Between the two services held at the Santa Clara Church (SCC), coffee hour brings the building to life. About 30 families fill the gymnasium as half the room contains the women and mothers chatting and sipping their morning coffee. But the real entertainment is happening on the other half of the room as little children run wildly free as dads chase and run with their kids.
These families are part of the congregation that has been growing over the past four years since the arrival of Dr. Wes Wright. The welcoming environment that is felt when entering the church is something that Wright’s wife, Jo Wright, said she has been focusing on improving here. She has clearly been successful.
A change in pastoral leadership is never an easy transition for a church community, but when done well, tremendous strength can be found. Many members of the congregation agree that having Wright leading the church has been an encouraging and uplifting change.
“I keep coming back because I feel like this is my home,” said Jennifer Dryden of Eugene. “I’ve never been apart of a church that made me feel so welcomed.”
When joining a church, the process can be overwhelming, but Wright assures potential new members that this could be one of the most worthwhile decision they ever make in their lives.
“It’s not easy entering a new church and figuring out if this is the church home for you,” Madeline Obernesser said, a new member here at SCC. “But the reason I kept coming back was as simple as I couldn’t find a reason not to.”
A large component in the community atmosphere that is being built as SCC is the importance of the small aspects of worship, which Wright makes a point of emphasizing.
“On Wednesday nights, we have a dinner available at the church for only a couple of dollars per plate,” explains Wright. “A lot of times, the people that are coming to these dinners are people that live near the church, but are not members. It’s important that they know that the church cares about their well-being.”
This form of mission is one aspect of the new four-part vision that Wright developed for SCC. The phrase ‘Connect, Grow, Serve, Go’ holds an extremely valuable meaning to the church according to the church New Member packet. Connecting comes from attending church and being around fellow believers. Growing is developed through attending weekly Bible studies, which 65% of the church is involved in. The Wednesday night meals are a component in helping serving the community around them. Lastly, the go portion is emphasized by the churches continued support of missions around the world.
While the congregation is split into two services every Sunday morning, the commitment to the church as a whole is something that 15-year congregation member and New Member class teacher Gary Buck feels is important and that Wright has improved.
“Being a member of this church, or any other church, is about making a commitment,” Buck said. “It is important for every person to be less focused on themselves and more connected to the future success of the church as a whole.”
The Positive Change
Growing up in southern Indiana, and than pasturing a church in Cape Dorado, Michigan for 19 years, Wright made the decision to move to Eugene after being called to help a struggling church in need. Admitting the challenges that would lie ahead for him was not difficult, as Wright knew he would be moving into one of the least church populated communities in the nation. Making the decision to leave the ‘Bible Belt’ and Rush Limba’s hometown was an exciting challenge awaiting the family in Oregon.
“I thought I would be in Cape Dorado for the rest of my life,” Wright explained. “Leaving them was like leaving family, but we are so happy with our decision.”
Becoming a pastor was not always in Wes’s life plan. Growing up in a Christian household, he did not be come a devout religious man until the summer between his junior and senior year in high school. After this extremely life-altering summer, Wright than gave up a full ride scholarship to the University of Missouri to study pre-med in order to attend seminary school to study for the ministry.
This decision has led him all around the country, allowing him to see and experience many types of churches.
“It’s the same at every church, but it’s unique at the same time,” Wright reflects. “You have people who work in fields worshiping right next to a successful business owner, but when they are all worshiping together, it’s a beautiful thing.”
As a non-denominational church, meaning they receive no national financial or educational support, the economy has resulted in prioritizing what they wish to accomplish. Since all the financial support for the church comes from the congregation, cut backs have been made in order to keep the church’s power on.
“The biggest changes have been seen in the amount of tithing and attendance,” said Dr. Wright. “But we have to shift accordingly and have been resourceful with our staff leaders.”
While every church has been struggling in the recent years, this unique church is no different. While staff cut backs have not been an issue, they have become inventive with their course material.
“Many of the teachings we have done were actually written by the elders and myself, “ said Dr. Wright.
Receiving teaching materials from Wright’s brother’s church, this close-knit community in north Eugene has been able to take these previously used materials and mold them into a curriculum that this church will follow.
“It has not only sharpened me personally, but as a collective community, writing all of our lessons plans has improved us all as ministers of the Lord,” Wright explained. “It makes all of us better.”
This has been the most noticeable difference with the financial challenges in Wright’s eyes. But while cutting back on the curriculum supplies has been a significant change for the minister, the most important focus is to continue the growth of the church.
“The church has been growing consistently since the economic recession. It’s not a lot each year, but attendance has definitely been increasing,” Wright explained.
This is an extremely rare situation for any church during a recession. A difficult economy causes people’s jobs to shift dramatically. This could result in a simple switch of jobs shift times that conflict with church, or even a more drastic change, involving a member of the church moving away from the community.
As this church continues it grow under difficult circumstances, it is clear that with Wright in control, the Santa Clara Church will not be slowing down anytime soon.
“The next steps for our church are making sure everyone is included in some sort of outside Bible study groups, and of course our building expansion plans,” Wright said.
On the church website, details can be found explaining the step-by-step progress that the church hopes to take to improve the facilities. This begins small by expanding the parking lot, allowing more people the ease of parking in spots, rather than a grassy field. Following that expansion, a new church office and playground will be constructed. This will allow more parking, which will then allow for an enlarged sanctuary.
“We are extremely fortunate that our church is growing in this economic recession,” Wright acknowledged. “But God willing, we will be able to continue growing and strengthening each other as a community.”