The Presbyterian Church of Pleasantville has served the spiritual needs of South Jersey well for its nearly 150 years, but dwindling membership threatened to bring this proud tradition to an end.
The church's median age was 68 as of three years ago, and as this rises, its rolls shrink, leaving the struggling church with no choice but to take drastic measures to avert closing.
On Dec. 2, the church will leave its home of 50 years for a new location at 2116 Ocean Heights Ave. in Egg Harbor Township, becoming Ocean Heights Presbyterian Church.
"We've been concerned about not being able to serve the community, and to reach out and grow a little bit, and we've tried several different things that churches that are trying to grow, do," said longtime church member Lee Whitton. "We've just not been successful at attracting community members to come into the church, so we wanted to relocate out here."
A farewell service will take place at the Pleasantville location at 10 a.m. Dec. 2, after which the congregants will proceed to the new location for a service and open house starting at about 10:45 a.m.
The moving process was initiated about three years ago when the church, recognizing its membership crisis, commissioned what's called a transformation study to determine how it should best change to meet the future.
The idea behind the move is that the church may be better able to find new members in Egg Harbor Township than in Pleasantville, where it struggled for years to add congregants. After speaking with each church member, the study authors determined moving was the best option, and that was approved about a year ago.
While the vote was nearly unanimous, the process has not not been without hurdles. Many longtime congregants are still emotionally attached to their Pleasantville home, and the added distance will force others to leave the church, Whitton said.
"It's the true meaning of a leap of faith, and it is very emotional for a lot of people," Whitton said. "We will lose people for whom the additional travel will be too much, even though we are a regional church - we draw from 13 ZIP codes ... (coming) to Pleasantville, it's difficult for some people."
The church's address is not its only major change of the past year. One week before the church voted to approve the move, it selected Blake Spencer as its new pastor.
Spencer, a 26-year veteran at the pulpit, has served the church for 10 months, and his passionate, interactive sermons have quickly become the cornerstone of the church's changing identity.
One thing that hasn't changed for the church is its emphasis on being progressive, caring and relevant. The church has hanging on its front door a sign welcoming all ages, sexes, races and sexual orientations, and it has a pervasive mission culture, from its fair trade coffee to its children's ministry, which collects supplies for the county animal shelter.
The church is in flux, with one foot in the past and one in the future. It has continued worship in Somers Point, while its administrative offices and a few ministries have relocated to Somers Point, and this split identity has been a source of stress in recent months.
The hope is that on Dec. 2, these growing pains will give way to growth, and while the future is unclear, Spencer said he believes it will be bright.
"They determined that within eight-10 years, they would not be able to sustain themselves as a congregation in the old (church)," Spencer said. "We hope to here. Do all the math and all that. I think the faith part of me says I've already seen how the spirit of God has moved in ways that it's going to happen. It's just going to happen."
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