By Bob Sauder

Editor’s note: How does a congregation decide when to build a new facility? The journey to new construction is often a long one, and the path is not always a straight line. Bob Sauder, the new moderator of the Ohio Conference, is a member of Salem Mennonite Church in Waldron, Mich. He reflects on the years-long process that congregation has experienced:

We are a small congregation located in the corn and bean fields of Hillsdale County in southern Michigan. We can probably stuff around 120 people into our sanctuary for a morning service.  At one point, our average attendance had grown to around 100. As we considered how to deal with the shortage of space, we haggled over two issues — whether we wanted to stay where we were or move to a place where we would have more visibility, and whether we wanted to remain together or split up and form two congregations.  It seems in reflection that the discussions had taken their toll, and interest seemed to wane, as attendance fell off for a time.

As the years passed, we continued to grow in numbers, and more importantly, in my estimation, we grew from a church with a very small elementary Sunday school department to a church with an MYF of 20+ teenagers.  So interest in building resurfaced, and we initiated the Mannah Project (Making A New Neighbor Around Here).  This occurred in the late 1980s-early 1990s. We used a decision tree process to determine whether we wanted to stay or move, add on or start new, etc.  We had reached the point where we had a tentative blueprint drawn up and had presented it to the congregation for their approval.  Then one of our preaching ministers took a position at a neighboring church, and soon after our pastor also resigned to take a new position, and the building plan once again fell by the wayside.

We hired a team of three part-time pastors to lead us, and we began to grow again.  Also, the makeup of our congregation changed again. Our youth graduated and were not replaced.  I distinctly remember the Sunday several years later when we heard the first baby cry during a church service and what a sweet offering of praise that was.  Also, the complexion of our congregation changed from a more traditional Mennonite background to a neighborhood church with many members who had suffered a deep hurts from other congregations.

Once again we began to dream seriously enough about a new building that we began to raise a building fund.  It soon grew to more than $150,000. We opened up the idea of moving to a more visible spot.  The term we kept hearing was that Salem was the best-kept secret in Hillsdale County. The leadership had decided that our best option was to find a spot with much greater access and visibility, and we set up a group to begin looking for that.  That didn’t happen overnight, and suddenly 37 acres became available surrounding our present location, and we decided that God was leading us to stay where we were.  We spent most of our fund to purchase the land, and in less than one year had replenished it.

We next decided on a structure with a combined fellowship hall/sanctuary and some classrooms as the way we wanted to go.  The projected cost was $750,000, and we decided that when we had half of that in hand, we would begin the construction.  That happened this month, and we have the footer and underground walls in and are getting set to pour the slab in the next couple of weeks so construction of the above-ground portion can begin. We held a groundbreaking ceremony on May 1.

We have two members with construction experience that are acting as general contractors and are planning on doing as much as we can with volunteer labor and the help of three Amish crews in the area to help keep the costs down.  The Amish crews appear to be very excited about helping us with this “barn-raising” adventure.