By the time Zoar Mennonite Church in Waldheim decided to close its doors in June of 2020, it was clearly time. At its peak, the church had 235 members. But over the years people had moved to other towns or cities, transitioned into nursing homes, had passed away or moved on for other reasons. They were down to about 30 regular attendees before the pandemic, and then only 18-25 when they reopened.
People in leadership positions in the church had been serving in their roles for years with no one to replace them. Before the pandemic they had explored sharing the building with another church, or sharing a pastor with another congregation, but neither worked out. The church was starting to dip into its reserves in order to keep going. And so after covid hit, it was clear the congregation, founded in 1910, needed to look at closing. “[Closing the church] was something that’s been in my mind personally for some time,” says Liz Baerwald, who served as church chair from 2007 until the church closed. “How long can we go on with having the same people do many, many different positions within the church to make the church work?”
But as it closed, the congregation made some final acts of generosity that will see their legacy carry on for years to come.Once the church had sold or given away all their books and other worship supplies, sold the building and paid out their pastor, they had some money left over in their reserves. They decided to donate it to some of the causes that had been important to the congregation over the years. To determine where the money would go, they held a meeting where everyone in the congregation was given a list of places that the church had supported in the past, and they were asked to rank them. After the votes were counted there were three that were clearly at the top: the congregation donated funds to MCC Saskatchewan, Shekinah Retreat Centre and made a gift to RJC of $90,000.
This generosity is a continuation of the church’s history of giving back close to home and around the world. “The church has been largely mission minded,” says Liz. Since the early 50s they’ve had around 22 people from the church serve with the Commission on Overseas Mission. The congregation has also sponsored many refugee families over the years, including seven families from Colombia in the last 16 years.
For many years the congregation also ran the Alone on Christmas Day dinner for the community, providing a place for people who might otherwise be alone over the holidays. In its last year the event had more than 60 people attend. The church also supported MCC, including making thousandsofblanketsovertheyearsand working in food booths at relief sales.
The church also has a long history of connections with RJC. A number of church members were staff at the school, including Greg Baerwald who was kitchen supervisor from 1980 to 2002. The congregation also made financial contributions to the school over the years and had a bursary to help cover tuition for students.
Liz says giving to RJC, both over the years and with this final contribution, was important because of the Christian education the school provides. “I think Christian education is falling by the wayside,” she says, “so it’s even more important now than it’s ever been. Where will you experience the love of God if it’s not in the classroom?”
As a staff member for many years, Greg saw the excitement students had at the school and all the extras that RJC offered in the arts, sports and in the community. He says he hopes it can continue to offer that special environment for years to come. “The RJC motto has been education with a plus and I think that plus is really important. That something extra that kids can find there at RJC,” he says.
According to Liz and Greg, all of these different ways the church has given back over the years, including to RJC, was an important part of the congregation’s Christian faith.“To worship together is good,” says Liz, “but it has to be more than just sit and worship.” Greg adds, “It has to be extended out to the community.”