Bethesda Covenant to Close After 130 Years

Post a Comment » Written on April 7th, 2009     
Filed under: News
NEW YORK, NY (April 7, 2009) – Bethesda Covenant Church will hold its final worship service Sunday, April 19 – after exactly 130 years and one month of ministry in this nation’s largest city.

Co-Pastor Adam Rohler adds, “It’s amazing to think of the work God has done through Bethesda and has continued to do even in its last days of ministry. Yes, churches do eventually die, but the vision and ministry that God inspires in its people does not die. I believe that Bethesda’s real legacy lives on in the faithfulness we carry to those beyond this church.”

“While we are deeply saddened by this closing,” says Co-Pastor Amy Rohler, “we are also profoundly grateful for the rich history and ministry of Bethesda. This is a church whose influence has been felt throughout the Covenant Church and even across the globe.”

The church was organized on March 19, 1879, out of the Swedish Lutheran Gustavus Adolfus Church. Since that time, it has transitioned from ministering to Scandinavian immigrants coming through New York City at the end of the nineteenth century, to sending missionaries to China in the 1920s, to serving as a multiethnic hub near the United Nations for more than 30 years, notes Amy.

BethesdaIts early ministries included a large Sunday school program, a string band, youth meetings, a women’s auxiliary, and supporting a residence for seafarers while they were in the Port of New York. Membership exceeded 450 at that time and the congregation planted daughter churches in the Bronx and Queens. Click here to see a few photos from the Bethesda archive.

Many prominent Covenanters visited when the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) in America was still in its beginning stages. David Nyvall preached there in 1884 while Bethesda was meeting in its first rented space near New York University. P.P. Waldenstrom visited in 1889.  Dr. T.W. Anderson, then ECC president, spoke during the church’s 75th anniversary. Dr. Burton Nelson spent a summer in the late 1960s as interim pastor while visiting Manhattan to do research on Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Over the years, in periods of growth and decline, Bethesda bought and sold several church buildings in midtown Manhattan, many of which were former synagogues. The congregation continued to use the Swedish language until the 1950s.

In 1969, the church refocused its ministry again, selling its building and moving to a location directly across the street from the United Nations. For more than 33 years, Bethesda rented space at the Church Center for the United Nations and was fondly known in the denomination as the “U.N. Church.”

During that time, former pastors Cliff Johnson (1971-1984) and Jean Lambert (1985-1989) were actively involved in the U.N. community, respectively directing the U.N. Singers and acting as president of the Religious NGOs.  The church remained small, but became exceptionally diverse and multiethnic, with members from all over the world.

Following September 11, Bethesda Covenant Church hosted a joint prayer and worship service for all the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut area Covenant churches.

In 2003, Bethesda again revisioned its ministry and moved out of the Church Center, choosing to pursue intentional revitalization. They called the Rohlers as co-pastors after 15 years of being served by part-time pastors Bob Pearsall (1989-1995) and Gerald Swenson (1995-2002).

“We knew we were a declining church,” says longtime member Tara Johnson, “but we felt we had to give it one more try with full-time pastors.” Bethesda moved its worship to the Turtle Bay Music School, a non-profit community music school in east Midtown.

“It was an extremely difficult decision . . . because no one wanted to see Bethesda close. But most felt that it was the way that God was leading.”

Current church chairperson Brian Talkington, who came to the church with his wife Kumiko only two years ago, observes that “at Bethesda, you could really feel a remarkable sense of community among this diverse group. It was a place you could meet God –together – and feel free to ask questions.”

Over the last five years, the church grew and significantly expanded its activities, but not quickly enough to achieve a sustainable ministry in Manhattan. In September 2008, Bethesda members and friends entered into a period of discernment.

The congregation voted March 29, 2009, to dissolve the church. The lectionary text for that day (5th Sunday in Lent, Year B) came from the Gospel of John 12:24 – unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.

“It was an extremely difficult decision,” says Amy, “because no one wanted to see Bethesda close. But most felt that it was the way that God was leading. It’s almost like we had to grow in order to die.”

Adam agrees. “I can’t imagine going through the closing process at any other time than the season of Lent and Easter. We’ve gotten to actually live the gospel message of death and resurrection. As a community, we’ve learned something powerful in the last few months: it’s not about the church, no matter how historic it is. It’s about the kingdom.”

Bethesda will observe a “Celebration of Life & Ministry” at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 25, at the Turtle Bay Music School. Those interested in attending the service may call the church at 212-234-9764 for further information or visit the church website.

All are invited to honor the legacy of Bethesda by sending notes of greeting or sharing memories and stories of Bethesda’s impact in their lives. Material may be emailed to Pastor Amy Rohler or sent by regular mail to Bethesda Covenant Church, P.O. Box 4413, New York, NY, 10163.

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