One church closes, another opens
First United Church of Christ in Palmerton sits empty, marked by a sign that reads “Thank you for the memories.” The building has been sold to the Cherryville-based Bethany Wesleyan Church. DANIELLE DERRICKSON/TIMES NEWS
A Lehigh Township church is making its way into Palmerton.
Bethany Wesleyan Church, based in Cherryville, has purchased the First United Church of Christ located on Delaware Avenue in the borough. The sale will be complete June 26.
“We feel like whatever (God’s) already up to in Palmerton, we’re just going to be able to simply add value to that,” said the Rev. Kevin Fetterhoff, lead pastor of Bethany Wesleyan.
“We’re excited about the opportunity,” Fetterhoff said. “Palmerton is an amazing community.”
Fetterhoff said members of First United approached Bethany Wesleyan with the prospect of purchasing the facility. He had seen the church from the street — recognizing it by the large, wooden cross decorating its face — but had never been inside.
When he finally did tour First United, Fetterhoff “felt sadness” for its members, because “they had a lot of memory and history there,” he said.
But he also thought the congregation was making “a strong call.”
“I respect what they’re doing,” Fetterhoff said. “It’s a call quite frankly I wish other churches that maybe are in a similar situation would be able to make, because it strengthens that church.”
Between the satellite location Bethany Wesleyan set up in Lehighton Area Middle School back in 2018 and its Cherryville site — which averaged a combined weekend attendance of over 1,000 people last year — Palmerton will be the third Bethany Wesleyan church to take root in the area.
The former First United congregation will join ranks with Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in Slatedale, Lehigh County.
The Rev. Dr. Bonnie Bates is a conference minister at Penn Northeast Conference of the United Church of Christ. She provides administrative support for more than 130 congregations in Northeast Pennsylvania. She said conversation between First United and Good Shepherd began over a year ago.
The decision to merge, Bates said, is one way smaller congregations are coping with dwindling attendance.
“I think it’s going to become more and more a trend as time passes,” she said. “I don’t think God’s done with the church yet, I think we’re just morphing into a new form that will better serve people as we move forward.”
Palmerton First United Church of Christ traces its roots back to 1910, according to its website. That year, the parish’s early members established a Reformed Church in the St. Vladimir Greek Catholic Church, then Union Chapel, located on Lehigh Avenue in the borough.
The pastorate began with the Rev. Morgan Peters in January 1911.
The church dedicated its first on-site building, adjacent to Palmerton Borough Hall, in 1912. An annex and an education building were later added.
Today, those buildings sit empty, marked by a sign that reads “Thank you for the memories.”
Services at the soon-to-be Bethany Wesleyan Palmerton Campus are slated to begin in October, following a series of renovations. Kathleen Dieter will be campus pastor.
“Everybody is welcome to come by and see what it’s all about,” Fetterhoff said.