GentleBrook and Hartville Church of the Brethren reach partnership.

HARTVILLE GentleBrook and Hartville Church of the Brethren had long been neighbors and friends, but the next step stunned the Rev. Anthony DiMarco.

About two years ago, GentleBrook Chief Executive Norman Wengerd approached the church pastor with a proposal. DiMarco figured Wengerd wanted to buy the church and its five acres of property adjacent to GentleBrook’s community and living complexes.

“Instead, he began talking about a (shared) ministry,” DiMarco recalled.

He was intrigued.

It was no secret the church’s dwindling and aging congregation of less than 50 regulars could no longer afford to pay the bills to keep the church open much longer. Initially, there were talks of a merger with another church.

“For a while, they were living in denial,” DiMarco said of of his church members.

But ultimately, they came around.

The pitch from Wengerd evolved into a deal that ensures immediate survival of the church. It also allows for growth and new opportunities for GentleBrook, a 46-year-old not-for-profit that provides housing and services for seniors and people with developmental disabilities.

The acquisition means GentleBrook now controls about 100 acres, half still undeveloped. The bulk of the land is between Sunnyside and Woodland streets SW, west of Crestmont Avenue SW.

Highlights of the unique deal, approved by the Northern Ohio District of the Brethren, then voted on by church members last month:

• GentleBrook will pay $1 million, interest-free, to buy the church building and land.

• The congregation stays and will use the sanctuary for Sunday worship, rent-free, for 10 years. After that, they can work out a fair rental rate.

• GentleBrook will use the rest of the building and grounds for programs and events, with the church still having access for a special event, such as a funeral.

That’s not all.

The church plans a worship service for the developmentally disabled, and adding GentleBrook residents to the established Sunday service; the church kitchen will be expanded, so GentleBrook can establish a food services academy for a new culinary arts program; Gentlebrook’s chaplain will move into a church office and DiMarco and the chaplain will cover for each other if one is unavailable.

“We will optimize ... assets,” Wengerd explained.

GentleBrook’s vision, he added, is connecting people and community through services and business opportunities -- with ’CONNECT’ as an acronym.

Wengerd said that means: challenging what is; optimizing assets; networking; nurturing relationships; encouragement and empowerment; celebrating milestones and transforming what was.

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