A number of Atlantic County churches have embarked on major expansion and relocation projects amid the struggling economy, defying conventional wisdom about dwindling membership and tighter fundraising.
Among them is the Presbyterian Church of Pleasantville, which, after almost 50 years on South Main Street, has moved to a smaller sanctuary six miles away in Egg Harbor Township. The change is an attempt to revitalize a congregation that has dwindled in recent decades. Many of those who remain don’t live in Pleasantville, but their goodbye is no less emotional.
At the church’s final service, member Mary Ingraham’s voice cracked as she read Isaiah 54:10, her stance wavering as she stood in the light of the stained-glass windows for the last time.
“For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed,” Ingraham, 32, of Galloway Township, said as tears welled, “but my steadfast love shall not depart from you.”
This, however, is not the story of an end.
This, said pastor Blake Spencer, is a beginning.
“Breathe with me,” he instructed his congregation. “Take a deep breath with me. We are journeying together, and it’s a good thing.”
“Important things have happened here,” Ingraham said before joining a procession of cars to the new church, called Ocean Heights Presbyterian. “Weddings and funerals. My son grew up in this church. My family’s home is here.”
The Presbyterian congregation is not the only one taking a leap of faith. In June, the nondenominational Greentree Church in the English Creek section of Egg Harbor Township completed a $1.7 million Learning Center, which resulted in 8,400 square feet for preschool and Sunday school classes.
“We’re very optimistic. There’s more stability as we see the economic recovery around us,” Jerry Smith, executive pastor of Greentree, said.
The congregation has grown in the past six months and has the potential to become even larger, Smith said. The Learning Center poises the church for more growth, because the service it provides will appeal to young parents, he said.
Last December, St. Vincent de Paul church in Mays Landing opened a new building that can seat 830. The Muslim Community Organization of South Jersey converted the vacant McKee City School into a community center with plans to build a larger campus. And the Pleasantville church’s relocation has provided an opportunity for yet another growing church.
The same morning that Spencer held his first full service at Ocean Heights Presbyterian, the Rev. Kevin Ragland took over his former pulpit. Ragland’s Lighthouse Community Church has a home of its own after seven years in the Farmington Volunteer Fire Company hall in Egg Harbor Township.
At least twice a month, Ragland’s sermons were interrupted by screaming sirens and squawking intercoms as firefighters went out on calls.
“We lost a lot of people by being in the firehouse,” Ragland said. “Many lost heart in that process, but many are coming back now.”
The fire hall was the largest meeting place they could afford and, despite the challenges, they were happy to have it, he said. He’s even happier to have a quieter sanctuary.
“We have sparked the interest of older parishioners because of the traditional church setting: the stained glass and pews, not chairs,” Ragland said. “Those kinds of things resonate with them.”
Lighthouse has reopened its nursery program, he said. For the first time in years, the Presbyterian church’s annex is full of children playing and learning on Sundays.
Spencer said it’s heartening to know the congregation’s old home is giving another church an opportunity to grow. Lighthouse is leasing the building, he said, with the possibility of a sale down the line.
“That congregation filled the church up the very first time they were there,” Spencer said. “It’s fun and exciting to watch that happen. We’re hoping we both grow.”
At Ocean Heights Presbyterian, Spencer said he counted eight new faces at the church’s first full service in its new home. They’re easy to spot, he said, because the congregation is so tight-knit.
“We try not to overwhelm them, but we’re just so pleased,” Spencer said.
The relocation process began two years ago but blossomed into other, more fundamental changes. Not only has the church moved to a smaller facility closer to the base of its congregation, but it took on a new name and a new pastor, one of the few openly gay clergy in the state.
While many miss the old church, Spencer said, there’s renewed optimism for the congregation’s future. A recent fundraising drive to buy books for Hurricane Sandy victims has proved more successful than anyone imagined, drawing donations even from nonmembers.
This summer, the church’s services averaged 40 to 50 worshippers. At the most recent service in Egg Harbor Township, Spencer said, 73 worshippers attended.
As hard as it is to let go of the past, Ingraham — and many others — are hopeful for the future.
“We’re sad to leave, but we’re excited for a new start,” Ingraham said. “A church is more than a building.”
“I think we’ll build our congregation to be strong,” said Betty Ping, 52, of Egg Harbor Township. “That’s what we’re looking for, and we have something to offer.”
Spencer said he enjoys watching his congregation discover and slowly embrace their new home, down to choosing their Sunday seats.
“It’s like, ‘Well, we need to find our 40-year chairs,’” he said.
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