by Heidi Filbert
This article was originally published in the Reformed Presbyterian Witness in the February 1, 2005 issue. It is reprinted here by permission.
On Oct. 28, 1892, 58 members of the First Reformed Presbyterian Church in Beaver Falls, Pa., took their certificates of membership and organized the Geneva Reformed Presbyterian Church two miles away. Now, 113 years later, the two have merged again to form one body.
The merger was decided to be “the best opportunity for effective ministry within the congregation and outreach to the community afforded by our available options,” stated the plan for merging the churches.
On Dec. 15, , both churches voted unanimously for the merger in separate, simultaneous congregational meetings. On Feb. 2, the presbytery met to effectuate the merger.
“It seems to me that this was really the direction of the Lord,” Rev. Renwick Wright, and elder at Geneva RPC, said. “All the events seemed to come together at the time things needed to be done.” Now that the decision has been made, Rev. Wright said we “need to go on wholeheartedly.”
The road to a church merger started with an idea coupled with lots of prayer and lots of work from both congregations. Since the merging of churches doesn’t happen often in the RPCNA, there wasn’t much precedent for the pastors to follow. “We didn’t know how to do it; we just did it,” Pastor Keith Black of First RPC said. “We knew what we wanted it to look like when we were done and worked toward that goal.”
The following is a timeline from the birth of that idea to two congregations worshiping and ministering as one.
Nov. 10, 1874
“The First Reformed Presbyterian Church was organized in Beaver Falls, with 24 charter members,” Pastor Black said. The new energetic congregation was anxious to begin operating on a full scale as soon as possible and called Dr. Robert James George as the first pastor. He accepted the call and began his work Apr. 1, 1875.
Oct. 28, 1892
Fifty-eight members of First RPC form Geneva RPC on College Hill.
The four active pastors in the Beaver Falls area were asked to pray with some retired pastors, J. Paul McCracken, Ken G. Smith, and James D. Carson, for the ministry efforts in Beaver Falls. According to Pastor Black, last summer “several retired pastors began praying that God would move in the hearts and minds of the people of Beaver Falls to be more effective in our ministry. These men began praying, and things began happening.” Since the prayer time started, Pastor Black, Pastor Bruce Backensto of Geneva RPC, and John Schaefer, and elder from Eastvale RPC, have been praying together regularly.
During a deacon board meeting on Sept. 6 at Geneva RPC, the deacons discovered that the cost of immediate, necessary repairs on the building was becoming quite high. “The deacons asked, ‘Will we be good stewards of the Lord’s money to put it into the building?'” Pastor Backensto said. The deacons then began to ask if the money could be put to better use.
Pastor Backensto was aware that First RPC was in a position to consider a merger with another church. According to a letter from First RPC to Geneva RPC proposing the merger, “The First Reformed Presbyterian Church has been in steady decline like many older congregations in the RPC, since the mid-1960s…regardless of the reason or reasons, the problem does exist. For several years, we have been depleting our savings to supplement our efforts in order to balance the budget.” With financial resources almost depleted, “our spirit and determination have not [been depleted] and we wish to continue the Lord’s work in this community.”
Pastor Backensto called Pastor Black, and the two met for lunch the next day to discuss the possibility of a merger. By the end of the month, the Geneva RPC session received a letter from the session of the First RPC proposing the merger.
The Geneva RPC session met early in the month and spent the majority of their meeting discussing the proposal. During the weeks that followed, both pastors started making phone calls to members to get their opinion on the merger.
At a congregational meeting on Oct. 20, First RPC voted to seek a merger with Geneva RPC. The following evening the session of First RPC drafted a proposal to the Geneva RPC.
“During our congregational meeting…our session, deacons, and members unanimously agreed to seek a merger with the Geneva Reformed Presbyterian Church,” the proposal states. “This merger would establish a new and totally integrated and united congregation. In biblical language, the two would become one flesh and, united, would serve the Lord together with a common purpose and goal.”
After distributing the proposal, Geneva RPC had a congregational meeting on Nov. 10 to vote on the merger “in principle.” The vote passed. The matter was also brought before the Presbytery of the Alleghenies during their fall meeting at the Manchester RP Chruch. Presbytery approved the merger “in principle.”
With both churches and the presbytery agreeing to the merger in principle, the sessions and the deacon boards of both churches were able to begin research on what the new church would be comprised of. They divided themselves into committees to research pastoral roles, facilities, boards, finances, administrative aspects, ministries, and the timeline. Their recommendations would be pulled together to form the “Plan,” which would be distributed to both congregations prior to the final vote.
