“I have always felt that ministry is the greatest profession
and that pastors are given the tremendous gift of sharing life with the best people!
Rev. Anita Bernhardt
Written by Marsha MacKinnon, Webmaster for the Presbytery of Lake Erie
Emmanuel Presbyterian Church on Perry Street in East Erie is facing the same challenges as other churches in the Presbytery of Lake Erie and across the U.S.A. The Emmanuel Church Session invited Rev. Anita Bernhardt to serve as Temporary Supply Pastor in 2018. Now in 2019, Pastor Anita is celebrating her 30th year of Ordained Ministry. Her journey began in Kentucky with stops in Virginia, Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota, North Carolina and now northwest Pennsylvania. Along the way she has held many leadership roles including Pastor, Hospital Chaplain, Conference Minister, Executive Director and Associate Presbyter. Initially she began her ministry in the United Church of Christ and now is a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She believes all of it has been a privilege. Pastor Anita says “not only that, we pastors are entrusted with the most important, significant, and deeply meaningful conversations. We are allowed into the inner recesses of the human heart (symbolically) and share in multiple life-altering moments. Brought together by God’s grace, my faith grows alongside yours in deeply meaningful engagement. What a great honor and privilege!”
The following is a conversation I had with Pastor Anita Bernhardt about her faith journey to Erie and how she is moving Emmanuel Church into the future. Her responses are in Q & A format:
Describe your experiences that you believe were steppingstones on your journey that led you to Emmanuel Presbyterian Church?
“I suppose that the first step toward my pastorate at Emmanuel Presbyterian Church was the discernment of a call to pastoral ministry at a young age. I was a Student Pastor during college for the 9th District of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Kentucky, followed by seminary training at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, VA. (now Union Presbyterian Seminary), and ordination as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. I was ordained January 6, 1989 (Epiphany Day) by the United Church of Christ (UCC) and served local churches within the UCC in Fulton, MO., Mexico, MO., Dodge Center, MN. and Hickory, NC. I also served as a full-time hospital chaplain at a large Catholic hospital in Bloomington, IL. while my husband, PC(USA) pastor, Rev. Dr. James Bernhardt (currently, Sr. Pastor at Wayside Presbyterian Church in Erie and also a member of the Presbytery of Lake Erie) was pastor of Clinton Presbyterian Church, Clinton, IL., 1992-1999. In addition, while living in Hickory, NC, I was a Ten Thousand Villages Fair Trade store manager associated with the Mennonites and an Associate Conference Minister for the Western NC Association of the UCC. Because a Conference Minister in the UCC is a Mid-Council position roughly equivalent to a General Presbyter in the PC(USA), I was called and served as an Interim Associate Presbyter in the Presbytery of Western NC for over 6 years (2009-2016). Our move to Erie necessitated a new call for me (James started at Wayside on 12/1/2015). I began ministry in Erie with an 18-month Interim Pastorate at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on Sterrettania Road before landing at Emmanuel Presbyterian on November 1, 2018 as a Temporary Supply Pastor. Though I am doing the tasks of an Interim Pastor, Temporary Supply Pastor status allows for consideration of a call leading to installation at Emmanuel. Whew! Even I recognize what a convoluted journey that is! Meanwhile, having served in 6 major denominations, I recently transferred my ministerial credentials from the UCC, my denomination of over 30 years, into the PC(USA), hoping that God can make full and better use of my leadership abilities during what is likely my final decade of active ministry. I was received into membership into the Presbytery of Lake Erie on June 25, 2019.”
How have those experiences shaped your ministry along the way and today?
“Experience has given me an appreciation for the diversity and wideness of Christ’s Church (large “C”, as in universal) across denominational and faith lines. I have come to understand that, while there are important differences and distinctions, we have a common purpose and calling to serve God incarnate in Jesus Christ. All disciples, myself included, must find their own particular way to join in the community of believers to further God’s activity in the world and spread the Gospel of Christ’s love for all. Experience has also convinced me that this mission is increasingly challenging in our rapidly-changing times and requires elevated levels of openness, creativity, energy, and persistence! “
If you had to list your top three priorities for mission and ministry, what would they be and why?
- Nurturing healthy, substantial relationships with Jesus Christ, including facilitating the development of new relationships, because nothing is more important than knowing Jesus as Lord and sovereign of all.
- Growing the faith in practical, accessible ways that help disciples navigate and attach meaning to the joys and challenges of this life, because life should be lived intentionally and in faithful service.
- Strengthen and increase the community of believers in the Church, still Christ’s chosen vessel, emboldening faith internally and empowering radical welcome externally.
What specific and/or unique challenges do you face as pastor of an inner-city, east Erie church?
“Besides all of the above (!), Emmanuel shares in the anxiety of the whole Church over slippage in worship & Sunday School/faith nurture attendance. Emmanuel is a church that used to have over 600 members (now 136) and we have a large building to match those “glory days”. Faithful use of our building, too large for ONLY our own needs, is a constant. In addition, the fear of continued loss of vitality is ever-present. Calming these anxieties and keeping the focus on what God is doing into the future is an important part of contemporary ministry.”
Church attendance is down and the days of attending church as an obligation are long past. How do you encourage people to want to attend?
“On the simplest level, I try to offer a worship experience that they will not want to miss! I work at infusing worship services with variety, creativity, sound biblical content, life relevance, and sensory saturation that leaves people hungry for more. We talk about Jesus (a lot!) using ordinary language, employ a plentitude of beautiful music in many styles, study scripture mindfully, pray meaningfully, and take advantage of the most recent in audio-visual technology. I also believe that fostering a firm sense of belonging to the body of believers helps to keep disciples returning to the fold of their faith family.”
What does “transforming church” mean to you and how doing so will lead us into the future?
“ I believe that we are living in a time when the Church is particularly challenged to keep pace with the rapid transformation of our society. The advances in technology, science, culture, communications, and global interdependence (to name a few) mean that the Church also dare not stand still. Instead, we need to stand strong in our confidence in Jesus Christ, who will lead us into the future. Trusting Christ, we are then able to try a variety of new things without undue attachment to outcomes. If at first we don’t succeed, we should try, try again with a new idea, constantly and attentively listening for the voices of those around us who are searching and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
How are you engaging children and youth in this process of “transforming church?”
“If the Church doesn’t look the same today as it did a generation ago, then neither does the nuclear family. While I believe that children and youth are a vitally important part, I affirm the multi-generational nature of the body of Christ. For example, if parents and grandparents of children are not engaged in the life of the Church, the children are also less likely to actively participate. In my opinion, the “transforming church”, instead of targeting children and youth for individualistic special attention, should be helping whole families navigate their changing structures, stressed dynamics, and unexpected challenges, so that disciples of all ages can meet life with faith, confidence, and healthy relationships.”
What haven’t I asked you about that you would like to discuss?
“I have always felt that ministry is the greatest profession and that pastors are given the tremendous gift of sharing life with the best people! Not only that, we pastors are entrusted with the most important, significant, and deeply meaningful conversations. We are allowed into the inner recesses of the human heart (symbolically) and share in multiple life-altering moments. Brought together by God’s grace, my faith grows alongside yours in deeply meaningful engagement. What a great honor and privilege!”