By JOE SUTTER
Messenger staff writer
The past year brought changes and challenges for area churches. From new buildings to new pastors and programs, congregations are looking forward to the opportunities 2012 has in store.
John Elkin Jr. right, works on making renovations to the former First Christian Church which was purchased by Lighthouse Ministries.
First Christian Church
Dec. 30, 2011, was a big day for the members of the church at 1333 Fourth Ave. N. That was the day when, after 115 years, the First Christian Church met for the last time.
"I've never ever been a part of a church that closed. It's just devastating; we're all wondering where we're going to go," said Norma Sharp, a church member of about 34 years.
Sharp said the church closed because the dwindling congregation no longer brought in the funds necessary to keep it running.
"Our older members keep getting older, and there's no one to replace them," she said. "We've been trying to attract young people, but the response we get is that they're too busy. That's our day and times - church is not important to young people any more."
But while the congregation may be moving out, the church building itself will remain active as the new meeting place for Lighthouse Ministries.
"God's hand was in all of this," Sharp said. "We sold this building in only two weeks. There's a house next door to me that hasn't been able to sell for the last two years, so you know God was in it."
The Lighthouse congregation joined with First Christian for their final service on the Friday before New Year's Eve.
"It was a fantastic service," Sharp said. "There was a part where the whole congregation stood together, circling around the church and holding hands. (the Rev. Bill Kearns) prayed for their people, and their pastor prayed for us. If we had to close, it couldn't have been a nicer service."
For the Rev. John Elkin Sr., pastor of Lighthouse Ministries, the move was very exciting.
"On Sunday morning, we did half our service in the old church, then finished it here. We came over on DART buses, and we were singing the whole way."
Lighthouse Ministries began in 1970, meeting in a house. The next year, it moved to a building on J Street, where the congregation remained until this year's big move.
"We've been looking for a new place for the last 10 years," Elkin said. "The old location was too small, and didn't have enough parking spaces. I'd say this new building is about four times the size of our old church."
The Lighthouse congregation has a big job now, moving all its things into the new church and sorting through all the material which First Christian intentionally left behind.
"We have a different worship style from them, so we are putting in a new sound board," said Elkin. "We eventually want to take out those two walls on the sides of the altar, and that organ up there is leaving."
Elkin also said the church would be starting up new community programs in the new space.
"We have some members who want to teach dance to children and adults, or teach music. I would really like to start something for people with problems reading. I know a number of adults who can barely read, and how can you fill out a job application then?
"We want to affect people's lives, not only spiritually, but to have an impact on their financial, social, every aspect. This facility gives us the opportunity."
First Congregational United Church of Christ
At First Congregational United Church of Christ, the Rev. Gary Bird, the interim pastor, calls himself a "gap-filler."
Bird has been pastoring the UCC since May 1, 2011, and will stay until a full-time pastor is hired. Originally from southwest Iowa, Bird was a United Methodist minister for 40 years before retiring and moving to Friendship Haven in Fort Dodge nine years ago. He previously was interim pastor at First Baptist Church.
Being an interim pastor allows Bird to try out many congregations.
"Each church is refreshingly unique," he said. "This church is blessed with a great music program. We have a great music director, there's a bell choir, and we have a 16-year-old organist who is fantastic."
Bird said that there is much less paperwork to do as an interim pastor, leaving him more time to visit people and become acquainted.
"One of my biggest goals while I'm here is to raise up new leaders from within the church. I'm an enabler; I don't try to do everything myself. Sometimes people can be reluctant to take these leadership roles, when they know everything will change again soon."
One UCC event that's sure to be big this year is the annual Election Night soup and pie supper in November.
"We've been doing this every year for the last seven years," said Ethelynn Tuel, UCC's office manager. "Everyone in the community is invited. It's a great way to get people into the church and introduce them to who we are, and we encourage people to get out and vote."
But, Tuel said, they are not expecting bigger crowds this year with the big election.
"It couldn't get any bigger, without moving to a new location," she said. "We fill the place up every year; sometimes we run out of soup. In 2011 we served 500 people."
At First Presbyterian Church, members are looking for ways to be more involved in the community, and to strengthen their members in sharing their faith.
"All Presbyterian churches in this area are doing a big, three-year initiative," said Laura Stover, Christian educator. "We spend the whole first year crafting and fine-tuning a mission statement, and a vision statement.
