Hebron United Methodist Church welcomed more than 300 regular members through its doors in its heyday and now greets about 80 on an average Sunday morning and about 100 for Christmas and Easter.

Under the leadership of the Rev. Robert Howard, Hebron United Methodist Church is undergoing an extensive renovation project in an effort to elevate the churchgoing experience and, as a result, regain its membership numbers.

The senior pastor spoke with LebTown about how the renovation of the circa 1910 church building, at 451 E. Walnut St., Lebanon, is going.

Howard, who is, in his words, a “third-generation Lebanonian,” will turn 61 this April and will celebrate his 40th wedding anniversary in June. He and his wife, Cindy Howard, have lived in Cleona Borough since they were married.

Rev. Robert Howard and his wife pose in the sanctuary. (Provided by Rev. Robert Howard)

The couple owned and operated Howard Studios in downtown Lebanon for more than three decades. The Howards closed the photography studio in 2019 so Howard could pursue full-time ministry work.

They have also been “very, very active in the church,” attending Immanuel United Methodist Church of Cleona from 1984 to 2012. While there, they served as youth leaders for about 15 years. He also served as a lay speaker and a Christian Servant Minister (CSM).

From 2012 to 2016, the Howards attended Kochenderfer United Methodist Church. He carried his CSM title with him to the church and was a member of the praise band that performed weekly.

Howard started his career as a licensed pastor in the United Methodist Church denomination as a part-time pastor at Water Works United Methodist Church from 2016 to 2017.

In June 2017, he was appointed by a bishop and a cabinet to Mountville United Methodist Church, where he preached part-time until June 2023. While Howard was still at Mountville in 2021, he was also appointed to Hebron United Methodist Church, making his ministry work full-time.

“I had an opportunity [three] years ago to be appointed here [at Hebron United Methodist Church]. And I had a special reason I accepted that appointment,” Howard said. “I grew up in this neighborhood. I met my wife at this church. And I was baptized at this church. So, I had a love for it, still knew some of the multigenerational people here. So, I took a chance and accepted the appointment here.”

Last June, Howard accepted a full-time pastor position at Hebron United Methodist Church. At the time, the church sign was leaning, the entrance doors were falling off their hinges, the paint on the church building was peeling, and the church was in an overall state of disrepair.

The church doors were replaced last fall, the first project in a series “being done to improve the appearance of the building from the outside in.”(Provided by Rev. Robert Howard)
Additional church doors that were replaced last fall. (Provided by Rev. Robert Howard)

“It was a church that needed a vision. It needed a direction. It needed something that was going to help it rebuild,” he said. “And a lot of that had to do with the appearance of the church.”

The original building was constructed in 1910, with today’s sanctuary completed in 1958. Over the years, what was once a packed sanctuary on a Sunday morning now feels spacious, with the overflow seating area being used for social functions.

“We’ve been holding a lot (of community events) in the parking lot, inviting our neighbors to come, reaching out for families and children. And yet, we had a building that the outward appearance just didn’t appear as if the people of God were taking care of it the way we should,” Howard said.

In addition to a church building in need of repair, the senior pastor attributed the dwindling attendance to several factors, including people moving out of the area, a previously mismatched pastor and congregation, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Attendance “had dropped off fairly far. And they went through a period of time where the pastor that was appointed to serve here just wasn’t a good, the nice way they say this is it wasn’t a good appointment,” Howard said. “In plain words, the congregation and the pastor just did not synch or have a combined vision or whatever.”

While the senior pastor was developing his vision for the church, he asked the church trustees, who he defines as “the committee within the church that determines what needs to be done to maintain, to improve, (and) to keep the building occupiable, functional,” to spend two and a half years identifying what needed to be repaired.

The senior pastor said that the church is currently operating within a five-year strategic plan. The recently developed plan set a collaborative vision for the church for the next five-year, 10-year, and 15-year increments.

“A lot of people want to say that a lot of this would not have happened if under a different pastor. And I came here with the idea of when I was appointed here that I was going to change the way things were done. And we’ve done that,” Howard said. “But it’s not just my leadership. It’s me leading in a common vision, the congregation, to continue to move forward.

“For a church to grow and to do projects like (the extensive renovation project), there has to be a common vision among the people attending,” he said. “And one of the problems modern churches have is there’s so much disagreement in the world over everything, and that can work its way into a church. What I’m proud of here is that these people have all come together.

“There’s not one person, just a lot of people working together,” he added. “And in the church, we say people have spiritual gifts that they’re born with, and they develop like talents. And, you know, God gave me a variety of people with a lot of gifts here, and they’re all using them to serve the church, to serve one another, and to serve God.”

