By Cheryl Conway
Guiding the congregation with some “real learning” and increasing intergenerational relationship are two main goals of the new vicar at the Abiding Peace Lutheran Church of Budd Lake.
Vicar Serena Rice of Belle Meade has been serving as the spiritual leader of the local church since Sept. 2016. She is currently working on a master’s of Sacred Theology at the Lutheran’s Theological Seminary of Philadelphia with intentions on becoming the church’s next pastor once ordained, hopefully in May 2018.
With only four months as the church leader, Rice has embraced the sense of community and love she has witnessed at her congregation.
“The church in Budd Lake is really an amazing community,” says Rice. “They’re a community formed by love. Sense of family is important,” she says, “but reaching out to the community is just as important.”
Church members reach out to the community through its food pantry; volunteering by cooking and serving at nearby soup kitchen- Faith Kitchen in Dover; and organizing and active senior ministry providing social opportunities for its seniors.
Currently about 45 people come out to the church on Sundays to worship. Before arriving, the congregation had no spiritual leader for the past three years, explains Rice.
Founded in the late 1960’s, Abiding Peace was started as a Ministry of the Vasa established by some people of Swedish decent, says Rice. In the 1990’s the congregation peaked with more than 200 members. It is known for starting the Mt. Olive Manor.
The church was able to continue without a pastor thanks to the lay leadership.
“The lay leaders of the church are really the life of the church,” says Rice. “They brought in new members without a pastor. Church is about being a community- finds ways to act out their faith without context of congregation. What’s exceptional is the way they really thrived without pastoral leadership. Every member feels this is their church.”
The church has been without a pastor since there is a “shortage of pastors right now.” The congregation was looking for someone part-time, while most pastors want full-time work, explains Rice.
Since her arrival, the membership has come to appreciate “the sense of spiritual leadership” Rice brings, she explains.
“They do the work, they organize but there isn’t a sense of what’s next,” says Rice. They are “seeking guidance of scripture, and God and spirit to discover what God can bring and what we can bring to the community.”
Rice says, “The people in the congregation need the opportunity to do real learning. Worship is important” but there is limited opportunity to learn and engage in scriptures, adult education and Bible studies.
With that in mind, Rice just started an adult education program at the church to enhance education.
“We all need to keep learning; if we stop learning we start dying,” says Rice. Rather than lecturing, she plans “to look at scripture together. What does the Bible teach me to expand my life?”
Rice would also like to encourage more programs and projects to include children and adults to increase intergenerational relationships.
“There’s not often space for relationships to get to know adults who aren’t in your family; to be a resource other than mom and dad. We are hoping to be that resource in Budd Lake.
Rice is thinking of an education program other than on Sunday mornings to encourage this relationship, programs such as a fair in October to recognize the 500th year anniversary of the Lutheran reformation, mid-week services during Lent and a soup supper with soup, bread and dessert for young and older to share a meal together.
Rice’s third goal as the new vicar is “to show the love of God and act out. These people show the love of God everyday, either at church, at home, at work. Hopefully that’s happening in every moment of their lives.”
Rice grew up in California and came east in 2000 to attend graduate school at Princeton Theological Seminary where she got a master’s in Divinity; followed by a master’s in social work at Rutgers University’s School of Social Work. Her intention was to work in a career involving social ministry
“My concern for issues of poverty has always drawn to my faith,” says Rice, adding that she has been drawn to the church since she was 13.
When she realized “there was always something missing because I couldn’t direct it to my faith,” she decided to pursue a degree in Lutheran Studies with hopes to be ordained next year.
Before coming to Abiding Peace, Rice served as a chaplain at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick and as executive director at the Anti-Poverty Network of NJ for two years.
As a vicar, Rice serves as a representative of the bishop for the state of NJ. She is under supervision and meets with a pastor every week, Bishop Tracie Bartholomew.
Rice is also a mother of two, a nine year old daughter and seven-year old son.
“They are a light,” says Rice. “Parenting is a wonderful preparation for work in the church. You have to be driven in love.” Her family splits their time at her church and Living Waters Lutheran Church in Ringoes near their home.
She has enjoyed the opportunity “to be a mother in the church and have the congregation embrace my children,” says Rice. “I love leading worship, preaching, administering sacrament, leading the prayers.
“I’m leading but I feel it’s not a performance,” she says. “I’m worshipping with.”
She has also enjoyed getting to know and pray with people, in such a “short amount of time.”
On March 1, at 7 p.m., Rice has planned a Joint Ash Wednesday Service at Abiding Peace with the Presbyterian, Methodist and Episcopal churches in the area.
Services are open to everyone.
“Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite days of the church year,” says Rice. “We will together to put together a liturgy that works for all the congregations.
“I’m looking forward to sharing it with other congregations.”
Regular services are held every Sunday at 10 a.m.; Sunday School at 11:15 a.m.; Choir every Wednesday at 7:45 p.m. and non-members are welcome.