By Stan Friedman
JAMESTOWN, NY (March 30, 2011) – First and Zion Covenant Churches were founded prior to the year 1900 and are less than two miles apart – but have rarely done ministry with each other.
Over recent years, however, the congregations have planted a Hispanic church, attracted more than 100 unchurched addicts to a new recovery ministry, and combined many of their youth activities. In April they will open a Christ-centered recovery residence that will house up to 10 men. They are eager to find more ways to intertwine their ministries, including offering joint educational and small-group opportunities.
The churches split more than 100 years ago when members of what would become Zion Covenant left First Covenant. Ask people the source of the division and you will hear widely differing answers. “Nobody really seems to know why,” says lifetime Zion member Dave Anderson. Nor do they care.
Members of Zion participated in “The Living Christmas Tree,” an outreach event of First Covenant. The musical celebration has been a highlight in the city for more than 20 years. Some senior fellowship groups occasionally interacted. They also had worked together on preschool vacation Bible school.
For the most part, however, the congregations did not engage in mutual ministry to their community. Even though First Covenant has roughly 250 members and Zion has around 470, according to the Covenant Yearbook, there was little social interaction.
“Most people didn’t know someone at the other church,” says Sally Chall, who recently retired from Zion where she served as a longtime associate pastor for children and family ministries. She also had worked for 29 years at First Covenant as director of their preschool.
The two churches generally were so focused on the ministries in their own growing and thriving churches that there was little consideration of doing joint outreaches to the community, says Chall. “There also had been a sort of competition between the churches, and you could sense that with some people,” Chall recalls.
“At their worst, it had a sense of a family feud,” says First’s pastor, Adam Rohler. Today, he adds, laughing, “People at First are allowed to like people at Zion.”
Members are able to joke about the relationship. One Zion attendee recently quipped to someone from the other congregation that he was surprised First Covenant actually sang the hymn, “We’re Marching to Zion,” which includes the lyrics, “We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion.”
The churches have been in step with each other, though, as they engage in mutual ministry. First Covenant led the effort to plant Nueva Vida Covenant Church. Zion contributed roughly $10,000.
The churches began working more closely together when they each called new pastors within months of one another in 2009. Rick Miller arrived in April and Rohler came to First in September.
The two met and became friends. They quickly began considering how their churches could work together. “Neither of us had the baggage from the past,” says Rohler.
That friendship paved the way for the churches to consider doing mutual ministry and say, “We can do things with them,” says Rohler.
Not only can they do things together, he adds, but both churches are moving forward with the attitude, “This is exciting. Let’s keep going.”