New voices have arrived at First Reformed Church, the ornate, historic building in Schenectady’s Stockade neighborhood.
Nancy Davidson owns one of them. As a member of the Union Presbyterian Church choir, Davidson and other Union singers will soon become part of the choir at First Reformed.
“We’re going to shake y’all up a bit,” Davidson smiled, promising her friends in the Reformed congregation something different on Sunday mornings when singers are scheduled.
For now, Union voices are being used for greetings and introductions at First Reformed. And one shake-up has already taken place: On July 8, members of the two congregations officially prayed together for the first time under a new joint congregational witness arrangement.
The churches have not merged. Earlier this year, Union Presbyterian’s dwindling membership convinced parishioners the time had come to sell their building on Park Avenue. A new buyer has been found in Mount Olivet Missionary Baptist Church.
Now, members of Union Presbyterian are “nesting” at First Reformed, keeping their church identity and worshipping with the First Reformed faithful. Both congregations are getting used to new faces.
Last Sunday, about 40 members of Union Presbyterian sat in their new pews at First Reformed on a hot, humid morning and listened to a sermon from the Rev. Stacey Midge, an associate minister. Many wore name tags; everyone watched as baby Annalyn Rose Dexter-Jackson was baptized.
“These are your family members, all of them,” said white-robed liturgist Daniel Carlson, as he carried Annalyn up the center aisle and “introduced” her to adults and children. “They are yours.”
There were smiles everywhere during the service’s expression of peace, as people turned to one another and shook hands and made other acknowledgements of goodwill.
Bill Levering, senior pastor at First Reformed, has already noticed a different feeling in church.
“In almost any enterprise, when you get more people in the room, it gets more exciting,” Levering said. “I think we can say that categorically having more people together to do things is more exciting. There’s more energy.”
Union Presbyterian began making efforts to remain on Park Avenue in 2008. Church members went door to door and tried to interest people in joining the congregation. They said that because of the church’s location in a residential neighborhood, not many people would pass by, “discover” the building and perhaps attend a service. Union Presbyterian also experimented with alternate days and styles for church worship sessions and more informal services.
The idea of shared ministry eventually came up — a way to preserve congregation and identity by worshipping with another congregation.
“We didn’t want to see everybody disperse all over the place,” said Lil Bertalan, of Niskayuna, a 25-year member of Union Presbyterian. “We wanted to stay together.”
In the fall of 2010, letters were sent to 14 local churches — Presbyterian, Reformed, Lutheran and United Church of Christ denominations — with comparable theologies. Union Presbyterian members wanted to discuss a shared ministry arrangement. Bertalan said First Reformed showed interest from the beginning.
“They really embraced the idea and just saw a future in the concept of coming together,” she said.
But some Union Presbyterians were reluctant to consider closing their building. Nancy Davidson said many parishioners had longtime connections to Park Avenue and had seen their children grow up inside the 99-year-old church. There were memories at the church, and people didn’t want to leave them behind.
Liz Mastrianni of Schenectady, like Davidson a member of the joint task force that brought together people from both congregations, said dialogue at Union Presbyterian helped.
“There was a lot of explaining, but also a lot of listening to each other,” she said.
The last service at Union Presbyterian was held June 30. By then, only between 50 and 60 people were attending services on a regular basis.
Members of First Reformed took a vote in June at the congregation’s annual meeting on Union Presbyterian’s proposal for joint services. The vote in favor was unanimous.
Strength in numbers
Bill Ward, a member of the First Reformed congregation for the past 47 years, understands attendance is down in many churches.
“In that sense, Union Presbyterian strengthens us,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say we strengthen each other to give a sense of having a critical mass for worship.”
Ward also understands Union Presbyterian’s commitment to church mission.
“This will only add to and inspire our own interests in outreach,” he said. “Union Presbyterian people are liberal theologically, the way we are. That makes for more people with whom to deepen our spirituality.”
Coming together took some time.
“It was an evolutionary process. This is not something that just happens,” said Gene Zeltmann, of Clifton Park, who has been attending services at First Reformed since 1969. “I’m chair of the worship committee, and we talked about what we could do in worship that would include thoughts from the Presbyterian theology, which is not that drastically different from Dutch Reformed — same hymnals.
“I came from a Presbyterian church in Washington, and it was the same order of worship, it was very, very close. So it’s evolved now to, I think, where we have a lot of committed people within a body in the center of Schenectady which has an opportunity to do a lot of good things.”
Zeltmann is glad to see the new faces.
“One of the objectives of any congregation or any organization which has an outreach to the community is to try to bring people in and try to serve the needs of the community. I think we do that. I think we enhance that with the more people that are a part of it,” he said.
Sign of the times
Such teaming up is rare in Presbyterian and Reformed churches. Davidson believes the arrangement between Union and First Reformed is the first in the Northeast.
“This is very unique in the presbytery (a governing body) and I think also in the synod (governing body) of the Reformed Church this is a first,” said Victoria Brooks, a Presbyterian pastor who assisted in joint task force discussions. “I’ve been involved in merging churches before, I’ve been involved in closing churches before. This particular joint congregational witness is unique.”
Brooks, who is also director of religious and spiritual life at Union College, believes more joint operations are coming.
“Union is not unique in their experience of losing members and financial bind,” she said. “I’m also on the board of trustees for the Albany Presbytery, and they’re not the only church in this situation. This is a way to maintain identity, maintain control over your endowments and share resources, as well as just sharing fellowship.”
Fellowship has been fine.
“People are introducing themselves all over the place. People seem to be pleased,” Levering said. “We’ve integrated a music program, and we’ve really made great strides to try to make folks feel at home. We used their communion ware (on July 7), we have their banners up. We’re really very intentionally working on a joint culture. … I hate to be Pollyannish about this, but from our perspective, it’s all good.”
After last Sunday’s service, Rob Dickson of First Reformed talked to Gene Rowland of Union Presbyterian in the church courtyard, during a post-service social. Dickson said members of his church like the idea of helping another congregation that was in need.
“It also helps us,” he said. “First of all, there are more people. Right now, we’re in the formative stages. We’re trying to feel out how things are going to work out. My suspicion is it’s going to be fantastic.”
Union Presbyterian members have said they are going to give the joint arrangement some time. They could later decide to transfer membership to First Reformed. They could decide to dissolve their congregation.
“I think it’s clearly undefined,” Davidson said. “But our plan through our session is that we will review this again in a year and see where we are, see what the sentiment of our members is, and we will have decided how to handle our endowments during that period of time, which is very important to our congregation.”
For now, people are getting used to a new church — and feeling a little sad about leaving an old one.
“It’s certainly emotional,” Bertalan said. “Like anything else, it depends on where one wants to focus. One could focus on the past and how we’re going to miss this or that or focus on the joyous celebration of new Christian friends and new experiences. I choose to go forth and embrace the growth, and new friends.”