Life from the Storm
A congregation finds revitalization through outreach
First Reformed Church in Pompton Plains, New Jersey, is developing a reputation in its community: it's known as the congregation that opens its doors and its arms in times of need.
A visioning process several years ago helped the congregation voice its desire to reach out and bless its community, but it was a natural disaster that provided the opportunity to truly make a difference.
In 2006, First Reformed called Kathleen Edwards Chase to be its senior pastor. The church was coming off two years of interim ministry following the retirement of a senior pastor who'd been with the church for more than 20 years. "During that interim, they were lacking leadership," says Edwards Chase. "They had interim ministers, but there were gaps, and the church had gone through some divisiveness.
"The platform was set for me to do revitalization when I came into the picture. I felt like because they had gone through kind of a broken period, they were ready for something new in a way they hadn't been prior to this. God uses our brokenness and brings beauty out of it."
A year after Edwards Chase was installed, the congregation began a visioning process. Members used tools like the Purposeful Living process, and examined the church's past and present ministry.
Several members of First Reformed were able to hear author and church consultant Reggie McNeal when Edwards Chase's pastors network invited him to New Jersey to speak about being a missional church.
"He was a real influence in helping us to see a different future and a different way of being church," says Edwards Chase.
"We decided we really didn't have the church structure we needed to move into our vision: 'open doors, open hearts, open hands.' By that we mean we welcome everyone, we are on an intentional discipleship journey, and we live our faith by blessing our community and beyond. In order to really shift in the way we were doing things, we needed to change our structure.
"As a 275-year-old congregation, we realized that our church structure was designed for a church that existed 25 to 30 years ago. We needed to ask the hard questions about what sacrifices we needed to make in order to recognize our vision."
The church spent a year restructuring, which resulted in a pared-down number of administrative staff in favor of additional ministry staff. Church members now work with pastoral staff to meet pastoral care needs in the congregation, among other things.
With the portion of the budget freed up through restructuring, First Reformed hired Chad DeJager to be its connecting pastor of missional discipleship. A few weeks after DeJager started in 2011, Hurricane Irene slammed into the Northeast, flooding thousands of homes and businesses, knocking out power, and crippling public services.
Embracing its vision, the congregation stepped up to the plate to help neighbors whose lives had been overturned by the storm. "When Irene hit, a quarter of our town was flooded, and probably half of the homes were hit in some way," says Edwards Chase. "We responded by opening our doors to the community."
The church donated food and organized the community to do laundry for people whose homes had flooded. Church members provided childcare for people trying to muck out their homes. They also worked with real estate agents to set up temporary housing for people who had nowhere to go.
The church had been building partnerships with local organizations, and it tapped into those partnerships to set up a community meal schedule. Ten evenings in a row, First Reformed opened the doors to its facility for different groups to prepare and serve dinner for anyone in the community who was in need. They served between one and four hundred people each night.
"We saw ourselves as the bridge," says Edwards Chase. "It really wasn't just the church--we were the coordinator of all the volunteers for this area. It was community people coming to us saying, 'How can we help?'
"For many years, we were known as 'the church that owns the parking lot in front of the municipal building.' Suddenly, we became known once again as 'the church that reaches out to everyone.' [Irene] was a horrible situation--and God used it for good."
A year later, when Hurricane Sandy struck, First Reformed opened its doors again. The storm left much of Pequannock Township without power. Most areas were in the dark for about a week, but it took up to a month to restore power in some locations. During that time, First served as a warming and charging station for those without power. Edwards Chase says, "The town is even talking about buying us generators so our facilities can be up and running when the next hurricane comes along."