The Bridge on Glendale held final service May 12
by Myra Holmes
The Bridge on Glendale, a Mennonite Brethren congregation in Phoenix, Ariz., with a 50-year history of ministry, has closed. Changing community demographics, decreasing attendance and ongoing financial difficulties contributed to the decision to close. The final service was held May 12.
“It was a church where Jesus was present and the Word proclaimed,” says Gary Wall, Pacific District Conference minister. “The life of the community was real and dynamic.”
The congregation began as Palm Glen Neighborhood MB Church in March 1963 under the direction of the PDC Board of Home Missions and broke ground on their church building five years later (picture left). Wes Gunther was the founding pastor. According to PDC treasurer and unofficial historian Jim Enns, many of the original attendees were Mennonite Brethren serving in alternative service.
Over the years the congregation underwent a number of transitions, reflected in several name changes: Desert Valley Community Church, Spirit in the Desert and, finally, The Bridge on Glendale. Former pastors include Jacob Froese, Alan Whaley, Ed Toews and Ron Friesen.
One of the ministries that had lasting impact was a daycare/preschool called “Palm Glen Neighborhood School,” which was started by the original Palm Glen congregation and closed in 2004.
In 2006, the PDC Board of Home Missions initiated a re-plant of the church under the name The Bridge on Glendale. Tracy Estes was the lead pastor of that re-plant effort, followed by Preston Dobbins, who led the congregation for the last five-plus years.
As the community surrounding The Bridge on Glendale changed, becoming a more ethnically mixed, lower-middle income population, PDC leadership tried to respond to the changing needs, Wall says. Dobbins and his wife, Francisca—a racially mixed couple with a heart for this community—seemed a perfect fit for the neighborhood. “We were pretty excited about the possibilities of their leadership,” says Wall.
Dobbins says those in the community were for the most part unchurched, and he calls The Bridge on Glendale “an outpost in a dry land.” Even the church’s location on a well-traveled corner gave opportunity to share the gospel through signs displaying Scripture or conversations with passersby. “We held out the Word,” he says.
Currently, no one in the congregation had church background, which was both the biggest source of joy and a challenge for Dobbins. He delighted in teaching the foundations of faith to new believers and was especially grateful when he observed these newer disciples sharing their knowledge and their faith with visitors. “I do believe that foundation is set,” Dobbins says. “God will not allow that to be destroyed.” He says that some 15 people were baptized during the five years he served at The Bridge on Glendale.
At the same time, bringing such new believers to an understanding of commitment to the church proved to be a challenge. While those raised in church often assume things like regular attendance and tithing, these didn’t come naturally at The Bridge on Glendale. Growth was slow and required patience, Dobbins says.
Wall notes that, while the Dobbins’ gave it their full heart and their best effort, “It just never really solidified into a core group of people who were stepping up in terms of leadership and ministry.”
The congregation has never been a large one, with attendance peaking around 50 or so. In recent years, attendance dropped to fewer than 20.
The congregation had been receiving a financial subsidy from the PDC Board of Home Missions for far longer than the district conference usually subsidizes a ministry with no sign of the congregation becoming free standing. When the PDC decided to withdraw subsidy, it meant the Glendale ministry would end. “They didn’t have the resources or energy to make an impact in the community the way we had hoped.” Wall says.
Of course, it’s not strictly a financial decision. Wall recalls a photo of three young brothers from the neighborhood who were baptized at The Bridge on Glendale. “How do you put a value on that?” Wall says.
He says the decision to close a church is always difficult: “We discern together. We pray. We listen to each other and to the voice of the Spirit.”
The PDC plans to sell the property, preferably to another Christ-centered ministry with a fresh vision for that community. If the sale results in a financial gain, the income will go into the PDC’s church planting fund for other projects in the region. Wall says that the PDC has a number of opportunities for new church planting projects—more than the district has had for a while. “It’s an exciting time in the PDC,” Wall says. “We must be responsible with the precious resources entrusted to us.”
Dobbins served as a bi-vocational pastor and still works as a hospital chaplain. He says he and Francisca are waiting for their next ministry and learning to be patient in that. He finds his time in the Word especially rich these days and believes God has a purpose in that, perhaps preparing him for the next step.
Dobbins did not come from a USMB background and says he has felt support from the larger USMB family during his ministry. “That has been an amazing experience for my wife and me.” He was actively engaged with USMB at both the district and national levels, faithfully participating in conventions and retreats.
Wall says, “I have deep appreciation and love for Preston and Francisca and their heart, their work, their ministry.”
Dobbins says that a few of the former attendees of The Bridge on Glendale have been able to connect with other churches in the area. He hopes to maintain informal contact with former attendees and is considering the possibility of a Bible study or other regular gathering.
“I’m glad the Mennonite Brethren have had a ministry there for as long as we did,” Wall says. “I’m grateful for the kingdom impact that was made.”