Once a vibrant part of a manufacturing corridor that extended from Pittsburgh to Detroit, the Warren-Youngstown area of northeast Ohio has been struggling economically since the steel mills and other manufacturing plants declined and closed a generation ago. Halfway between Warren and Youngstown is Girard, a town of fewer than 10,000 people. In early 2012, Pastor Rhonda Gallagher had to decide if she would agree to lead a tiny Lutheran church in Girard.
Gallagher, who grew up south of Akron and had raised a family a little further south in Massillon, was familiar with Ohio towns whose glory days were in the past. Before interviewing at the church in Girard, “I spent three years at a church in Canton,” she recalls. “Hoover, Timken, and other major employers in Canton aren’t doing as well as they once did.”
She was not familiar with Girard, and her first impression – as she took the Girard exit off the highway – was negative. “It looked very depressed,” she says. “There really wasn’t anything attractive to me about the Girard area. I thought to myself, ‘I can’t see myself living here.’”
She was considering a call to Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, which had not had a pastor for nine-and-a-half years. The synod, or denominational governing body, wasn’t sure what to do with Trinity and suggested that the church merge with another ELCA church in a neighboring community.
“The synod actually offered me a three-year contract,” says Gallagher. “I didn’t know what to make of that. No one ever gets a three-year contract. We serve until we are called to another church. When I asked about it, the response I got was that the synod didn’t think that the church would survive much longer. If the church didn’t make it during my three years there, then it wouldn’t be charged against me.”
Gallagher had experience with a dying church. While she served at a church in Canton, that church closed. A building worth $900,000 was sold for just $150,000 to an organization that promised to protect the building from vandalism. That wasn’t enough money to remove the ornate stained glass windows that had graced the building for decades.
“It was heartbreaking,” says Gallagher.
Should she take a job at another dying church in another depressed area? She was reluctant, until the interview at the church.
“When I interviewed, they were so excited about their church and the possibilities that they saw,” she recalls. “They had a desire for growth. An excitement for Christ. They wanted to take back their city for Christ. They persuaded me not only to take the position but to move to the community.”
And Girard is just that: a community. Don’t tell residents that they live in a suburb of Warren or Youngstown, or you’ll get a lecture.
“The roots go deep here,” says Gallagher. “We may be surrounded by Warren and Youngstown, but we see Girard as a place of our own. Many families have lived here for generations. They love Girard. And they want to go to church in their own community.”
There are no megachurches in that community. The largest church is the Catholic church, St. Rose. All of the Protestant churches are small and, when Gallagher arrived, all were struggling. Today, they are doing much better, primarily because they work together.
When Gallagher arrived in town, the ministerial association was relatively inactive. Today, that ministerial association is the epicenter of Christianity in the community. Gallagher has been the driving force behind that change.
“I don’t have the title, but I’m in charge,” she says with a chuckle. “We have learned to cooperate out of necessity. We work together on a lot of things.” She then goes on to list a dozen or more events and initiatives – including vacation Bible school (VBS), National Day of Prayer, united week of prayer, praying for businesses, community Thanksgiving service, community Easter service, and local missions work – in about 10 seconds. “My mom says that I missed my calling as an auctioneer,” she jokes.
Every summer, St. Rose and a half-dozen Protestant churches collaborate on a community-wide VBS that attracts 150 to 200 children. Each year, a different church building is the site of the VBS, and non-host churches take turns leading the week-long event.
“We don’t worry about which church gets more visibility or ends up attracting more people,” explains Gallagher. “We think of ourselves collectively as ‘the church’. We see good in each other’s denominations and individual churches.”
The churches in the Girard ministerial association do pulpit exchanges, usually toward the end of April or in early May. They do Thanksgiving, Good Friday, and Easter sunrise services together. During these cooperative service, a pastor never preaches at his or her own church.
The churches also work together to support the Emmanuel Center, which serves the needy in the community. “We cook at the rescue mission once a month for 150 people,” says Gallagher. “We collect clothing items such as socks and underwear. We collect and distribute school supplies in August.”
Some pastors initially were reluctant to cooperate so frequently with churches in other denominations, but they have been won over by the ministerial association’s consistent focus on reaching people for Christ and serving the community together. “It is common to have a fear of losing your people to another church,” says Gallagher. “My fear is that someone will stop going to any church.
“We have to be unified for Christ,” she continues. “We are made in Christ’s image, not a Lutheran image. We pastors have to lead by example. People watch us everywhere, not just on Sunday mornings.
“By working together, the churches of Girard are tearing down walls and building trust. We still have a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way in just a few years.”