Planting a new church congregation ‘is a delicate' process


Church planting is an unlikely term for the process of starting a new congregation.

Planting conveys an image of a well-tended garden, not a building full of people, and the stories of four Toledo congregations might make a wildflower metaphor more appropriate as they spring up in storefronts and spaces borrowed from other churches.

Like wildflowers, they tend to have some uncommon beauty in their diverse approaches to worship and being together. Sometimes there's a planter spreading the seeds, but for others it's as if nature called them into an existence where they're responsible for themselves.

Planting a church "is a very delicate thing," said Sam Melden, the leader of Genesis Toledo Christian Fellowship, which will have its first service at 5 p.m. today at Washington Church, 3925 W. Central Ave.

"One of the things that I really believe and really, really like is that there are certain convictions and certain preferences and certain callings that I think certain people have to go and create new space and new flavor, a new expression. But it is not automatically then indicting against the congregation that they left."

The flavor and expression of Genesis, as well as of Holy Spirit Catholic Community, Threshold Church, and the Village Church, show that church planting does not involve starting a congregation that follows the practices and traditions of churches that are longtime parts of the spiritual landscape.

Genesis Toledo Christian Fellowship started as a Bible study group in 2009. It has about 25 adults and almost 20 children. Mr. Melden and the Rev. Tom Polker, both formerly associated with Cedar Creek Church, started Genesis and it had meetings at First Baptist Church of Greater Toledo in Holland. Pastor Polker later accepted the call to serve the First Presbyterian Church of Napoleon, and Genesis and Mr. Melden are relaunching with services at Washington Church to complement Genesis' "common groups" that help the congregants to share their lives.

Holy Spirit Catholic Community led by the Rev. Beverly Bingle, a Roman Catholic Womanpriest, has met on Sundays at 5:30 p.m. for four weeks. Its first service had about 50 people. Services are held at Unity of Toledo, 3535 Executive Pkwy.

The Rev. Bingle started Holy Spirit for Roman Catholics who have not been treated well by the church hierarchy.

"I'm thinking especially of the divorced who don't get an annulment and get remarried, gay people, lesbians," the Rev. Bingle said.

She started celebrating Masses before planning Holy Spirit's foundation. "We'll be holding our first meeting as a community this Sunday after Mass to begin the conversation about how we want to structure ourselves and what kinds of service we'll engage in. I'm hoping we'll be witnessing as in the Acts of the Apostles by what we do for others."

Threshold Church, in a storefront at 3059 Bancroft Ave., meets at a traditional time, Sundays at 11 a.m., but its story is not so common. In 2009 it started in a nightclub. Planted by the Rev. Tom Schaeffer, Threshold is a mission church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Pastor Schaeffer began Threshold after leaving the 10:35 Church, which was a satellite of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Maumee.

"We don't want worship to be the defining piece of who we are," Pastor Schaeffer said of Threshold. "It is for a lot of churches, but that's never been our intent." Threshold has about 50 people in worship, but closer to 90 in other activities such as its mission and service oriented group ministry.

The Village Church, which meets at the Maumee Indoor Theater at 601 Conant St. in Maumee and is led by the Rev. Cheri Holdridge, had its first services in a rented building on Monroe Street in Toledo in 2008. Last year it moved to a Sunday-only space in Maumee, and it has about 80 participants.

The churches are not just places, of course. The people in the congregations — not just the leaders — give the church plants their character and their attention can be directed outward into the community rather than inward to their own circle.

"The church is about worshiping together, sharing meals together, praying for one another, encouraging one another," Mr. Melden said. "And rather than the church being the driving force behind a program that says ‘Go do this, this and this,' instead we look around our community, and say, ‘What are you involved in and how can we join in that together?'"

For example, Mr. Melden continues his full-time work as chief thought officer — the executive director — of Food for Thought, a Toledo organization that has food pantries serving about 1,200 families a month and that on Saturdays serves about 350 lunches to "the unhoused and impoverished population of the central city," he said.

For a new church, as well as for existing religious societies, the work of the leadership is important to develop the way the church ministers.

Threshold has a three-person leadership team: Pastor Schaeffer, Eric Johnson, who is the director of college ministry for the church on the edge of the University of Toledo campus, and Scott Biddle, the worship leader. All three had been involved with 10:35 Church. "The leadership is the same [as at 10:35 Church], but the ministry is significantly different," Pastor Schaeffer said. "I felt called to launch a new community based on a whole new philosophy apart from what I had been doing."

Holy Spirit has a significant difference in its Catholic posture. "While we're Roman Catholic in liturgy and theology, we are not subject to a local bishop and do not operate as a hierarchy," the Rev. Bingle wrote in an email,

With the her ordination, an action that Roman Catholic Church doctrine prohibits because she is a woman, she cannot get formal support from the Roman Catholic Church.

Pastor Holdridge was minister at Central United Methodist Church when "I had a vision for a church that I thought Toledo needed," she said. She told the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church, "I've lived in this town for nine years, and I know people out there who aren't going to any existing churches but I think they'll come to this new thing." Both denominations provided initial support.

Genesis plans to pursue adoption by the Evangelical Covenant Church next year. One area church, New Harvest Christian Church in Oregon, is an ECC denomination. "We want to have oversight, we want to have a connection to something larger than ourselves," Mr. Melden said. "The Covenant really provides that. They're a very gracious, generous group, but still with strong roots in the faith."

Pastor Schaeffer's move with Threshold was similar. "I basically left St. Paul's, started a church, and then approached the [ELCA] synod and said, ‘We're here. Would you like to have us?'"

The Village Church and Pastor Holdridge, along with the Epicenter Group from Washington, D.C., will host a church-planting training course on April 23 and 24 at the Maumee Indoor Theater. For more information, go to or call 419-469-8824.

Contact TK Barger at:, 419-724-6278 or on Twitter @TK_Barger.