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O Little Town of Schnecksville
The Full Story of how Donegal Presbyterian Church
uses demographics in ministry. . .
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Near Bethlehem, a church is born. When a 100-year old parish is perishing, what can save it? Lots of prayer and a good MAP to show them the way. . .
On a tiny one-way street some 15 miles west of Bethlehem, PA, sat the incredible shrinking Episcopal congregation of St. Elizabeth's. Shrinking because most people in the town didn't know, or didn't care, they were there; incredible because despite the odds against their survival, this remnant of 40 or so people, most of whom were over the age of 50, would make a decision that others rarely find the courage to make; relocate a 100-year old congregation.

Three years prior to that, at the end of 1998, 52- year old Lynn Wert, a registered nurse and member of a large, non-denominational church in East Allentown received some unusual instructions. "You need to go home now," God told her. Wert, who was still grieving over her grandmother's death less than 24 hours before, didn't have to guess what the Holy Spirit was telling her. Not long before that, while attending a retreat from another church she had gone to as a teenager, she heard the same instructions, "It's good that you came here, but don't do this again—it's not your home anymore. St. Elizabeth's is your home."

Eventually Lynn obeyed her divine imperative and went back to the church she
had gone to 18 years ago. Her mother, Joan Bonekemper, a lifelong member, was also the church's Junior Warden. But despite the 100% certainty of the call, Wert spent the next year questioning why. Neither the traditional hymns, or the organ were her style, nor was she particularly enamored with the style of leadership.

It would take a tragedy in the church—exactly one year later—for Lynn's heart to begin to change. One bitterly cold December morning in 1999, she was given the tragic news. The 60-year old rector had a sudden brain aneurism and died within just a few hours. Shortly after that, the congregation put out a call for a new rector. But despite their efforts to "promote" the church, the town and the job, there was no response.

Eventually the Diocese of Bethlehem sent a part-time interim vicar, T. Scott Allen, to help them regroup and figure out what they
should do next. Allen wasted no time in giving the members the ultimatum: "You can't just go along and keep doing what you're doing and expect to survive," Allen told them. "You have to take a serious look at yourself and your neighborhood, then decide who you are and what you are going to do."

After that "do or die" admonition, the congregation agreed to do some serious soul searching. To help them weigh their options, the Diocese paid for Percept's Ministry Area Profile (MAP)—a study that Allen admits had to be unpacked in stages in order to make it more palatable.

"It was interesting because the first thing they saw [on one of the maps] was that St. Elizabeth's was surrounded by the color yellow, but the color red, on the other hand, was way out on the outer edges of this vast neighborhood that we were sitting in," says Allen.

Yellow, as they quickly identified, was not the color of their true loves' lair, meaning in demographic terms, they weren't people who were likely to be Episcopalians—now or ever. Red, on the other hand, was their kind of folk—people who would be more partial to their polity and tradition.

"The first thing we learned was that Episcopalians even had a demographic; in other words, there were certain kinds of people who tended to go to Episcopal churches," says Allen. "And there were strong indicators to prove it. So this made them see why they had fought tooth and nail all these 100 years to even stay alive in this neighborhood.

Their choices became clear: 1) stay and keep on doing what they were doing; 2) hire a part-time priest while the elderly folks came up with some miraculous ministry idea that would make the people flood in the doors; 3) close and be intentional about it—farming members out to other Episcopal churches; 4) form a joint congregation with the local Lutheran church with whom they had shared various ministries; or 5) change location all together.

Prayer of Jabez

While they were considering their options, using Percept to help them decide, they added a new element to the decision process—a group study on the Prayer of Jabez*. "Oh that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory," read part of the prayer. What they didn't know was that two other parishioners had been individually praying the same prayer before St. Elizabeth's decided to do it as a group.

"I have to admit, I have a bit of a jaundiced view of some of the stuff that the
religious media puts out, but I thought, what do we have to lose," says Allen. "I'll just ask the parish to pray this prayer for thirty days and see what happens."

Little did they know that "enlarge my territory" would mean that they would literally end up moving the entire church.

"We knew that moving was the fifth option on the list, but that seemed more like a fantasy than anything," said Wert. "On the other hand, in my mind I didn't see how any of the other options could work." When the four of us, Scott, Joan Laudenslager (Senior Warden), my mom and myself went to see the bishop to present our options, we told him, 'Our hearts desire is to stay together. We don't mind becoming new, but we'd like to become 'new' together!'"

Besides not wanting to be adopted out, they also didn't want to lose the new head of their family—Scott Allen. Unfortunately the odds of that happening were not good. First they couldn't afford to pay him, and second, the Diocese had a hard and fast policy that a parish could not hire their interim vicar—a policy that had never been broken.

What Wert and the others didn't know was that their prayers were about to be answered—"exceedingly abundantly" above all that they could ask or think.

