The Valley’s three Presbyterian churches have maintained a collaborative spirit throughout the years. 
But soon, the Athens, Sayre and Waverly churches will work together in a new way: by merging into one large congregation.
Members of the three churches recently voted to go forward with the merge, said Dale Barber of Waverly Presbyterian Church, a leader of the committee that has spearheaded the changes. The three congregations will become one church beginning Jan. 1, 2014.
Slightly over 100 members of the congregation participated in the vote, and 100 of them voted yes, Barber said, calling the results “overwhelming.”
Officials have already tested the waters for the past couple of years. The congregations have participated in activities together. The Athens and Waverly churches alternated worship Sundays during the summer last year; this year, Sayre joined in.
The three churches started exploring the possibility of sharing services with one another — not necessarily a merger at that point — about a year and a half ago, Barber said. At that time, the Waverly and Sayre churches were both between pastors, and Athens’ pastor, Nelson Kopatz, had begun to plan his retirement, set to happen this October.
A 10-person group formed from the three congregations to explore what the groups could do together.
At about the same time, a national initiative called “New Beginnings” asked Presbyterian churches to take a look at where they were and where they hoped to be in the future.
The program includes an assessment that asks participating churches to inspect the conditions of their buildings, review their finances and survey their communities’ demographics, according to information from the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America. Congregations then use that information to develop a future path.
Committees from the Athens, Sayre and Waverly churches each went through the New Beginnings process independently. As a result, each arrived as the same conclusion.
“It made a lot of sense to talk about merging,” Barber said.
For some members of the three congregations, the proposal was met with enthusiasm. It was a harder sell for others, but even longtime members — some who have been part of the church for more than 50 years — came around to the idea of merging, Barber said.
“Some of our older members have been very supportive,” he said.
 
A RICH HISTORY
The Athens church celebrated its 200th anniversary last summer. According to information provided at a July 8, 2012 celebration service, a small group of born-again Christian settlers of Athens signed a charter in July 1812 to form the First Congregational Church of Christ of Athens. The first service was held at what is now Academy Park, the former site of the Athens Academy, where the church’s initial members gathered to hear the words of then-pastor William Wisner.
Church members said it was the first church established in the Valley, with the church’s current building on South Main Street built in 1891.
The Waverly Presbyterian Church, now located on Park Avenue, split off from the Athens congregation in 1847, and the Sayre Presbyterian Church was formed in 1894, Barber said.
 
A NEW BEGINNING
As a result of the decision to merge, four people from each congregation have been elected to serve on a pastor nomination committee. The ideal candidate, Barber said, will lead the congregation into its next phase.
The committee has already started the search for a new pastor to help the congregations make the transition into one new church. Preferably, whoever the committee selects will have experience in church redevelopment or new church development, Barber said.
Beyond the pastor search, many of the details are up in the air, Barber said. Several decisions have yet to be made, including where the combined congregation will worship.
The new church doesn’t even have a name yet, although members are referring to it as the Valley Presbyterian Church. A contest will be held to name the new church next year, Barber said.
And with the Waverly church part of a group of Presbyterian churches in New York state, and the other two churches members of Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna Presbytery, the new location will determine which group the church remains a part of, Barber said. The presbyteries, he said, are split along state lines.
Both presbyteries “have been fully supportive of us and are helping us,” Barber said.
For now, the churches will continue their rotating worship schedule through the end of the year. Starting Jan. 1, they’ll meet at one of the three buildings, continuing to do their work in both states until a final decision is made.
Leaders may choose one of the buildings or decide to build or move into a new one entirely, a decision officials said could take up to two years, or more. “We don’t know the answers more than we do,” Barber said.
However, officials believed the new congregation will find its footing and become stronger than the three were separately.
“With all our traditions and history, we can be more than some of the parts,” he said. “It’s going to be a fun trip, that’s for sure.”
Amanda Renko can be reached at (570) 888-9652; or email: arenko@thedailyreview.com.