique relationship within the church. “This is the first arrangement of this kind we’ve tried in the Eastern District,” explains the Rev. David Bennett, president of the Eastern District Executive Board. “Without this shared ministry arrangement, we would likely have had to close the Reading church and end their work in their neighborhood.”
In a letter to members of the Lititz congregation, Pastor Dean offered this: “For the past eight years, Reading has had an active outreach to the lower income neighbors of the church: a monthly food pantry giveaway and a monthly free community meal. This little church has been making a big difference for so many of its neighbors. The sadness of so many church members was the prospect of not only losing their church, but losing the blessing of passing on God’s love to their neighbors, which had become such a blessing to both the church and their neighbors. Reading Moravian has discovered that in forgetting about themselves and their church’s survival, and serving others in need, they found a new purpose far greater than the church’s survival.”
On June 11, the two congregations held a special joint worship service to celebrate the “resurrection as Reading Moravian Center of the Lititz Congregation.” Both congregations worshiped together electronically, with a Skype connection between the two.
An ongoing ministry
With the establishment of the Reading Moravian Center, the church will be able to continue to grow its food ministry. Once a month, volunteers purchase, collect and prepare to distribute nearly 3,000 lbs. of food to those in need. Dry and canned goods, along with available meats and produce, are shared with neighbors. Reading will also continue its monthly free community meal for up to 130 people.
The relationship between the two churches offers new perspectives and opportunities for volunteering. “Having additional volunteers from Lititz has renewed and expanded the energy for this vital ministry,” says Ron. “And sharing the love of Jesus in this way has had an impact on the community. At a recent community meal when we announced the Reading Moravian would be closing but would continue its ministry—and I added that we were doing all of this change because we care about them—those gathered broke out in thunderous applause. They got the message that they are loved.”
At the same time, Lititz members gain experience volunteering in a new, inner-city setting. While several Lititz people have been helping for some time, the new relationship will increase their participation “Through this partnership, we have hopes of expanding the inner-city ministry beyond the two monthly events,” said Dean, “with dreams of expanding the food ministry to more than twice a month, tutoring students of the nearby elementary school, etc.”
“Praise God that he is still wanting to write new chapters in the story of Moravians in Reading,” wrote Dean in a recent Lititz newsletter. “This is a the story of hope, resurrection, and new life that people have found here through the food ministries…and that this congregation has found in keeping the main thing, the main thing.”
With the new relationship, Ron has decided to retire. He still plans on volunteering at the Reading Center. “It’s been a privilege to be a part of this congregation and participate in the struggle of moving from maintaining our identity to doing God’s mission and ministry.”
The Rev. Terry Folk, who recently retired as pastor of Schoeneck Moravian in Nazareth, has been hired as pastor for the new Reading Center. Thanks to members at Reading and Lititz and Carol Balinski of the Reading Eagle for information in this article. Photos by Melanie Geiger and Rick Watson.