Two historic, but very different, churches have entered into a three-year partnering ministry. The Blawenburg Reformed Church, built in 1832 and located on Route 518 in Montgomery Township, will be collaborating with Marble Collegiate Church. Marble is the oldest Protestant church in the U.S., a historic landmark on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. It was once the longtime home of theologian Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.
“This is a first for Marble and for us,” says Bob Bradsell, an elder in the church and former vice-president of the consistory, the governing body. “We are not absolutely certain where it will lead. We just see some common interests.”
Both churches are part of the Reformed Church in America (RCA) Protestant denomination. The small Blawenburg Church is one of the oldest continuously operated churches in central New Jersey, while Marble is a large, established church in New York City. For Blawenburg, this partnering ministry gives them access to Marble’s resources, such as its professional staff, while Marble can broaden its ministry into suburban New Jersey.
“Marble was looking to reach to other churches to help provide some of the resources they have,” says David Cochran, the current vice-president of the Blawenburg consistory.
Blawenburg was made aware of Marble’s plan to reach out to other churches through Ken Bradsell, who is a brother of Bob Bradsell, a former pastor at Blawenburg, and current member of Marble’s congregation. Leaders at both churches held a series of meetings beginning in February. At around the same time Blawenburg was seeking a new pastor, and their preferred candidate was ultimately Travis Winckler, an associate pastor at Marble who attended Princeton seminary and lives nearby. Given Winckler’s familiarity with Marble, this better positions Blawenburg to work with Marble to set up new programs. Winckler is currently undergoing the lengthy confirmation process.
The talks eventually culminated with the recently announced partnering ministry. A three-year agreement between the two churches, a covenant of understanding, will guide both churches in their first church-to-church partnership.
Elements of the covenant of understanding calls for the sharing of their ministry; good stewardship that includes sharing resources and taking advantage of economies of scale; increasing the congregation’s ability to attract additional members; and the envisioning of both congregations to grow and flourish.
Both churches are entering an untested model, and how the partnering ministry will exactly unfold is unclear. Says Cochran: “One of the first things we got to do is to sit down and take a look at our needs.” Specific goals for Blawenburg include community outreach to encourage and develop a greater church membership, and the development of educational programming, particularly for youth.
One of the Blawenberg church’s immediate interests is to begin working with Marble’s communications team. For example the team has an advanced video department — Marble live streams their services and educational programs. According to Bradsell, Marble has groups as far away as Los Angeles that worships with them online.
“Marble has quite an active online following,” says Bradsell. “This is an era in which the physical environment is less important. This is in many ways equivalent, if you will, to interests of other institutions, like government and education — less tied to brick-and-mortar locations.”
Working with Marble is a great opportunity for the Blawenburg church to enhance its outreach. In addition to its communications personnel, Marble has associate pastors with specific roles, such as community outreach, whereas Blawenburg has historically had one generalist pastor.
“We can begin to see how they can do things, and how we can benefit from the same kinds of methods of outreach,” says Cochran. “We can learn how to do that.”
The partnering ministry represents a means for both churches to figure out what works in a collaboration, a valuable experience for the future. Moreover for Marble, this partnership is an opportunity to broaden its ministry. There are four RCA churches in Montgomery Township alone.
“It is natural that Marble, in looking for a church to partner with in its orbit, so to speak, would look for a church like ours,” says Bradsell. “The business of being a church is more complicated and expensive. The cost is high. [For Blawenburg] partnering with a larger partner is more helpful.”
A partnership kickoff of sorts, Rev. Dr. R. Mark King, executive minister at Marble, will lead the worship at Blawenberg Sunday, September 7, at 10 a.m. An information and discussion session will follow the service.