Shockville

The Diocese, it seemed, had just finished identifying a "hot spot": a location in their area that Percept had identified as having the potential of being an ideal place for a new Episcopal church start. Schnecksville, the new location, was older and considerably smaller—by about 99,000 people—than their existing location in Allentown. If it was hard to imagine an Episcopal Church in this one stoplight town, it was even harder to pronounce it. Perhaps if one imbibed a few shots of an alcoholic beverage, then slurred the word "Snacksville", could it be enunciated well enough to please even the locals—all 6,400 of them.

After identifying the location as Schnecksville, the Diocese approached Allen (who at the time was seriously considering taking a full-time position elsewhere) with a proposal: Come and develop a new congregation up there, bringing St. Elizabeth's with you.

Lynn Wert saw some major obstacles to this option. Though she, for one, was willing to go, she knew that others would not. Her estimation was that in the end maybe only 15-20 people would end up choosing to relocate—and even
those people would be either too old, or have to work full-time, thereby limiting their involvement. One thing was certain—both groups together still wouldn't be able to support the new church. Therefore, Lynn told the bishop, they could only seriously consider this option if the bishop could give them some words they could take back to St. Elizabeth's so the congregation wouldn't think they had gone insane.

"You don't need to worry, you'll have the money," said the bishop. "When you sell the building it will be held in trust for when you are ready to buy new property. Meanwhile, we'll help out with the rent and the remodeling of the interim building." If that wasn't amazing enough, what the bishop told Lynn and the others next sent them into shock: "And we'll allow Scott to become your full-time rector." To Lynn, this was nothing short of "a Red-Sea miracle."

At the annual meeting on January 21, 2002, Allen officially put the idea of closing the church and relocating before the congregation. As it turned out, all but a few families agreed to the move.

"People came up to Joan, Scott and myself and said, 'While moving will be hard, it is, after all, just a building, and we're about more than that,'" says Wert. "The people who didn't want to go didn't even return to the next service—they were pretty upset. On the other hand, I also didn't get married there or raise children and grandchildren there, so I had to have some empathy for the ones who just couldn't make the break."

It wasn't an easy gestation period for St. Elizabeth's. Especially because, like Mary and Joseph, the members suddenly found themselves having to leave their home without really knowing where they would be giving birth. And, like Mary's cousin, Elizabeth, the namesake of their church, they felt a bit old to be pregnant with a vision. After all, St. Elizabeth's had been around 100 years, and many of the members almost as long. Still, it was blatantly clear God had answered their prayer to enlarge their territory.

"Our emotions ran somewhere between terrified, sad, excited and very overwhelmed," says Wert. "But we also knew we would not be left alone in this because we had seen God working so dramatically—leading right up to the moment where the bishop said, "I need a people and you need a place, and I'm willing to provide you with a priest of your choice."

Shuffle off to Schnecksville

On September 5th, 2002, their last day in their old location in Allentown, the entire faithful remnant of St. Elizabeth's Church began the first step of their journey, picking up the altar and carrying it down the aisle—tears streaming freely down everyone's face. Even their newly inducted priest was visibly moved.

"We all cried," says Allen. "Everybody was moved by it because it was a congregation that had worked so hard to keep the church open and here we were finally saying, 'We need to do something else and we're going to step out in faith and leave this place.' And so the altar was carried out by parishioners, lovingly, and put on the truck."

Wert still can't recall that day without crying. "It was awesome, so awesome," she choked, struggling with her words. "To watch those who were moving with us, and those who wouldn't be because they valued the neighborhood church—to see them go up there together and take the linens off the altar that they had dressed so many times...it was bittersweet. The symbolism was incredible. But the truth is, it was only that moment that was difficult. Because once you went through the moment, you were free. We knew that we were heading into a wilderness—an unknown place—to become a people that the Lord had called to that place and for that time. I mean, that's kind of a heavy responsibility but we also knew that because we are about the business of listening to Him and seeking Him out, that He was going to provide."

"Promised Land... or Bust" the handmade sign read, draped over the side of the truck. It was a testimony to St. Elizabeth's faith that like Abraham and Sarah, they were willing to go forth, obeying God's voice, even though they still didn't have a building to call home. A church family in their newly adopted city, learning of their plight, offered their barn for storage. And that is where the "manger" would lie, covered under hay and straw, waiting for its permanent home. Meanwhile, while the symbols of their worship would lay, figuratively speaking, "dormant under the dung" the people bunked up with a nearby Episcopal church that took them in while they kept looking for a new building.

"It was an amazing thing really," says Wert. "Here we had our last service on a Thursday. And we had it not because we had to be out, but because we
figured that the longer we stayed there, the less motivated we would be to move on. Well, by the following Monday, Scott had found the building in Schnecksville that we would end up renting. So, it was almost like, I'm not going to reveal your new place until you step out of where you are.'"