While minor upgrades to the church building, such as repairing its leaky slate roof and replacing a broken circulator pump on the furnace, have been in the works for the past three years, the extensive renovation project kicked off with replacing the church doors in the fall of 2023 and future projects are expected to be completed in the next 5 to 10 years.

The new church doors, the first project in a series, cost $50,000. Half of the expenses were covered by donations from a targeted fundraising campaign, which started in June 2022 and ended in December 2023, and half were covered by “investments.” Howard said that this allowed the church to start the project sooner and without emptying their savings accounts.

He believed that the church’s lack of air conditioning, especially with it being one of few lacking in the area, was hindering its growth. However, the idea was back-burnered due to the high cost of installing an air-conditioning system in a building of its age.

That is, until this summer, when the sanctuary, seated with a significant number of elderly regulars, consistently crested the 90s by noon.

Hebron UMC raised $60,000 for the down payment on the second project, the air-conditioning system, by the end of 2023. The church then took on a $150,000 10-year mortgage to cover the outstanding expenses associated with the system.

The church replaced and upgraded the entirety of its electrical system to prepare to install the air-conditioning system. They recently contracted with Haller Enterprises, who they’ve contracted with for all the other renovation projects they’ve completed up until this point, for the estimated 10- to 15-week installation process.

“They’re currently working on that,” Howard said. “And hopefully by April, May at the latest, we will be fully air conditioned, and thus, providing a more comfortable year-round environment for people to worship in, nice and toasty in the winter and nice and cool in the summer.

“Overall, the things we’re doing first, these major projects are being done to improve the appearance of the building from the outside in. And also, we really feel that if we want to grow, we do have to provide a level of comfort. Not just in the winter with a warm sanctuary, but in the summer with a cool sanctuary. So, that’s what has precipitated this very major renovation project.”

Along the way, the expected unexpected issues that arise during renovation projects have included “severe” electrical issues in the sanctuary that required a complete rewiring.

They replaced the old lighting in the sanctuary with color-balanced LED lights, which Howard says are more energy efficient and “more comfortable on people’s eyes for reading and singing.” And they had maintenance work done on their pipe organ.

One potential future project within the extensive renovation project is to transform the overflow seating area into an area for café seating.

“Not that we would actually install a café but café seating and refreshments and that people could come and worship and sit there,” Howard said.

“I’m also looking at putting like a living room lounge area, is in the vision plan for back there, so that as our younger mothers come, if a mother needs privacy, for say, nursing a baby, or an unruly child, or a child that’s just upset, she could move back there and sit in the comfort while still listening to the service.”

Another potential future project is to restore the historic stained-glass windows throughout the church. The senior pastor also hopes to hold a second weekly service on Saturday nights once the church’s attendance can support it.

According to Howard, the church’s current budget includes the new mortgage (for the air-conditioning system), building expenses, utilities, staff wages, and — largely — community outreach. The religious organization supports free activities, free meal campaigns, “a food bank for the working poor,” in his words, housing for people experiencing homelessness, and international missions work.

Their budget is funded by donations that are collected on Sunday mornings, donations redirected from some members’ retirement plans, and — often larger in sum — one-time donations.

Projects like the extensive renovation project are not included in the current budget and require earmarked donations, which often come in the form of memorial contributions, as well as donations that are collected through targeted fundraising campaigns.

“We’re always very aware of being cautious to work within the means that God gives us to work within and trust in him that we’re going to be able to pay the mortgage and continue to have the money to do all the other things we need to do,” Howard said.

The senior pastor said that what will get done as part of the extensive renovation project and how long it will take will largely depend on the church’s success in fundraising as well as gaining new members from the community, with a special focus on families. And things are looking up, with the church accepting new members just last month.

The Hebron United Methodist Church sign. (Provided by Rev. Robert Howard)

“There’s a pervasive attitude in the country right now against churches, against organized religion, all these supposed scandals and different things that are taking place at different denominations. And I want people to know that Hebron Church has been a fixture here in Lebanon for nearly a hundred years,” Howard said.

“And (I want people to know) that if they are looking to come to a place that is a family in God … and want to experience a different kind of preaching and teaching, I’m different from what people usually expect. Come and give us a try and see how special it can be to be part of organized religion.”

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Lexi Gonzalez has worked as a reporter with LebTown since 2020. She is a Lancaster native and became acquainted with Lebanon while she earned her bachelor's degree at Lebanon Valley College.


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