Program helping congregation build on community connections


Since its founding in 2001, Bethel Community Church in Seymour has been mission-centered.

Whether it’s supporting orphanages in Haiti, Dominican Republic or Philippines or serving free meals, giving away clothing and food or ministering to the community, the small but mighty congregation focuses on how it can help people.

Most of these activities, however, are done outside of the church’s four walls at 350 Calvin Blvd.

There is no parking lot outside, the building is not handicap-accessible and the basement isn’t heated well in the winter, which are all limitations.

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The 15-member congregation and its pastor, the Rev. Dr. Sondra Gentry, want to be able to do more, including hosting events and encouraging community groups to use the church as a meeting place.

That’s why they applied for and were accepted into Indiana Landmarks’ Sacred Places Indiana program, which encourages churches to open their buildings to the community and be a support place.

“Our congregation is mission-centered, so it’s the kind of thing that makes them feel like they are Christians if they are giving,” Gentry said. “It was hard to do here, so that’s really what pushes it along because that has been the congregation’s history for generations and generations.”

Sacred Places Indiana started in September 2015 as a three-year pilot program. It’s a partnership between Indiana Landmarks and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based Partners for Sacred Places with support from Lilly Endowment.

Each year, eight to 10 congregations with historic houses of worship have been chosen. They field five-member teams to receive intensive training in assessing the condition and space in their structures, fundraising, developing a case statement and organizational planning to leverage their historic buildings as assets, according to

“Sacred Places Indiana helps congregations think and act strategically,” David Frederick, director of Sacred Places Indiana, said in an article at “Most of our congregations suffer from this equation: Aging and dwindling membership plus declining contributions equals deferred maintenance. Our program alters the problem-to-problem pattern to try to keep congregations in their historic homes.”

Frederick said the program bridges the gap between preservation organizations and congregations and denominational governing bodies.

“Our program helps congregations develop visions and plans that capitalize on their landmark structures, regarding them as assets rather than burdens,” he said.

Gentry said she learned about Sacred Places Indiana while working with a group restoring the Lynn Street Colored School Center of Goodwill building at 208 S. Lynn St., Seymour.

Members who started Bethel Community Church and own the Lynn Street property are involved in that project and have worked with Greg Sekula, director of the Indiana Landmarks Southern Regional Office in Jeffersonville.

When they mentioned the church building to Sekula, he wanted to check it out.

It opened in the 1950s as a United Brethren church and later merged with a United Methodist church. Bethel Community Church met in another church building before purchasing the one at the corner of Calvin Boulevard and Fourth Street and moving in in 2003. Since March of this year, Seymour Family Worship Center also has met at Bethel.

Sekula thought the Sacred Places Indiana program could help, so he shared contact information with Gentry.

“We thought about it for several months because I wasn’t sure if we could handle both projects,” Gentry said of the church and school buildings.

Plus, there was a $500 fee to go along with the application.

“For a small church like us, you have to think, ‘OK, can we take $500 and do that?’ but I think it’s worth it. You need to be invested in it,” Gentry said.

“This church is in the community, and we want to do more service here in this community, so we want to look for ways that the community can use the building more,” she said. “We said, ‘OK, what can we do here and how can we make this building serve?’ because the building ought to be able to serve people, not just sit here and look pretty.”

In August, Gentry began the application process. That included explaining in a letter the church’s ideas for improving its facility and how it does ministry and also answering questions on an application.

“It took a little bit because you had to think about it, and you had to be really thoughtful about who you are, where you want to go, what your congregation is like,” Gentry said.

About a month later, the church learned it was one of 10 chosen in the state.

“It was really awesome,” Gentry said. “I felt like it was a huge honor that we would be selected to be one of the last (10 chosen) because this is a three-year project, so we’re the last cohort.”

In October, Gentry and four members of her congregation attended an introductory meeting in Indianapolis to learn more about the other churches involved and receive workbooks guiding them through their nine-month New Dollars/New Partners training. That includes assignments, a case study and a description of the church’s history.

Each church’s team will have four eight-hour training sessions at different sites around the state. The first one is in February.

“Everybody comes in wanting to do more in their community, so then you get a series of assignments that help you look at your building in a way that you could do that,” Gentry said. “You hear about different things that are possible to do, but you have to come up with what you could do in your building, how can you serve them in your building.”

The participating churches receive $5,000 to have an architect look at their building and determine the needs and priorities to make it more useful.

Better accessibility is one goal for Bethel. With no parking lot, people have to park in areas around the church. Then once they get there, some people can’t get up the steps or down into the basement.

“They live in the community, and they can’t get in our building. That’s just not acceptable,” Gentry said. “They should be able to use it.”

Another hope is to offer more for children and senior citizens to do at the church.

“Our young adults said to us they need a place to go, that they need to be able to do some things,” Gentry said. “That’s one of the things to be addressed in the (Lynn Street) building, as well, to have a space there for young adults.”

Gentry also said she would like to see what services are lacking in the community and offer them.

“I don’t want to replicate what someone else is already doing,” she said. “We need to know what’s needed.”

After the end of the program, the congregations are eligible to compete for Sacred Places Indiana grants for planning and capital improvements. One of them will be chosen to receive $25,000, Gentry said.

Whether or not her church receives the money, Gentry said it will be a worthwhile experience.

Kay Shelton Welton, a member of the church’s Sacred Places Indiana project team, pointed out the founding members of the church paid off the building in three and a half years.

Between that and them helping with other upgrades over the years, Gentry has confidence in her congregation.

“I’m hopeful that we will get it, but I’m not dismayed if we don’t,” she said. “I really want to be a sacred place, and I want people to see us as a sacred place whether we get the money or not. At the very least, we’re getting the training, we’re getting the manuals, we’re learning the skills that we can apply to both buildings and it opens up money for us, so it’s a good investment.”

The Bethel congregation is excited about the church’s involvement in the program.

“It’s big,” Welton said. “Along with the Lynn Street project, we’ll get to see the church move in and move on and move up, so it’s a good thing. It’s very positive. Everybody is like, ‘OK, we can do this.’”

Gentry said everyone has the right heart, desire and drive.

“I’m really, really excited,” she said. “That’s a third of our membership that’s going into this, and then we come back and talk to the rest of the congregation about what you can do. I think it’s really good for us. I think it’s good for Seymour.”

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For information about Sacred Places Indiana, call 317-822-7952 or visit


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