Finally, nine months later, near Bethlehem, a church was born. St. Elizabeth's went the way of many Anglican churches in these post-modern times, finding themselves reborn in a storefront—although in their case it was a former beer distributorship that would become their new home. Now instead of carpet, stained glass windows and wooden pews, they would have concrete floors, partitions and folding chairs.

Their first service, held on Advent Sunday, December 1, 2002, was filled with members, numerous friends and visitors. In fact, there were so many people they ran out of folding chairs. Once again, St. Elizabeth's was witness to both God's provision and sense of humor.

"There we were, in the middle of exchanging the peace when the back door opens and in comes this guy
with 30 chairs," says Wert. "He was a salvage contractor who just happened to have some chairs to sell—for really cheap—and he just happened to come right in the middle of our service! So Scott and I just looked at each other and said, "Well, I guess we have enough chairs now!"

"There is no doubt this is a whole new world for Episcopalians, because really you can't deny that the Book of Common Prayer goes better with Gothic!" says Allen. "At least we always thought it did, but we're learning a lot about adopting liturgy to new spaces."

One of the things Allen did, for example, was to change the way they did the "Peace Time"—a pre-service ritual in which people greet one another. "I told them they should start becoming more attentive to new people in the congregation rather than just start talking about Aunt Minnie's gall bladder surgery or some such thing," says Allen.

Making Altarations

Some changes, which hearken back to a time far more ancient than St. Elizabeth's, were actually more appealing to the modern world—especially Gen-Xers and Yers. For example, Allen plans to use a square altar vs. the usual octagonal one—a change that levels out the praying field because one side of the alter isn't, by its very structure, preferred over the other. This translates into everyone celebrating the Eucahrist equally. The combined changes, including altering the seating to more of a semi-circle, makes the service more relational.

While Scott's focus has been on implementing liturgical changes, Wert's heart lies more in the area of hospitality—of making visitors and new members feel welcome. "We almost can't help being welcoming because that is who we are; we just need to make sure that what we think is welcoming actually is welcoming," says Wert. "Like the students at the community college across the street. We'd like to connect with them—to find methods to minister to them in ways they can identify. So we're praying for ways we can
meet their needs by asking them questions like, "What do you need? Do you need space? Do you need study time? Do you need tutoring? Do you need someone to decompress with? Do you need a place to be that's safe?"

Part of what Wert envisions is a separate space from the worship area—a place where people can come and sit and be still. It would be an area that is never locked, where anyone can come and reconnect with God. This 24/7 availability was an important part of her growing up years in the church she had attended and despite the rise of crime and insurance rates and other sociological factors, she would like that to be part of what St. Elizabeth's offers as well.

Overall, Wert sees St. Elizabeth's mission not to change who they are, but that who they've always been will become more visible.

"St. Elizabeth's is, at every level, a healing community—physically, emotionally and spiritually," says Wert. Not that we have great visible miracles of healing," says Wert. "But many people have gone through our community and come out on the other side feeling better—feeling more whole."

Through all of these changes, Wert has learned some important lessons about obedience. But with the hard lessons have also come, as they always do, great blessings. None of those blessings, she believes, would have happened without concerted and unified prayer.

"I didn't have a fun or even an inspirational time during my first year at St. Elizabeth's," says Wert. "But what I found was that I had some skills and
talents that until then had not been used. So when the rector passed away and we really needed to come together as a congregation, I just asked a simple question, 'What can I do to help?' And because Kay Snyder, Joan and myself were people of prayer we knew that we couldn't do things without God. So we started everything in prayer. And if we got confused in the middle of something, we'd stop and pray. When we felt we had a clear answer, we'd go forward. And if we didn't quite have the answer right, God took our effort anyway and made something good of it. Individually none of us had any idea what we were doing, but collectively in prayer everything fell into line one after another. It wasn't designed, it wasn't plotted. It was more like as one door closed, another one opened, and you could look at it and say, "I see God in this, I can see that we are okay with this—let's do it! And that is what we did."

"There was an expectation they would be guided, and clearly they were," says Jane Teter, the Canon for
the Diocese of Bethlehem. "They talked about things as they were doing them and as things formed they took it very seriously—considering all the options: the good, the bad and the ugly. But they did it in a very prayerful environment. They are a courageous bunch of folks who were willing to take that next step. They said, "We don't know how this is going to work but here we go!"

Wert sums it up beautifully. "It has been, and continues to be, a wonderful journey with God. It's a divine adventure and a human adventure—full of hurt feelings and impatience but also lots of hope, family and support. And really St. Elizabeth's isn't special. . .we just said, 'Yes.'" -Jenni Keast

*The Prayer of Jabez Bible Study; Bruce Wilkinson, Multnomah Publishers Inc. 2001
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©  COPYRIGHT 2002 PERCEPT GROUP, INC.
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