The pandemic has brought significant struggles to congregations and those who pastor them. For a lot of churches, standard issues and dilemmas became magnified with COVID and all the difficulties it ushered in. But even before the pandemic, churches dealt with questions relating to staying open, hiring new pastors, and working through change. In general, and not just during these times of transitions, it is important for churches to be encouraged in faith, ministry, and mission. Jason Schepp, pastor of EastBrook Presbyterian Church (ECO), is dedicated to providing this encouragement and counsel to other churches. He was gracious to answer our questions about his unique experience in ministry.
Churches in Transition
As someone who churches turn to in times of questioning, and the pastor of his own congregation in New Castle, PA, Schepp has seen churches in transition. Recently, his own has dealt with a decline in attendance due to COVID. “EastBrook is a church in transition, as are many others at this time. In response to COVID, we have been working to transition ourselves to better suit the message of the gospel in the times we live.”
His experience in this area led to him being someone who is asked to help other congregations. “Our church went through a transformation process about three years ago, in which we made some significant changes to our ministry, style, and evangelism processes,” he comments. “Through that, I was able to pick up some knowledge, learn some lessons and grow in the way I led our church.” As a result, Schepp was asked to work with smaller churches within his denomination to help out when they were without a pastor.
Transitions come in many forms, whether it is in deciding to hire a full-time or part-time pastor, considering merging, or shutting down. Keeping in mind that every church is unique and an expression of God’s grace is how Schepp first approaches dealing with these issues. “With that in mind, we try to help each of those churches first find their strengths in ministry. From the tools they have to the opportunities for ministry in hand, we try to then define vision and mission for the church.”
It is a process of hard work, prayer, and discerning God’s call through working with the elders of the churches he helps. “In many of our cases, a full-time pastor is a financial challenge and therefore full-time, part-time, or supply is assessed based on the size.” In the case of merging, that is a decision made with both congregations in prayer and discernment. “In some cases, merging churches makes sense for both the church and more importantly the kingdom work that can be done,” Schepp reflects.
One of the difficulties of transitions that Schepp recognizes is the emotions that are often involved during the process. “We get emotionally attached to our facilities, and for many with good reason. A lot of our churches were built, funded, and maintained by generational families in our communities. They have been a part of the church for some 100+ years.”
He recalls a meeting during which someone stated they did not want to see their church become a winery. “The most common fear in a small church is the ability to stay open and not close the doors. The fear of the church not being there runs strong.” When a decision needs to be made about staying open or letting go of a facility, the process of working through those concerns and coming up with a solution is taken seriously.
“In order to work through that,” Schepp says, “we have to help all of our members re-think their image of the church. In short, we have to help them see the church as the people doing ministry instead of the building that is used as a tool for the ministry.” Schepp spends time with the church leaders carefully considering options and sharing stories of God’s ministry outside of their buildings to be reminded how God works and moves through people.
Kingdom Growth Amidst Loss
A great difficulty is having to decide to shut down a church. But this process is still one that can be done well, despite the heavy-hearted nature of the decision. “For most, I believe shutting down the church feels like a failure in ministry,” Schepp says. “When they have to consider a closure, they have a feeling of loss and disappointment in their role. I believe one of the best ways we have seen to close churches well is to help them find a way to enhance or start a new ministry with the resources they have left.”
This can be done in different ways, but Schepp particularly recalls a church in another state that needed to close. “After the liquidation of assets, they were able to fund a church plant that has reached a number of new Christians. In their loss, they were able to see God’s kingdom grow well. If we can help our churches see future, then it helps them deal with the mourning process of losing their own church.”
Vision and Mission
Choices and decisions are always made with thought towards what will better equip a church to be actively making new disciples in their community of influence. Schepp sees this as a big part of his calling, not only in helping other congregations but in pastoring his own. “I see vision and mission as one of the major roles of pastoring. Our work is not to build buildings or maintain facilities, but to gather sheep and lead them to Jesus.”
Helping other congregations while still pastoring his own requires a great amount of time management and support from family and church. “We have a church that sees the need for help in our community through ministry outside of our walls. If the church was not supportive, there would not be enough time to make it happen.” Through the blessings he has felt and experienced, Schepp sees an opportunity to bless others in kingdom work.
Grace is a writing intern for the PRM and a senior English major with writing and design minors at Grove City College. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.