TOXIC CHAPEL: A Pastoral Perspective and History of the Historic Coleman Memorial Chapel
Reverend Russell E. Hobbs
(A Labor of Love, A Work in Progress)
Throughout the years there have been written contributions to the history of the Coleman Memorial Chapel at 1980 Furnace Hills Pike in Lititz. The church is located along Rt 501North at Brickerville, Elizabeth Township, Lancaster County. While some of the documentation presented may be foundational it is likely that much of what has been said and written is of a spurious nature. I have no interest in dubious investigation to either establish or challenge what has been heretofore set forth by others who believe themselves to be competent on such matters and in the know! The purpose and only purpose for my contribution is to offer you my story as the Coleman Chapel pastor from 1998-2019. This work constitutes a portion of my beliefs, thoughts and experiences within my work and ministry in the pastoral role. I will be adding to this historical perspective based upon what the Lord instills upon my mind and places in my heart as I share this story. While I have been and am a writer of stories and fiction this “labor of love” is not of that nature. I’m going to be sharing actual pastoral experiences and remembrances of my pastoral years at the “Chapel.”
As with all ventures of life and ministry there was a kaleidoscope of “saints and sinners” that made the work at the Chapel challenging, blessed, deep and rich, good and bad, sad and indifferent, exciting and boring, anguishing and impossible AND WELL worth the effort of serving a living God! Before I become too heavily involved in my Chapel story allow me to share with you some of what has been historically offered during my years of ministry.
The origins of this rural chapel go back to the year 1835, when a small chapel, known as “Elizabeth Farms Chapel” was built by Mrs. James Coleman and used for many years as a Sunday school and a public place of worship for all denominations. Mrs. Coleman is quoted as saying “It was free to all.” It was important that a place be provided for families to worship and develop ministries to aid the families at this time in history.
Construction on the main chapel was started around the year 1872 by Hon G Dawson Coleman and his wife Deborah, in memory of their son, James who died as a result of a horseback riding accident. Hon G Dawson Coleman died shortly after construction began and the church was completed by his wife. The cornerstone for the “James Coleman Memorial Chapel” was laid on August 27, 1874 and dedicated July 8,1877. James Coleman Memorial Chapel became affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in Lebanon and later Lancaster, PA. In 1968, James Coleman Memorial Chapel was incorporated as a non-denominational place of worship and became known as it is today,” Coleman Memorial Chapel.”
In 1982, a Lancaster county Historical Sites Survey states, “This is a very accomplished example of the first Gothic Revival on a relatively small scale” It was one of the finest Victorian period churches of its time with the interior retaining much of its original appearance and detailing which includes stained glass windows believed to be Tiffany windows, the original oil lamps and stenciling..”
Coleman Memorial Chapel today stands as a reminder of the past but also in the present as a vital part of the Lititz community. The church is involved with a number of ministries to reach those of all ages. Midnight Hour Ministries, Captain Hawk® and Stories That Inspire on radio touch people in a variety of ways.
The community is invited to our annual Sunrise Service with our historical pews turned around towards the rising sun. The candlelight service which is held the second Sunday in December takes one back in time to a beautiful night of candles, music and original oil lamps.
There you have a snippet of some of the church history that has been shared publicly as a description of the church, its work and ministry during a particular season of at the end of the 20th century and commencement of the 21st;
When I was called to come as the Coleman Memorial Chapel pastor in 1998, the church was broken and struggling. There were about a dozen people who attended the Chapel, mostly on an irregular basis. Sound Biblical leadership and direction were non-existent in the Chapel I came to. It was a church and property in shambles. The stately church parsonage had been abandoned for a decade and there were some 5,000 little brown bats living in the attic of the old house.
During subsequent years I wrote two works of fiction to tell the story of the Chapel as I related tales of spiritual warfare. The books were entitled Old Bones and Principalities and Powers: Just for the Hell of It. These books while fictional, as with most fiction, contained elements of truth about a dysfunctional and spiritually broken organization and people who were lost and without direction. Indeed, there were thousands of bats at one time in the parsonage attic and throughout the years there had been an abundance of “troubled individuals” who had emerged or been appointed as church elders and/or leaders who should have NEVER been placed into a leadership role. They were unqualified, unseasoned novices void of biblical knowledge and leadership skills.