During the month of Novemember, the congregations met together at First RPC for a Thanksgiving dinner sponsored by the Women’s Missionary Fellowship. This served as the first formal get-to-know-you gathering between the churches. Many of the people already knew each other, since the WMF from both churches had been meeting together for almost three years.
A Christmas dinner was also held with both congregations attending at the Geneva RPC in early December.
The congregations began meeting together for Sabbath evening worship on Dec. 5.
The sessions and deacon boards met to give their recommendations for the merger-which formed the final plan, the proposal for the merger. The proposal gave five recommendations:
- The congregations will merge.
- The pastorate of the congregations will be a joint pastorate, with both pastors serving in the roles outlined in the sessions’s plan.
- The merged congregation will eventually meet at the Patterson Township (First RPC) location.
- The financial plan of the congregation will be as proposed for 2005.
- The congregation will operate under the charter of the Geneva Reformed Presbyterian Church and use that name until such time as the congregation shall decide to amend the charter.
After revealing the recommendations, the plan states, “The sessions and deacon boards feel that this plan represents the best opportunity for effective ministry within the congregation and outreach to the community afforded by our available options. We eagerly look forward to the blessing of this merger.
“Specific encouragement can be seen in the strength of programs such as vacation Bible school in the First RPC and the growing of young families ith the Geneva Church, the financial benefits of operating a single facility, the renewed focus on college ministries and community outreach, the blessings of a larger and more vibrant covenant community, and the benefit of teaching elders focused on the areas in which they have the greatest gifts.
“It is our expectation and prayer that this new congregation will thrive and grow. It is our desire to see Christ’s kingdom built in this area. It is our hope to train and equip the saints to more effectively reach out to each other and to our community.”
During separate, simultaneous congregational meetings on Dec. 15, both congregations voted to accept the recommendations made in the plan and merge.
The pastors credit three reasons why the merger succeeded. First, both pastors were committed to making it happen. Pastor Backensto said their attitude had been, “We’re going to make this happen if this is the Lord’s will.”
Second, the sessions of both churches were responsive to the idea and realized that merging the churches would fill in areas of weakness with strengths for the other congregations. For example, First RPC brought with them teens and seed families, whereas Geneva RPC brought many growing, young families.
Third, many people were praying for something like it to happen.
On Dec. 19, the two congregations worshiped together for the first time as one church. Finances would remain separate until the end of the year. The merger would be effective Jan. 1, pending the presbytery meeting on Feb. 2.
The mood at the Feb. 2 presbytery meeting was one of celebration, as delegates from around the presbytery joined in the service to effectuate the merger of the two churches.
During Rev. Denny Prutow’s sermon at the meeting, he reminded the new congregation that the principal reason for the merger was the betterment of the church’s ministry to the people of Beaver Falls. “Seek the face of God and seek that the face of God and glory of God will shine on you to be a witness for Him,” he said.
In his charge to the pastors, Pastor Bob Schmidtberger said, “Preach the gospel. You are called by Christ to preach His Word.”
The service ended with Pastor Anthony Selvaggio, of the neigboring College Hill RPC, giving the charge to the congregation. In his charge, he likened the newly merged church to a newlywed couple, saying there would be a time of adjustment as the “couple” gets used to one another.
Pastor Selvaggio finished with, “My charge to you, the new Geneva Reformed Presbyterian Church, is to love one another as Christ has loved you.”
Since the vote was taken on Dec. 15, the transition to a merged church has been a smooth one. Pastor Backensto and Pastor Black adjusted right away to alternating preaching responsibilities, but still have the freedom to switch around when needed. For example, in February, Pastor Black will be preaching a series on Sabbath evenings.
Changes have also been seen in the ministries.
“Because of the merger, we’ve become more proactive in college ministry,” Pastor Backensto said. A weekly dessert and devotion time has be instated for the college students, as well as a Saturday prayer meeting on campus.
The merger has also led to many more ministry opportunities as well as more manpower for the ministries already at work. The combined church now yields youth that represent five area high schools.
As to the effect the merger will have on other RP congregations in the area, Pastor Selvaggio said he thought the merger was a wonderful thing.
“The winds of change are blowing in our community,” he said. “And I’m excited about what the Lord is doing here. I believe this is a situation where less is more. Although we have one less congregation in Beaver Falls, I think the new combined congregation will eventually be more effective in ministry, and larger in size, than the two would be if they had remained independent.”