Church keeps legacy alive through Gracewood ministry

Debbie Rippstein (left), executive director of Gracewood, accepts a $100,000 from Laverne Graham, chair of the committee formed to determine ways that the assets of First Baptist Church Spring Branch could benefit the community. (PHOTO/Children at Heart Ministries)

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When First Baptist Church of Spring Branch in northwest Houston realized it could not continue, the congregation decided to leave a legacy that will make an impact on generations of families through a new counseling program at Gracewood, part of Children at Heart Ministries.

The Spring Branch church thrived after its founding in 1949 and peaked at close to 3,000 members in 1976. But over the years, the church gradually became smaller. By 2012, it had barely 50 members.

gracewood logo250“The community changes, people move out, the demographics change, and we lost people to various controversies,” said Mary Linnenburg, a church member since 1959. “A core of us stayed, maybe because of our love for the church or maybe because we were just stubborn.

“We were an elderly congregation, and when our pastors resigned, we realized that we did not have the energy to start over. We had kind of been on life support for a number of years.”

The church property, located less than two miles from Gracewood’s Elmview campus, was sold, leaving the church with a sizeable amount of money, she reported.

“It’s kind of ironic that for years we had a church but no money, and now we have no church but we have money,” she said.

Continuing impact

After the sale was completed, the church named a committee to determine what to do with the cash. The committee’s primary goal was to see that its financial gifts would continue to have an impact on the Spring Branch community.

They knew about Gracewood’s mission to give home, hope and healing to single mothers and children, because many church members had volunteered at Gracewood for several years. It started with one member who belonged to a garden club that helped with landscaping. That grew to include providing monthly meals for residents, child care while moms attended Bible study, Vacation Bible School activities and much more.

“When we became aware of a need or an opportunity, we pitched in as best we could,” Linnenburg said.

As the church committee considered options for giving away its money, it quickly settled on Gracewood as one of the beneficiaries. The committee made a $100,000 gift to provide seed money for a new community counseling program.

Nonresidential ministry

“There are so many single mothers and their children who either don’t qualify for our residential ministry or who we can’t take in because we are at capacity,” said Debbie Rippstein, Gracewood’s executive director.

“We had decided that they could be served if we could take our services to them in a nonresidential environment through a counseling program that will serve the community. We also want to be a resource to our community and our partner churches who do not have counselors on staff and need a place to refer members who need support.

“The biggest barrier has been to find funding for the program, since it will cost about $250,000 to open a stand-alone counseling center. The gift from Spring Branch Baptist is truly a gift from God. We appreciate everything they have done for us over the years, and this is an enormous blessing.”

Linnenburg noted the remaining members of the congregation, who predominately are female, were motivated by the knowledge that they would be helping women and children.

Ministry they can identify with

“Most of our members are older,” she said. “We have had children and now have grandchildren, and so we particularly can identify with a ministry that is helping them turn their lives around. The counseling program will contribute to the Spring Branch community and will leave a lasting legacy of First Baptist Church.”

Meanwhile, Gracewood is continuing to pursue the additional funding needed to get the counseling program up and operating.

“Our hope is that when people see the investment First Baptist Spring Branch is making in the health of the community, they will want to be part of it,” Rippstein said. “The need is great, and the wonderful members of First Baptist have helped us take significant steps toward meeting it.”

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