by the Rev. Beth Wierman
In 2019, the United Presbyterian Church in Ambridge, PA, placed the church building on the market. After much prayer, conversation and discernment, the session decided to continue as a community believing they were (still) called by God to serve together. Like many congregations, the aging physical facility of the church had become cumbersome and a financial burden preventing resources to flow toward mission and growth.
United Presbyterian was the result of the merger of Calvary on Maplewood Avenue and Grace on Merchant Street – with both churches founded in 1904. Many people remember that process in 1977 and, with the changes of congregational life in the last 20 years, the congregation has grown more flexible and determined in their understanding of what it means to function as a community of faith.
In the spring of 2019, Trinity School of Ministry in Ambridge purchased the Maplewood building and leased it back to UP. The congregation moved forward with the plan to worship at what had been Grace Presbyterian church – TSM’s current chapel – after TSM began renovations on the Maplewood location. The congregation explored cooperative ministry with neighboring churches over the last four years but nothing developed.
Then, in November of 2020, the possibility of working with Zion’s First (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) Church was brought to the congregation’s attention. ZF’s council extended the invitation to collaborate. After several months of dialogue and prayerful discovery, both congregations agreed to this possibility.
“Making the decision to close our church building was a difficult one, but we really felt God’s hand in all the circumstances surrounding it and know we made the right choice,” said Tam Urban, chair of the Collaborative Ministry Task Force at United Presbyterian. “Looking to the future of our faith and fellowship, we are extremely excited to join with Zion’s First Lutheran Church, to grow and move forward together. Once again, we feel the Lord’s will at work as we are called to take this step and are looking forward to sharing together and serving the community with these new possibilities.”
UP worshiped for the last time in the Maplewood building on Feb. 22, 2021, marking 116 years of service and worship of Jesus Christ in that location. Generations of collected furniture, books and literature were cleaned out to make way for a new function for the beautiful structure. The building will become the chapel and a student center for TSM. The knowledge that it will continue to be a place of worship and service is a delight for the congregation. The relationship with TSM has been providential from the beginning.
On Feb. 28, 2021, the United Presbyterian congregation gathered with Zion’s First to begin worshiping together – in-person and online. With financial stability and plans to create a unique congregation with both Lutheran and Presbyterian affiliation, there is excitement and joy. The leadership of both groups seek a new identity and clarity around common purpose. The hope is to create a new name along with a more connected and concrete ministry in the community where the congregation worships.
“The real thing that matters is the ministry of both congregations, joined together, as one has new life in Christ together,” said Sharon Shingleton, president of Zion’s First Council. “The history of both churches is very important. But the future is just as important. Remember this is God’s house and he writes the story. With faith, hope and love, this story will have new chapters.”
ZF has a small number of people but a faithful, committed and active congregation. The building is located one-half block away from the former UP Maplewood property. It is adjacent to the Center for Hope – a community nonprofit serving need-based area residents with food and other practical assistance.
“Amid a pandemic, when no one knows day-to-day what will happen, God’s Light shines bright on Zion’s First and U.P. Ambridge,” Sharon said. “Through all the talks of merger and all the questions: Who will do what? Where will things go? How will the service be? What time will worship be? They are all actions that have to be done, we are here to serve Christ and others not ourselves!”
In a year of frustration, disappointment, loss and confusion, the reality that the Holy Spirit is not bound by any limitations, including the pandemic, became abundantly clear. As conversations have progressed, it became apparent to everyone that by giving up some cherished aspects of congregational life, there would be a greater blessing in cooperative relationship and mutual support. There is much to learn, more to be determined and a future radiating with hope.
“I look forward to sharing God’s word and ministry with all of the members of both congregations and growing into one family congregation,” Sharon concluded. “Giving outreach to those in need of help not only in the Ambridge community but also New Sewickley (where Pastor Beth Wierman will also be serving). All are in need of help and spiritual hope during these uncertain times. Maybe we will be New Life Christian Community Church – sounds good to me!”
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)