By David Dawson
Presbyterian churches were emerging among the early European immigrants in western Pennsylvania toward the end of the 18th century. A dozen congregations were worshiping before 1800 in the present counties of Lawrence and Mercer between Pittsburgh and Lake Erie. Approximately 60 congregations were formed during the 1800s. Only five began in the 1900s and one in the 21st century. The earliest Presbyterians were related to several denominations of the Ulster-Scot immigrants of the period. The original Presbytery of Shenango (PCUSA) was founded in 1808.
The Presbytery of Shenango as we know it today was formed Jan. 1, 1959, following the merger in 1958 of the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Presbyterian Church of North America. It included 77 congregations and 32,000 members essentially in Mercer and Lawrence counties, and it continues with those boundaries today.
Entering 2016 there were 49 churches in the Presbytery of Shenango, a dozen churches having been closed or merged during the six decades. Nineteen congregations requested dismissal to the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians – ECO (13) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (six) between 2012 and 2015. This represented a third of the members and a quarter of the churches prior to those dismissals.
The church population of the two counties that identifies as Presbyterian is approximately 10 percent of the total – one of the highest domestic percentages. The overall population has declined approximately 15 percent during the past 50 years.
Shenango is unusual as a presbytery in that it has two highly-rated PCUSA-related colleges within its bounds: Westminster (founded in 1854) and Grove City (founded in 1876).
Strategic planning produced the Millennium Plan with a commitment to “Developing and Training Leaders” along with a focus on “Communicating and Partnering Networks.” These foci have resulted in an annual Leaderfest training event along with pastors’ retreats twice a year. There are also opportunities for congregations to explore developing a missional church posture that involves being sent into the local community and wider world.
Congregations are encouraged to participate in international partnerships in the Sudan/South Sudan, Egypt and the Dominican Republic. All of this is supported by a lean committee structure, a web presence and regular electronic communication. The Presbytery of Shenango is known for its relational culture, international commitments and missional focus.
Full-time executive presbyters began serving when the presbytery was formed in 1959 and have included Albert Dodds, Ralph Strong, Fred Mallott, David Dawson and currently Ralph Hawkins (who is also Stated Clerk).