Without passing an offering plate, the church plans to pay off its mortgage in five years, the pastor said.
By JULIE A. WAGNER
VINDICATOR RELIGION EDITOR
NEW WATERFORD -- From a church that began with 17 members meeting at the home of a local dairy farmer 21 years ago, Abundant Life Fellowship has grown to a congregation of about 800.
The congregation will dedicate its $3.2 million addition next weekend with services, an open house and a luncheon. The church added 32,000 square feet to the 10,000-square-foot facility. The new facility contains a sanctuary that can seat 700 in the congregation in addition to the clergy and the choir.
It also includes a fellowship hall with a kitchen and 12 new classrooms for a total of 16. The former sanctuary is a chapel where services for youths and children take place.
Before the addition, Abundant Life conducted two morning services each Sunday to accommodate all of its members, explained the Rev. Donald Stevenson, who co-pastors the church with his wife, Pauline. Now, the church is able to have classes Sunday mornings at 9:30 before a single, combined worship service at 10:45. The church also has Sunday evening services at 7.
Growing a congregation
The Stevensons attribute the church's growth to allowing members to contribute their time and talents according to their gifts.
"Our job really was not to do everything, but to train leaders," the Rev. Mr. Stevenson said.
The pastors said the church pays attention to the individuals, encourages them to discover their talents and use them where they will be happiest. For example, some people teach, some like to work in the kitchen and some help clean the building. The church facilities are run almost completely by volunteers.
The idea follows chapter 12 of Romans in the New Testament, which discusses the spiritual gifts God grants to individuals.
"The one thing we wanted more than anything was for no one to stand alone," the Rev. Mrs. Stevenson said. As a result, catechism classes -- conducted Wednesday evenings from September through May -- are divided into six groups of 12 to 50 people, allowing people to get to know one another.
Those who attend Abundant Life come from as far away as 30 miles, Mr. Stevenson said. People regularly come from Minerva, Austintown, Girard, East Liverpool and western Pennsylvania, among other locations throughout Columbiana and Mahoning counties, the Stevensons said.
Some churches are more community-oriented, and others reach out to a wider area, Mr. Stevenson said, adding that he envisioned a regional church from the beginning.
How it began
Before beginning Abundant Life Fellowship, the Stevensons were affiliated with a church in Marlboro, Ohio, in Stark County. The choir from that church went out to other communities, and one of those trips was to a camp, where they met a family named Conkle from New Waterford. The Conkles began traveling to Marlboro for services.
As a result, the Stevensons held prayer services and Bible studies in the New Waterford area and later decided to start a church there.
"He felt the call very intensely that we were to come here," Mrs. Stevenson said of her husband, who is retired from the CIA and the U.S. Postal Service.
The church began meeting at the home of Cecil Conkle, a dairy farmer, in 1983. It then moved to a former auto body shop in New Waterford. The congregation built a new facility in 1994, and the current building was completed this past Feb. 29.
Funding the growth
When it came time for Abundant Life to fund the $3.2 million project, it started with a $1.5 million down payment made up totally of offerings placed in a box outside the sanctuary. There were no fund-raisers, and the church does not pass an offering plate during services.
"We teach stewardship. They don't have to be coaxed or begged," Mr. Stevenson said, "We figure if we have to do that, we're doing something wrong."
"By not passing the plate, we showed we have faith," he said.
The congregation hopes to pay off the 15-year mortgage within five years. It paid off its previous 15-year mortgage in three years. The congregation also did whatever it could, such as painting, he said.
In addition, two men laid off from a large company worked for the church while the company paid their wages. When they were laid off, the company encouraged the workers to find such work in the community or at church, and the company continued to pay them for the hours they worked at Abundant Life, the Stevensons said.
One of the two men is still working at the church.
Abundant Life is an independent Christian church. The Stevensons were ordained through the Bethesda Christian Church in Sterling Heights, Mich. That church's former pastor, Dr. James Lee Beall, is their mentor. He will speak at the dedication services this weekend.
XAbundant Life is at 46469 state Route 46 in New Waterford.