EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Years of dwindling membership have forced the Presbyterian Church of Pleasantville to make some unconventional changes to ensure its survival.
The church, in Pleasantville for more than a century, will relocate to Egg Harbor Township this fall under a new name. The congregation also recently hired one of New Jersey’s few openly gay pastors to oversee that transition.
“Most churches would be afraid to make the move,” said Alice Groome, who stepped in as interim church administrator when the church’s last pastor left in September 2010. “But to stay and die, instead of taking a chance, is worse.”
As for the new pastor, Groome said the decision was based on which candidate would best serve the church. The current political climate was not a factor.
“We have other gay members of our congregation — it’s just who we are,” she said. “We have received some new members, and lost a few. But my feeling about that is he’s gay, so what?”
Once a thriving congregation of several hundred, the Presbyterian Church of Pleasantville has languished since the mid-1990s.
The average Sunday service attracts just 40 to 50 worshippers these days. With its congregation aging or moving away, its nursery has sat dormant. In the past decade, it’s gone years at a time without a pastor. Temporary ministers came and went as a core group of parishioners remained.
“The people in Pleasantville literally died,” said Charlotte Jensen, of Mays Landing, a church member for 40 years.
During that time, the demographics and local economy of Pleasantville changed. The young families that were once the church’s lifeblood either moved away or took up casino jobs that required them to work on Sunday. Nowadays, Jensen said, most members travel 10 to 15 minutes to attend services.
“Sunday isn’t sacred anymore,” she said. “We had to change if we wanted to survive.”
Pastor Blake Spencer, who took over church leadership in March, will oversee the congregation’s transformation into the Ocean Heights Presbyterian Church of Egg Harbor Township. The Texas transplant with an easy laugh and a subtle drawl speaks candidly about the one component of his life many churches eye with suspicion.
When he first responded to the church’s job posting, Spencer didn’t make his sexual orientation explicit (although a Google search reveals that fact soon enough, Jensen said). Although the Pleasantville church had used words such as “progressive” to try to attract a diverse pool of applicants, he said even progressive churches have unspoken rules against gays.
“Even in an affirming church, there’s a little flinch,” he said.
Spencer wasn’t open about his sexuality for most of his 25 years in the pulpit. In Texas, he led a congregation with his wife and had two children during that time.
That changed when he “came out” about four years ago.
“I faithfully served the church but lived in deep denial,” said Spencer, 51, now of Egg Harbor Township. “I had moments where I knew, but I was too afraid to explore it. It’s a frightening thing to explore when the church and the culture are all yelling at you that this is not an option.”
But that culture is starting to change.
The Episcopal Church, which ordained the first openly homosexual priest in 1977, elected its first gay bishop in 2003. In 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church permitted gay clergy in sexually monogamous relationships, followed by the Presbyterian Church last year.
Spencer, who came out four years ago and served openly in Nashville, revealed his orientation during his first Skype interview with the pastor nominating committee.
“I asked in the interview if they had any gay members and one member pointed to herself,” he said. “So I told the rest of my story.”
Jensen, the committee chair, said it was clear from Spencer’s easy-going demeanor, his engaging sermons that related to real-life situations and his experience growing similar congregations that he was the right man for the job.
“He’s known the very good times in life and the very bad times in life,” she said.
After several months of vetting by church elders and the West Jersey Presbytery, of which the Pleasantville church is a member, Spencer came out to his new congregation in his first sermon in March.
“There was no reaction,” Jensen said. “We have gay people in our congregation. What are you going to say to friends you’ve had for years?”
One recent Thursday, nearly a third of the church’s active members were out at the new building, a former painters union hall off Ocean Heights Avenue, tearing up carpet in preparation for several months of renovation. The first thing to go, Spencer said, was a whisky bottle left in the plush, wood-paneled president’s office.
“Not that we are against drinking, but we can’t have that here,” he said.
While the new church is smaller and more plain — “it looks like a dentist’s office,” Spencer said — the congregation is hopeful it will give them a new start. Unlike Pleasantville, he said, the township is a growing community full of the young families that keep churches alive.
Spencer said the ultimate goal is to sell the Pleasantville property. If that proves difficult, he said a few congregations — most of them catering to Pleasantville’s various minority communities — have expressed interest in leasing the church.
And this isn’t the first time the church has moved in more than a century of its existence. In the 1880s, the building was literally moved on rollers from Somers Point to Washington Avenue in Pleasantville. An expanding congregation forced it to move again in the 1960s to a two-building campus off South Main Street.
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