PLEASANT VALLEY — Putting community needs above denominational heritage, St. Matthew'sUnited Church of Christ and St. Matthew's Lutheran Church have decided to formally merge their congregations.
The congregations hope to become St. Matthew's United Church of Christ by May 19.
"We have known for a number of years that to be more effective inthe community, we needed to become one," said Louise Black, president of St. Matthew's Lutheran Council. "We are all members of the Christian church, so it doesn't really matter what label we call ourselves."
The two groups -- known as a union church since two congregations meet in the same building -- have been together since their founding in 1879, said the Rev. Charles Stanfield, pastor of St. Matthew's United Church of Christ.
"We've always had co-pastors, and we've never really been stuck on denominational labels," he said.
Each shared a part-time minister with another church of the same denomination, he said. Stanfield served St. Matthew's and Krider's United Churchof Christ in Westminster, while the Lutheran congregation shared a charge with St. Mary's in Silver Run.
Merging was always a possibility, and the groups had formed a joint task force to study the options, said Black.
"This is something that needed to be done for something like 30 years, but until we had a basic reason to get serious about it, we always put it off," she said. "The hard thing was decidingwhich church was going to be the one to leave its affiliation."
The question was answered last year when the Rev. Paul A. Haack left the Lutheran congregations to take First Evangelical Lutheran Church in New Oxford, Pa. At that point, St. Mary's decided to break the parish relationship and have its own pastor, said Black.
"That left ussaying, 'Now what are we going to do?' " she said. "But the preliminary work that was done was useful at this point, and it wasn't like we were sitting high and dry.
"We had really considered (merging) and when the necessity came about, we were better prepared to make thedecision."
The Rev. Adam Fisher served the Lutheran congregation as interim minister until the end of last month, when his wife began studying at a seminary in San Francisco, said Stanfield.
Until themerger takes place in May, the churches will continue to alternate weeks as Lutheran and United Church of Christ, with Stanfield serving both congregations, he said.
"I'm learning the Lutheran liturgy now and it's a little more formal than what I'm used to," Stanfield said. "I'm trying hard not to fall into old habits, and the people are really neat about it. They've been really understanding."
After themerger, the liturgy is likely to be a combination of denominations, which are both mainstream Protestant, share a German reform background and are strong in scripture and individual responsibility, Stanfield said.
"I expect down the road, we will end up with a liturgy that may be unique to our church," Black said. "We just have to feel outthe congregations and see what they think."
Although both said itwas difficult for older Lutheran members to give up their denominational identity, most have agreed this is what is best for a community that often groups together to help its residents.
"Some of our older members have been Lutheran all their lives and it was hard to let go of that," Black said. "But we are a close-knit group of people andmost families for generations before have been going (to St. Matthew's).
"It's our church regardless of what we call it."
Stanfieldsaid examples of community spirit are the strong volunteer fire company and the assistance given to help a resident who was in a car accident in Florida.
"Pleasant Valley is a place where everyone has had to pull together to survive," he said. "It's a town without a big ego and its people don't have big egos.
"U.C.C. here stands more for united and community church than anything else."