"We have a real desire to take care of teens. There's been so many suicides in the past in this city - we want to help young people find hope and purpose," she said.
"This year, for the third year of our initiative, we want to create more small groups to bring people in to the church. Groups based on interests, not just a Bible study - like a group for people interested in photography, for example."
Stover said the church already has many small groups that meet, such as a group that repairs wheelchairs, but she was looking forward to an early January meeting when they would design more groups.
Pantries rise to meet challenges
At the Lord's Cupboard, the emergency food pantry run by First United Methodist Church, demand is up, but so are donations.
"We saw an increase this year of 8 percent in people who were given food," said pantry Director Holly Scherff. "In the last few years, it's always been an increase of 2 or 3 percent, so this is big."
Scherff said the increase was no surprise. "We could see it coming - more people were unemployed this year, and many people's unemployment pay was running out."
"Fortunately, we've seen an increase in donations this year which outweighs what we've lost. It just proves that neighbors take care of neighbors."
To meet with the increased demand, families will be eligible to use the pantry five times a year instead of four, Scherff said.
The Catholic food pantry has also seen high demand.
"In July or August, we ran out of food," said Laura Anderson, pastoral minister. She said that they "made things happen" in order to get the shelves stocked again. "If the economy stays the same, the need will continue to rise."
Anderson said the pantry has joined the Food Bank of Iowa organization to get help meeting the need.
"They're a bank in Des Moines who gets surplus food from chain stores, and distributes it around the state. All we pay is basically a shared maintenance fee."
Another change this year is that Upper Des Moines Opportunity will no longer screen clients for Fort Dodge food pantries.
"Now we have to determine their eligibility ourselves. We get info on where people live, how many in their family, their income," said Scherff. "I hate being the judge of whether someone is 'worthy.' So far, I can't think of anyone we've turned away."
To help smooth the bookwork, this year the pantry's records will be handled with a new computer system run by volunteer Jaci Schreier. Schreier said she recently moved back in with her parents, and took the volunteer position while she is unemployed. While she studied computers a bit in high school, she's never gone to college for programming or computer science.
"I'm mostly just messing around here, figuring things out," Schreier said.
Schreier and Scherff both agree that the new system helps a lot with the bookkeeping, and eliminates a lot of headaches.
Catholic parish seeks synergy
According to Msgr. Kevin McCoy, this year the Holy Trinity Parish is looking at ways to increase the collaboration between the parish, St. Edmond Catholic School, and the Marion Home care facility.
"We're looking a lot at our internal relationships, exploring synergy," McCoy said. "We want to become as efficient as we can in all our ministries, and make sure we are impacting people in all stages of life."
He also said the priests of Webster County are looking to the future.
"In the Diocese of Sioux City, which includes Fort Dodge, there are 69 priests spread out over 24 counties. Eleven of those priests are over 70 years old; only 14 are below age 50. We have three priests for Webster County, and one of our tasks now is explore the question, what happens when we only have two priests?"
McCoy said the priests were considering what were the essential services that priests fulfill, and better ways to utilize deacons and lay personnel in reaching out to parishioners across the county.
New space for spirituality
Last July, Barbara Huisman and Evy Somsen opened the Cana outreach at 18 S. Third St., next to the Girl Scouts building. It's an unusual space, laid out like a cafe or a coffee shop, but it does not serve food. There's a big-screen TV on one wall, couches and chairs next to a large bookshelf, and floor lamps and big potted plants, giving it a homey atmosphere.
"We were trying to figure out how we can reach the community in a non-traditional way," said Huisman. "There are many good churches in Fort Dodge, and we aren't trying to compete with them; we're trying to do something alongside their ministry."
"We wanted to make a place where people could come in and say, this feels like home. The coffee's always on, there are always snacks in the fridge. This is a place where you can come in and just 'be.' There's a need for people to be in relationship and conversation."
Cana is home to activities such as morning Tai Chi sessions, open art time, book studies, and, on Tuesday nights, the "Life Tree" video and conversation series.
"Life Tree is about guided conversations. Every week we have a video on a different topic - anything from spiritual issues, sexual offenders, to a story of 'My Son is Gay,' to UFOs.
"Everyone can come in and be a part of this, and have a voice. All ages show up, from 18 months to 84 years old. 9- or 10-year-old kids tell us, 'I wish we could talk like this in Sunday school,'" Huisman said.
Contact Joe Sutter at (515) 572-2141 or firstname.lastname@example.org