Gift of building results in church merger in Lancaster, PA

It has been a bit confusing that the only two URCNA congregations in Pennsylvania were both named “Covenant,” but in the future it will be easier to distinguish between the two. Covenant Reformed Church in eastern Lancaster County, PA, obtained a permanent building in July by merging with a local congregation and adopting that congregation’s name. Covenant Reformed Church is now a much larger Zeltenreich Reformed Church.

“With the merger Zeltenreich Reformed Church now has around 150 souls,” says Rev. Steve Arrick, “and many are visiting because they have heard of what the Lord has brought about.”

Although the two congregations were meeting only about two miles apart, Covenant Reformed Church was largely unaware of the existence of Zeltenreich United Church of Christ (UCC), a church that began as one of the early German Reformed congregations in America from which the Reformed Churches in the United States (RCUS) eventually formed. Covenant URC became more familiar with Zeltenreich UCC when it began renting Zeltenreich’s facility for its annual Christmas Eve service two years ago. The recent and unusual merger came about as a result of that interaction.

After the 2010 Christmas Eve service, members of Zeltenreich UCC who had attended the service told members of Covenant URC that their shrinking church appeared likely to disband and it was considering donating the building to a local congregation. Although the leadership of Covenant was initially skeptical, it expressed guarded interest.

Near the end of January, 2011, Rev. Steve Arrick received a phone call from Mrs. Velda Peachy, the President of Zeltenreich UCC’s consistory. She offered the Zeltenreich building for Covenant’s use for two weeks in the spring when many of its remaining members would be out of town. She suggested that Covenant determine if the building was suitable and if the Covenant congregation would be willing to accept it as a gift.

“After speaking with Mrs. Peachy, I immediately called our elders and deacons and informed them of this development and asked them to pray,” says Rev. Arrick. “We were cautiously optimistic, but realized that such a gift, to become a reality, would be of the Lord.”

After the initial two Sundays went well, the trial period was extended another two weeks. The Covenant congregation then returned to its rented facility while the Zeltenreich leadership discussed with its congregation the possibility of dissolving the church and donating the building.

On May 15, 2011, Zeltenreich decided to proceed with the proposals. A Zeltenreich representative attended Covenant’s worship and announced the decision following Covenant’s service. On the following Sunday, May 22, Covenant resumed its worship services in the Zeltenreich building.

“As news concerning the possible gift of a building surfaced within the Classis,” says Rev. Andrew Eenigenburg, Clerk of Classis Eastern US, “it soon became clear that the door was opening for a pastoral relationship with the remaining members of the Zeltenreich congregation….  Again, Rev. Arrick asked for fervent prayers from the members of Classis that God would give him pastoral wisdom and ability to navigate the complicated process of bringing together his own flock with the remaining flock at the Zeltenreich church.”

That complicated process included discussions with an attorney in an effort to determine the best course of action involved in the legalities of the property transfer.

“The two churches retained a lawyer to help them through the legalities of dissolution and gifting the property to Covenant,” explains Rev. Arrick. “During those meetings Covenant suggested that Zeltenreich not dissolve, but leave the UCC and continue as Zeltenreich Reformed Church.”

“There were several reasons for this,” he adds. “First, it was the least expensive route. The dissolution and the disbursement of Zeltenreich’s assets would cost thousands of dollars. Second, nearly everyone in our area knows where Zeltenreich church is. Third, Zeltenreich could celebrate its 300th year as a faithful Reformed church as a URCNA congregation, a rare milestone that would testify to God’s faithfulness.”

The Zeltenreich congregation voted to leave the UCC on June 19, 2011, and become unaffiliated. On July 10, 2011, the membership of Covenant Reformed Church was received into the Zeltenreich congregation, and Covenant’s leadership was voted into office of the new Zeltenreich Reformed Church (URCNA).

Although Rev. Arrick admits that the members of Covenant Reformed Church may have been technically unaffiliated for a brief space of time, he reiterates the intention to bring the two congregations together with one property under the auspices of the URCNA.

“I suppose it is accurate to say that most of the members and officers of Covenant were, for a few minutes at the same meeting on July 10, 2011, members of an unaffiliated Reformed church,” he says, “but the intent was always that same: to enable Covenant Reformed Church to come to possess a church building and property, take on a new name and location, and continue the heritage of a well-known Reformed church in the New Holland and Eastern Lancaster County area under the banner of the URCNA.”

Rev. Eenigenberg expands on that explanation: “Since the Zeltenreich congregation had no pastor or other members seeking to retain ministerial credentials within the United Reformed Church, there was no necessary action or examination required at the Classical level. Assimilation of new members remains under the local purview of the Covenant Reformed consistory, and a priority for local pastoral care. In terms of procedure this would be treated like an influx of new members in any of our churches. But, we are joyfully aware that this is a God-given blessing which has strengthened and encouraged both the Zeltenreich congregations as well as our entire Classis…. And we praise the Lord that these events have taken place carefully and prayerfully over the past year.”

The church and an adjacent graveyard are located in a rural setting surrounded by Amish and Mennonite farms. The building, constructed in 1907 with an addition in 1974, was re-dedicated in a 4:00 PM service on Sunday, October 9, 2011. Rev. Paul T. Murphy, Messiah’s Reformed Fellowship in New York, spoke at the service, which was followed by a time of fellowship and an opportunity for guests to tour the facility.

“Receiving a building and doubling in size almost overnight is a great, and sometimes, overwhelming blessing,” says Rev. Arrick. “But we are all coming together nicely and have begun to develop a full complement of activities designed to edify the body and reach out to our community.”

Zeltenreich Reformed Church is located at 752 Hollander Road near New Holland, PA. Sunday worship services are at 9:15 AM and 10:30 AM. More information about the church can be found at its website: http://www.covreformedchurch.com.

“This was so obviously God’s gift to all of us that we are still overwhelmed when we think about it,” Rev. Arrick says. “Covenant got a building, Zeltenreich Reformed got a younger congregation with a future, and the community retained an historic church that, Lord willing, will be a faithful Reformed witness until Christ returns.”

The above is a slightly edited version of an article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 8-9 of the October 5, 2011 issue of Christian Renewal.

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