When I arrived at the Chapel to begin my ministry I discovered; conflicting saints, spiritually and biblically illiterate people, three buildings in need of MUCH work and renovations which included the Chapel, the parsonage and the guest house which was a caretaker residence.
I am thankful to God in the transformation that I saw during that period of ministry! I am thankful and indebted to my beautiful wife Darla, my family and friends for ALL of the encouragement and support that they offered during both the good and trying times of Chapel life.
A few of the highlights of ministry at the CMC that still warm my heart is the foundational preaching and teaching ministry which we were able to establish. WE preached and taught the Word of God in the midst of a perverse environment, people and community. Additionally, the Lord helped us to:
- Raise needed finances for building restorations & programs
- Light the old steeple
- Install a state of art sound system and professional platform and stage lighting
- Pave the driveway
- Install new carpet
- New pew cushions
- Erect a state of the art professional sign that was used for ministry sharing purposes
- Develop a philosophy of ministry, doctrinal statements, vision and mission statements
- Perform storytelling and broadcast communications, visit russhobbs.org for a glimpse of this ministry
- Develop counseling and pastoral care
- Offer college courses and seminars
- Offer services to the community such as our Candlelight Services, Easter Programs
- So much more because GOD IS GREAT!
In February 1998 I became the pastor of the Coleman Memorial Chapel. The church, a non-denominational ministry had been a Presbyterian church until 1968 when some problems and bitter disagreements erupted. There were financial, administrative and other issues of wrangling among the people that set the church on the path to independence.
As one might suspect it was a roller coaster ride of upheaval from year to year with challenges of a physical, emotional and spiritual nature. There had been conflicts with pastors and between members which threatened sanctity and harmony. There had been certain board members who in a burst of anger had thrown keys on a table, resigned, stormed out of the meeting, slamming the door behind them. That’s how it had been reported. Ahhhhhh, if only the stones could speak what a story they would tell!
When Darla and I arrived at the “Chapel” here is what we discovered. There were about a dozen people attending the church. The stately 1800’s parsonage was uninhabitable because it was in shambles and had been uninhabited for a decade. Thousands of bats resided in the parsonage and had to be re-located. The years had taken a toll on the buildings and there were numerous projects, repairs and restoration that were needed. Some of the needed renovations took years to complete. As with all properties one is never finished with a project before there are a dozen more waiting to be initiated.
There were numerous ministerial and administrative projects in need of creating! It was building from the ground up. There were organizational procedures and writings that were needed, doctrinal statements, mission statements, a philosophy of ministry and so much more. We step by step prayed, wrote, planned and initiated one procedure and program after another.
The work, sweat, tears and blood were an ongoing reminder that God was going to do some great things at that little country chapel. I believe HE did but, there were an abundance of challenges along the way. There always is. This is going to be a continuing story.
What does God really want from us? There was a lady in my former church who came to me shortly after our arrival at the chapel. Her name was Pauline and her question to me was “Are you God’s man for us?” It was an appropriate question and for the next 21 years of our lives I worked hard to demonstrate that I believed that God had called Darla and I to share His word and message of love for the people of that church and community.
The people in the prophet Micah’s day complained that God was never satisfied. They snidely asked, “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?” (Micah 6:7). It was their way of asking, “What does God want from us, anyway?” Some people today feel like all their striving to please God goes for nothing, and they, too, ask, “What does God want from me?”
Jesus Christ put it like this, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.
I believe that our God wants us to trust in His Son as Savior and Lord (Philippians 2:9–11). I believe that God wants us to “become conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29). The Heavenly Father wants us to be like Jesus. He brings situations into our lives to refine us and chip away those flawed characteristics that are in the way of our becoming who He designed us to be.
Many people, like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, try to put the external action before the inner heart change (Luke 11:42). When our focus is on loving God rather than simply serving Him, we end up doing both. If we skip the relationship, our service is of no use and benefits nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1–2)