New congregation will have dual denominational affiliation
By Connie Faber
Two congregations in Harvey, ND—Harvey MB Church (HMBC), building pictured right, and Bethel Baptist Church (BBC)—have merged to form Cornerstone Community Church, a congregation of about 140 that is dually affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren and North American Baptist denominations. The congregations approved the merger at a Jan. 19 business meeting.
The new church has called Abel and Mary Lou Threeton as the interim pastoral couple; the Threeton’s first Sunday will be March 6. Threeton, currently of Great Falls, Mont., works with Interim Pastor Ministries, a missional network of interim pastors who serve churches in pastoral transition.
Threeton will remain with the congregation until a permanent pastor is called. He will work with the newly elected four-member executive board to complete an operational manual and elect the remaining required officers. Threeton’s training in helping churches in transition will serve the new congregation well, says Rick Eshbaugh, Central District Conference (CDC) minister who was also the most recent Harvey MB Church pastor.
Bethel Baptist proposes merger
Eshbaugh and his wife, Esther, came to HMBC in 2011 and served as the church’s full-time pastoral couple until 2013 when Eshbaugh moved to part-time in order to also serve part-time as the CDC minister.
As the HMBC congregation approached its 2014 annual fall business meeting, Eshbaugh and HMBC church leaders were preparing to recommend that given Eshbuagh’s district responsibilities, the congregation consider adding a second pastoral staff member.
That’s when Eshbaugh got a phone call from Stan Buxa, a Bethel Baptist Church leader. Their pastor had recently retired, and the congregation was pondering some “what if” scenarios, including merging with another church in the community. The two congregations were similar in faith, practice and theology, said Buxa. Would the MB church consider merging with the North American Baptist church?
“Neither congregation was weak,” Eshbaugh says. “We could both keep going.” But what if the churches would combine their resources? In a community with a population of 2,200 and 13 churches, many of the current congregations were formed as a result of church splits. What if instead of splitting, these two congregations merged?
“We were a church that had a split,” says Eshbaugh. HMBC had experienced a church split prior to Eshbaugh’s arrival. “Maybe this would be a way for us to heal. We could demonstrate that Christians can get along.”
Churches start "dating"
And so in September 2014, the churches agreed to begin “dating to see where it would go,” says Eshbaugh. They formed a transition Leadership Board to process questions and issues. Worship services were rotated between the two church sites, first weekly and then monthly. Eshbaugh was the pastor of both churches, leading the combined weekly worship services and Sunday school.
By December, the two congregations realized that the most difficult issue would be what to do with two buildings on opposite sides of town. While the two groups enjoyed worshipping together, they did not like moving between the two sites so frequently. So they agreed to rotate every quarter and to plan “Connection Sundays” that included a potluck or Town Hall meeting every time they moved locations. They also decided that plans for a merger would be put on hold until they resolves the issue of which location would be the primary site.
One of the conclusions that the Leadership Board came to as they explored the pros and cons of using each of the facilities as the primary site was that they could not host their current Wednesday night activities at one facility on the same night. BBC hosts the community AWANA program that attracts more than 90 children, and the BBC facility worked well for the program. And HMBC hosts one of the community youth groups, and the group fluctuates between 20 and 40 teens, depending on class sizes.
When a “straw poll” was taken in March 2015 to determine which facility would be the primary place of worship, the results were 50/50, says Eshbaugh.
“With the mandate that we had to resolve the building issue before moving forward with the merger and without the strength of support of one building over another, the Leadership Board determined that we could not proceed with the merger,” writes Eshbaugh, in a document outlining the steps involved in the merger.
Instead of a merger, the Leadership Board proposed that one pastor and a combined elder board serve the two congregations, and that two separate worship services be held each Sunday. This would allow the two congregations to economize on salary and to continue partnering to offer the AWANA and youth group ministries. The possibility of a merger could be revisited later.
The two congregations each held a meeting to discuss this proposal, meeting on the same night in May and at the same time.
Building dilemna won't stand in the way
“Both churches, independent of the knowledge of what was taking place at the other meeting, moved to continue having combined worship and Sunday school,” says Eshbaugh. “Both churches said that the issue of the buildings should not prevent us from going ahead with the merger.”
Eshbaugh describes the consensus that emerged by May 2015 as: “We like meeting together. We like each other. We have so much potential together."
When the merger question was formally brought to the two congregations in September 2015, the motion passed in both churches with the required two-thirds majority of quorum.
“The building issue is still there,” observes Eshbaugh, “but facilities became less important and serving Christ more (important).” According to Eshbaugh, the congregations decided: “We’ll let God figure it out.”
Once the congregations decided to merge, the next issue to be decided was pastoral staffing. Initially the Leadership Board pursued the option of finding an associate pastor to assist Eshbaugh, who was serving three-quarters time as the Harvey pastor and as the CDC district minister.
Given his CDC responsibilities and the decision by Roger Engbrecht to retire as the part-time CDC district minister for ethnic ministries, Eshbaugh announced his decision to resign as the HMBC/BBC pastor.
“I felt they needed a pastor who was in the community and not traveling so much,” says Eshbaugh, who concluded his service at Harvey Jan. 24.
His resignation prompted the new congregation to call Threeton as the interim pastor.
Great friendships developing
For now, the new congregation continues rotating where the group meets for Sunday morning worship services. The BBC site, now called the North Campus, will continue to host the AWANA program. The HMBC location is called the South Campus, and the teens will continue to meet there for Wednesday youth group activities.
The two congregations have been working out the details of what it means to be a united congregation. This has included discussing differences in Christmas Eve activities, the frequency with which communion is observed and how meals are organized for a funeral.
“It’s not bad stuff,” says Eshbaugh. “There is a desire to work together. Great friendships have developed between the two churches.”
Eshbaugh says he sees the new congregation as having a strong evangelical voice in the Harvey community. “There is great potential,” says Eshbaugh. “There is excitement to do ministry together.”
The merger has created a “stir” in the community, says Eshbaugh. “People were watching and predicting it (the merger) wouldn’t happen. But it did,” he says.
Both HMBC and BBC have a long history in the Harvey community.
HMBC was established in 1898 by homesteaders that had come to the Harvey area from South Dakota. The group first met at a site south of Harvey, and in 1949 the congregation of 58 members built a new church in the city of Harvey. Read more about the history of HMBC here.
According to a January article in the Harvey newspaper, The Herald-Press, the Baptists also built a new church building in 1949. Harvey was the first trading post for the early Baptists who settled in the area. In 1928, the German Baptist Church was organized in Harvey and in 1944 the name of the church was changed to Bethel Baptist Church. In 1949 they built a new facility, and then in 1980 the current building was constructed.