Joint worship services to start
2 congregations to share a church
SCHENECTADY Congregations at Union Presbyterian Church and First Reformed Church have decided to conduct joint worship services.
Members of the Schenectady churches will officially pray together for the first time Sunday at 10 a.m., at First Reformed in Schenectady’s Stockade neighborhood.
The churches are not merging.
“We are going to remain a unique congregation,” said Nancy Davidson, a 34-year member of Union Presbyterian and part of the Union Presbyterian-First Reformed task force that adopted an agreement for joint operation.
The arrangement, called a joint congregational witness, has been in discussion and planning stages since last fall. Now that Union Presbyterian has agreed to sell its church on Park Avenue to Schenectady’s Mt. Olivet Missionary Baptist Church, members of Union Presbyterian are moving to their new spiritual home.
Final services at Union Presbyterian, which formed in 1900, were held on Sunday.
The Park Avenue church had just become too big for a congregation with dwindling numbers.
“It is well-maintained,” Davidson said. “Over the years, we’ve had people who have been very dedicated to it. But there were so many rooms that we didn’t use any more. It was just a large building, too much of a burden for a smaller group of people.”
Davidson said Mt. Olivet will retain building tenants such as Schenectady Inner City Ministry and Park Avenue Nursery School.
“Nesting” is the next step for Union Presbyterian.
“We’re going to nest with the First Reformed congregation,” Davidson said. “We’re not losing our identity at this point. We’re maintaining our own assets … we’re also maintaining our own leadership, but we will worship and participate in all activities with First Reformed.”
The Rev. Bill Levering of First Reformed, also an ordained Presbyterian minister, is looking forward to new faces on North Church Street. “We’re very excited by this,” he said. “I think it prospers both congregations. There’s no downside to this from our side.”
The Presbyterian and Reformed faiths are compatible. “Theologically, they’re almost identical,” Levering said.
Davidson said Union Presbyterian Pastor Ruth En-Jen Kuo will remain with the church through the end of the year. “Her term of call ends in December,” Davidson said. “After that, she’ll be extended a severance package and she’ll be looking for another church to serve, hopefully in this area.”
Church assets include funds in the Union Presbyterian Church Foundation. Some of the money has been designated for missions, education and youth programs.
The churches could end up merging in the future.
“We don’t have to, but we probably will,” Davidson said. “We at Union Presbyterian have decided we’ll give this at least six months and then look at where we are and then probably another six months and look at where we are and what we’ve done with that foundation money and then decide if we want to just transfer our membership to First Reformed. The other option would be to dissolve.”
Davidson added she knows some Union Presbyterian members may decide to join other churches. “We believe most of our members will go on to First Reformed,” she said.
Choirs of both churches will combine, so hymns will have different sounds. First Reformed will also look a little different.
“We’re moving a lot of our artifacts to their church — which is going to be my church, I need to stop saying that,” Davidson said. “Our baptismal font is going, our seasonal banners that we use in our church. They’ve been very welcoming in terms of our bringing things with us that are meaningful to our congregation.”
Joint operating agreements are rare — so far — in the Presbyterian church.
“This particular joint congregational witness, which is defined in the Presbyterian Book of Order, is brand new to the new version of the Book of Order,” she said. “As far as know, we are the first two churches to form this kind of relationship … at least in the Northeast.”
Levering said the relationships can be difficult to achieve.
“As you might imagine, people are very attached to the church they had when they grew up,” he said. “This event is mostly because of the great foresight and insight of the leaders of Union Presbyterian Church who figured out what was going on and really took some farsighted leadership several years ago.”