By Joanne Lehman
Many couples and individuals come to a place in life where downsizing is desired. Their situation has changed, and their living space is too big. Family members have moved out to begin life somewhere else. Maintenance is too expensive for the budget. Closets and cupboards are full of things they’ve collected over the years. Life goes on, but it’s time to let go of stuff and live more simply.
This has been the experience of Summit Mennonite, a church family born in 1965 when 15 people formed Summit Christian Fellowship. The congregation met elsewhere, and eventually built a home at 939 Norton Avenue in the city of Barberton, on the outskirts of Akron, Ohio. At the new location, they changed their name to Summit Mennonite Church. There, they ministered to the local community, the people of Barberton and others, and to those who came to study or work in nearby urban areas. The group’s rich history was celebrated at milestones along the way.
The congregation welcomed diversity and cared for all who came. Early on, they were known for their acceptance of female leaders. Summit Mennonite opened its building to various community groups who needed a meeting place. In 2012, Barberton Area Community Ministries (BACM) moved their offices to Summit’s building and began to provide food for the area’s needy families. This separate organization was run by volunteers from many area churches.
Unused Sunday school rooms were given over to BACM as they needed offices and storage space for their growing community ministry. Meanwhile, Summit Mennonite adjusted to worship by Zoom during the pandemic, the resignation of a pastor, and the loss of several retired couples who moved away. While BACM was growing and serving more families each week, Summit Mennonite was shrinking in numbers. BACM needed more space and shared their dreams of opening additional offices to provide links to services that could benefit the families they served.
In 2021, guided in part by their interim pastors, Patrick and Christine Nafziger, the congregation hired a facilitator who took them through a discernment process. During this time, the group also assessed their ongoing expenses, the need for continuing upgrades to the building and grounds, how to accommodate BACM’s growing program, and what to do about future leadership of the congregation.
A core group remained committed to worshiping together despite the challenge of hiring a pastor for such a small congregation. BACM, who by then had been searching for a new location, offered to purchase the building. The organization will continue cultivation of the community garden started by Summit.
By now, Summit’s active membership had shrunk to a couple dozen people, but the discernment process confirmed their commitment to remain together rather than disband. A summary of this sentiment might be the sticky note one person put on the facilitator’s wall chart. “We like each other.” During the discernment process, the group reaffirmed their core values as stated below:
Jesus Followers: We follow God’s model of peace, actively seeking God’s loving justice in our life together as a congregation, in our community, and throughout all of creation.
Welcoming and Affirming: God calls us to invite and affirm people of any race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, age, economic status, or life situation into full participation in any aspect of the congregation.
Supportive Community: We live as a family of equals in our access to the Holy Spirit as we listen to and support one another spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
In retrospect, it appears that by separating the issue of selling the building from the issue of congregational viability, the group could envision themselves as a congregation free to move out and move on. After discernment, there came a time of sorting and disposing of unneeded material things. They offered their unneeded belongings to people who would appreciate them. Some things were sold, others were reserved for future use — banners, a wooden cross, the peace lamp, a podium, a few hymnbooks, and a storage cabinet.
Summit Mennonite has been blessed with a lovely new meeting space in the fellowship room of Grace United Church of Christ of Loyal Oak, located two miles from their former location. In that rented space, the church gathers in front of its signature banners and wooden cross each Sunday morning. After worship services, the two congregations join for coffee and snacks. Rather than hire a pastor, Summit currently relies on lay leadership and supply pastors. Commissions, committees, and church council have been disbanded in favor of a simpler church constitution. The group holds regular meetings to receive financial reports and other business and has a monthly potluck. Worship takes various forms including traditional sermons, discussions, teaching, and hymn sing Sundays. Summit continues to nurture Christian faith and offer fellowship to all who come to sit in their welcoming circle.