John Hornberger impressed with staff, volunteers at Bethesda United Methodist and their services to people in need

John Hornberger spent more than 30 years in the furniture business before becoming a pastor. Now part of his job is to fill the seats instead of selling them.

Hornberger, 73, began his appointment at Bethesda United Methodist Church in Middletown in July.

“I really loved the furniture business, but as I became more active in the church, I found I was happier in church than in the furniture business. That was a turning point for me,” Hornberger said. “I really felt like I was being called into ministry at age 50.”

During his first career, he moved through the ranks of the furniture business to become a sales manager and then a store owner in Pennsylvania. He’s married and has two sons and 10 grandchildren, but he decided to leave the business he knew well to become a minister.

He had to earn 60 college credits before enrolling in Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C.

“It was a challenge. It really was,” he said. “I remember a lot of times rushing from one place to another, eating a hot dog and then rushing to class, but I knew that it would all work out for the glory of God.”

At his first appointment as a pastor in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he helped lead the church’s attendance growth from 55 to 110.

Before coming to Bethesda, he served 12 years at Atonement Church in Claymont, near Wilmington, and the congregation added 330 new members during that time.

He said he sees a similarity in his life selling furniture and his life as a pastor.

“In the furniture business, I did really well. I was tagged as a ‘people person’ and I bring that to ministry,” he said. “I love the interaction with the congregation. I can’t wait to get here on Sunday morning to greet people. The fellowship of church – I love that.”

Roy Peters, who attends Bethesda Church, said the new pastor’s enthusiasm shows.

“We’re so glad he’s here. He makes joy in our church,” said Peters. “He teaches us all things are possible through prayer.”

About Bethesda Church

Bethesda has a proud history. The church building dates back 195 years and the congregation starting meeting in other locations a year before the building was finished.

Hornberger said the church has 151 members, and the average attendance is between 80 and 90 for the Sunday worship service.

While he’s hoping to increase those numbers, he said he couldn’t be happier with the staff and the willingness of the congregation to volunteer at a wide variety of service projects.

“I have a really ‘A-1’ staff. The people here are excellent and the congregation works very, very hard. We have great volunteers – many people stepping forward to make Bethesda Church all God wants it to be,” Hornberger said.

Church volunteers visit nursing homes and hospitals, deliver meals and visit people who are homebound, prepare meals at Our Daily Bread in Middletown, donate books and healthy snacks to children’s programs, donate to the Neighborhood House Food Pantry, prepare food baskets at Christmas and Easter for families in need, help troops serving overseas, work on Red Bird Mission projects in impoverished areas in Appalachian states, and assist programs like Samaritan’s Purse to provide water filters for people in impoverished countries. They even bought a cow for a family in one of those countries.

“We have many outreach programs,” said Hornberger. “We just delivered about 60 quilts made by church volunteers to the Sunday Breakfast Mission in Wilmington.”

A major program at the church is its preschool child development center which has an enrollment of about 110, and the church also offers before-school and after-school care for about 400 students at four satellite locations.

Church services include Sunday morning worship and Sunday school at 9:30 a.m., followed by fellowship with refreshments.

Hornberger said the worship service is a “blended” service with traditional and contemporary music and lessons.

“It’s unusual. Most services are one or the other,” he said. “I get called to other churches that are struggling to give them input and suggestions, and I’d say blended worship services don’t work, but it works here. It works very well. I can’t take credit for it. It was in place when I got here.”

The choir holds rehearsals before and after the worship service.

The youth group for teens meets Sundays at noon.

Bible study is offered Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m. and Wednesdays at 12:30 p.m.

Joys and struggles of being a pastor

When asked what he enjoys most about being a pastor, Hornberger had a lengthy list.

“Studying and preparing messages and then giving the message – preaching. I love that. I love the involvement with the congregation. My door is open anytime. I love visiting people in homes and at hospitals,” he said. “I love the Bible studies we have here. I love the volunteers here. We have very active volunteers.”

He said the main challenge most pastors face is the many different personalities of people in a church and the many ideas and suggestions they have – and knowing you’re not going to please everyone.

He referred to a quote he heard, he thinks from Apple co-founder Steve Jobs: “In leadership you can’t make everyone happy. If you want to do that, then sell ice cream.”

A new challenge for him at Bethesda has already become a joy.

“I’ve never served at a church with a preschool, so I have a lot to learn. I’m working with the preschool director and teachers, and I love it,” he said. “The first day of school, I greeted the children and we’ve had grandparents day and a masquerade party. At the party, I brought two of my grandchildren. It’s been fun. I love people.”

A constant challenge is time management with regular church services, special holiday services, mission projects, church meetings, weddings, funerals and visiting people in hospitals and nursing homes.

“A pastor has to be able to say ‘no’ sometimes when people are pulling in different directions,” he said. “We are human. People should not put pastors on a pedestal. We have faults like anyone else. We will disappoint people, even though we don’t want to.”

He said like anyone, a pastor needs a priority list.

“My top priority usually is studying and preparing a good sermon, but if someone passes away, then helping the family and preparing for the funeral becomes my priority,” he said. “One of my biggest challenges is getting to my family in Pennsylvania to visit my sons and my grandchildren. It’s not easy, especially during the holidays when I need to be here for all the services.”

He said family plans are sometimes interrupted because he needs to visit a church member in a hospital or because he has to prepare for a funeral. Vacations are often planned around wedding schedules.

“I have an extremely understanding wife who supports me wholly,” he said.

As for those vacations, he said he loves visiting Israel and the Holy Land and would like to lead a tour group there.

When he was appointed to Bethesda Church in Middletown, he immediately thought of the Pool of Bethesda where Jesus healed a man in Jerusalem.

“When I was there I took my shoes and socks off in humility because I knew Jesus had walked there,” he said. “I call Bethesda a healing pool so 15 minutes before each service I anoint people with oil who are in need of healing, who are struggling with health, with family or other issues.”

Keys to growth include more music

“God grows the church but our job as pastors is to tend to the flock,” Hornberger said. “The Bible says we’re sheep and Jesus is the shepherd.”

He said the easiest way to increase attendance – but also the most important – is by personal invitation.

“Churches grow by people inviting people,” he said.

At Atonement Church in Claymont, “we really reached out to the neighborhood,” Hornberger said. “We offered events. We went out into the community and invited people to church.”

He said adding 330 new members “was a blessing of God.”

“When I first went there it was an all-white congregation. Slowly the congregation became more diverse,” he said. “We added families who are African-American, from India, from Puerto Rico. We had live bands. We opened our doors to two other congregations to meet in our building. We offered a food bank.”

His ideas to attract more people at Bethesda include offering another worship service other than on Sunday morning to reach out to people who work or have other commitments at that time.

“We’re going to have live bands once a month with pop and rock music, Southern gospel, and contemporary Christian music,” he said. “The goal is to bring people into the church – provide a place for like-minded believers to hear good music and to have fellowship.”

The Cecil County Choral Society will perform at the church Sunday, Dec. 8 at 4 p.m., and the community is invited.