Piedmont church, new pastor working to expand congregation

2022-06-15 18:55:34 By : Ms. Linda Li

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PIEDMONT — Church attendance and membership continues to decline in America, due in part to the pandemic but also due to changes in attitude about religion well underway long before COVID-19 appeared.

Related Articles Local News | Piedmont Recreation Department to offer more senior programs Local News | Photo: Piedmont High School’s Class of 2022 graduates Local News | Piedmont High students hold rally after Texas school shooting A March 30, 2021, article in the New York Post noted that, for the first time in 80 years, Gallup found that less than half of U.S. adults belong to a church, synagogue or mosque. Church membership was 73% when Gallup first measured it in 1937 and remained near 70% for the next six decades before a steady decline starting in the 21st century.

“Churches in America have a PR problem. More people are becoming ‘nones’ (no religious affiliation). The Bay Area is very secular, one of the most unchurched areas,” said Steve Schibsted, the new pastor at Piedmont Community Church.

Schibsted was overwhelmingly voted in by the congregation as the church’s new senior pastor on March 6 after serving as interim pastor for 14 months following the retirement of William McNabb, who had served the church for 18 years. Schibsted’s good humor and background will be put into play as PCC, as it’s called, faces a decline in membership and programming.

“We have to do things in a new way,” the pastor said.

That includes YouTube videos of church services every week, which are “a little too popular” Schibsted joked. “We like to see people in church.”

He estimates PCC’s membership at 500 to 600 people with about half attending in-person and half online. The church draws members from Rockridge, Berkeley, Oakland and other areas. The pastor makes no bones in a recent sermon about churches closing right and left across the country.

“They are turning into yoga and meditation centers,” he said. “How do you close down with dignity? PCC was on that path unless we did something drastic. It’s a new day, a new path. I have hope God can do something new, give us identity and purpose.”

The website churchandculture.org noted in November 2021 that 350,000 houses of worship across the country had 65 or fewer in attendance any given Sunday. Associate Pastor Dr. Don Ashburn, though, working with Schibsted has infused PCC with new vitality and reopened a church task force. A weekly Bible study is conducted on Zoom, and a life group was established last fall in which people gather at church for dinner and group discussions to establish adult spiritual formations. “It has been quite a year full of challenges and opportunities,” Ashburn wrote in his message to congregants. “I am convinced that we are more than ready to grow together as God’s people in this little corner of our planet.”

Last Saturday, a group from PCC gathered headed for the Oakland shoreline to collect metal trash at the bay’s edge. About 25 bags of trash were collected and volunteers left with a sense of purpose.

The church recently “adopted” a new Ukrainian refugee family who are staying temporarily with a church member. They’re raising funds to help the family get on their feet. In the past the church has helped many refugees from Afghanistan.

Congregants have been generous in supporting the church. Schibsted said the pledge campaign brought in about $976,000. Its operating budget is now about $2.2 million, the bulk of it going to staff salaries and benefits, costs of maintenance and facilities, music programs and other services.

Schibsted has experience growing churches. With a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1991, and a doctor of ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary in 2001, he grew a church in Chico from 400 to 1,750 members in the 17 years he served there. He recently served a three-year term as transitional minister at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, which ended earlier this year. He also served for a time in San Clemente.

“We are in the process of rebuilding our church,” he said. “At our core we are a gathering of people and gathering has been difficult for over two years. Things became a little tattered over the last few years and need to be reorganized.”

New church member Suzie Skugstad, an art teacher for 20 years at Piedmont’s Wildwood Elementary School, found solace and inspiration at PCC.

“After the death of both my parents 20 months ago and the isolation I felt from COVID, a strong sense of needing community crept into my everyday thoughts,” Skugstad said. “I had participated in the Mexico Mission for seven years, so I knew lots of good friends from PCC but still thought I was too much of an outsider.

“Then I met Steve, and we really clicked. He welcomed me in ways I knew this community was for me. I especially loved meeting the Putrenkov family, refugees from Ukraine, and getting a chance to tutor Vlad, their second grader, in English.”

PCC is situated in the heart of the city with a central landscaped courtyard and a historic building designed by noted architect Albert Farr, who designed many structures in Piedmont. The site for “The Church in Piedmont,” as it was originally called, was donated by church leaders the Wallace Alexanders in 1913. Piedmonters had difficulties getting to church services in Oakland in the early days and wanted their own church.

The Schibsteds have no trouble getting to church however. The pastor and his wife, Leslie, have a home in upper Rockridge, less than 3 miles from PCC. They have two adult children, a daughter in the Bay Area and a son living in Idaho.

“Steve is a wonderful fit for what this church wants and needs right now,” said Pat Leicher of PCC’s board of trustees. “As we come out of the pandemic, we want to be an outward-facing church. After all, community is our middle name. We are tutoring in Oakland schools, cooking and serving meals for those in shelters. We look to sponsor a variety of community service projects that families can do together. And also projects for middle and high school groups.”

For more information on PCC programs and services, visit piedmontchurch.org.

Linda Davis is a longtime Piedmont correspondent. Contact her with news tips or comments at dlinda249@gmail.com.

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