CUMBERLAND — During the tour, the Rev. John Krueger stops in the church kitchen and points out the wooden cabinets. They have a history, he said: They used to be pews.
A couple of members of St. John United Church of Christ built custom cabinets for the kitchen in the church’s Muesing Activity Center at Carroll Road and Prospect Street. The congregation began worshiping there in October after vacating its 101-year-old building at 11000 E. Washington St.
Just a few weeks — a few sermons — later, the church’s pastor accepted a position at a church in Missouri.
Krueger, a retired United Church of Christ minister and 12-year member of the church, offered to serve as interim minister. He leads a congregation that, like a church pew transformed into a cabinet, bears not only a rich history but also potential for a new fit, a new usefulness in its current setting.
Story continues below gallery
He estimates about 180 to 200 people are part of the church; about 60 attend the service each Sunday. For the older congregation to “grow itself younger,” it’s important to face “the task of identifying what kind of faith community you are and then inviting people to consider being part of that,” he said.
“I think we are working our way through saying who we are, and that’s a process.”
For 160 years, the congregation met at the northeast corner of Washington Street and German Church Road, which took its name from this church founded by German immigrants. Some of the last names in the list of founding fathers can still be seen among the membership today.
The church worshiped in structures built at the corner in 1855, 1866 and 1914. It vacated the 1914 building after looming repairs and maintenance became too costly, and a deal to sell the building fell through after intervention by the town of Cumberland, which sought to preserve the structure.
Krueger appreciates the church’s rich history but sees new opportunities for growth with the move, provided those opportunities are embraced.
“We obviously carry with us who we have been,” he said. “I think they are very pleased to have a good history, … (but) they are well aware we are living in a new century.”
For one thing, being known as “the German church” might not resonate with the community the way it once did, he said. The congregation is gaining in diversity, with that diversity including an African-American presence, so the label might be limiting, he said.
He instead quotes a tagline in the church’s bulletin: “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” He also points to the United Church of Christ’s role in the civil rights movement, later moves to include women equally, and still later overtures to welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons.
Krueger admits some people left the local congregation over those overtures. And, as with the “German church” label and its potential limits, “We don’t want to be known as a ‘gay church,’” he said. But “we would like people to be able to say, ‘Maybe I can be there and be who I am.’ … We want the openness to be our theme. Who that includes is up to the people.”
Now, the “here” in “you are welcome here” is a building the church originally planned to use as an activity center. With money still tied up in the asset a few miles north that it struggles to sell, a new building next to the activity center, one with some of the 1914 building’s windows and its organ, must wait.
The congregation has adapted the space for worship. A member made a cross quilt to provide a focal point up front. Four tables at the back of the impromptu sanctuary provide a meeting space for adult Sunday school. They were folded to make room for more chairs for the church’s two Christmas Eve services, bringing the chairs to 109.
First there was the criticism over and loss of the church’s $1.7 million agreement to sell the 1914 building and property to Giant Eagle for a convenience store. Then there was the move to the activity center. Then came the departure of its pastor. The church didn’t need any more turmoil, said incoming church president Rich Suiter.
So it was a relief to have a retired pastor in the congregation, one with more than 50 years of experience, one who’d served as a conference pastor overseeing 92 UCC churches in Kansas and Oklahoma — and most importantly, one who volunteered for the job.
“When he stepped up and said he would do it, that was the end of the story,” Suiter said. “That was just great news.”
Rosie Means of New Palestine, who’s attended the church all her life, also sees Krueger as a good fit.
“He’s a caring person, and I think if people come they’ll enjoy him or like him,” she said. “He is interested in people. He’s interested in helping the church to grow.”
Krueger and his wife, Pat, retired to Greenfield 12 years ago to be closer to their family. His career had included serving churches in western Minnesota and in Culver, Indiana. He also helped launch Peace United Church of Christ in Fort Wayne in 1975. The church began with three families; when Krueger left 16 years later, it had about 400 members.
Krueger said he went door to door a lot in those days, but he also said a 2015 church cannot be grown by replicating 1970s methods.
“The bottom line is, how do you find ways of connecting with people?” he said. “How do people know we’re here? Who has asked them to stop by sometime?”
The goal is to expand those opportunities to stop by. Suiter said the church’s community Third Thursday meal has been on hiatus amid the move and the holidays, but “we’re in hopes that we’ll be able to reinstate that.” He said the church continues to serve the community in other ways, such as volunteering and donating to COME (Community Outreach Ministry Eastside), a group of churches that operates a food pantry and other acts of assistance.
Another chance to stop by will be a Tuesday morning study group Krueger will launch soon examining Christian beliefs.
He sees himself as a transitional person. He volunteered, he said, because he felt he could do what needed done for a year or two.
There’s a big to-do list for the years ahead: selling the property, building a new building and growing the congregation. But in this moment, and even in this setting, Krueger sees positive things happening.
The worshipers are sitting closer together; they have to. People linger more readily after the service.
“The quality of our community is better because we have been forced together.”
St. John United Church of Christ meets at 11910 E. Prospect St. Adult education begins at 9 a.m., and the service begins at 10.
The Rev. John Krueger will soon launch a “Remedial Christianity” study group at 10 a.m. Tuesdays, examining basic belief structures of Christianity.
Find out more about the church at stjucc.com.