New pastor plans to help Freedom Hill ‘replant’ as church

Scott Swanson

Helping churches rebuild is not a new experience for Jeff Dankenbring.

And that’s what he’s in Sweet Home to do: Help “replant” Freedom Hill Church, which has seen a decline in attendance and vitality in recent years.

“The church body sees that we need a fresh start, you know – we need to start over,” Dankenbring said.

He and his wife Simone arrived in Sweet Home from Salem last fall, though they’ve been attending at Freedom Hill since September. They moved to town in November, though Dankenbring, who’ll soon turn 50, continues with his full-time job with the state Department of Administrative Services in Salem.

“I’ve always been a vocational pastor,” he said. “I’ll be retiring in December. So then I’ll be blessed to do full-time ministry.”

A native of Dallas and Independence, he’s lived most of his adult life in Salem, where he’s worked for various state agencies over the years.

Along the way, he got involved in church ministry, graduating from Salem Bible College in Brooks, now part of Northwest University.

“I’ve been pretty much involved in the whole gamut as far as ministry, except for going on foreign mission evangelism,” Dankenbring said. He started out as a children’s pastor in Keizer, then became a youth pastor in Woodburn, then helped another pastor replant a church in Eugene before becoming the lead pastor of a church in Dayton. Then he was a co-pastor of a church in Salem before coming to Sweet Home.

Freedom Hill, which has been aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention since its founding, has been in decline in recent years, he said.

Recent attendance has been around 30, in part due to COVID, down from 100 a few years ago and as many as 150 at the peak in the 1990s, he estimated.

“There was a need for change,” said Dankenbring, who was officially installed earlier this month. “The church was in turmoil and people were leaving because of it.”

He said some have continued through the difficulties and some recent visitors have added to the numbers.

Freedom Hill has historically had a “larger” Wednesday evening children’s ministry outreach, and that has continued, though it, too, has been impacted by the pandemic.

“We’re starting to open that up a little bit as we come up with plans on how to keep social distancing, getting all that in place,” he said.

The replant effort is sponsored by the SBC’s North American Mission Board and regional SBC coalitions.

“It’s a process a church goes through when it’s down to the bare minimum,” Dankenbring explained. The church temporarily gives up its sovereignty and comes under the supervision of the Oregon Mission Coalition of the SBC, during which time the church revamps its bylaws, mission and vision.

Various pastors help with that process, “seeking God’s will for change,” he said, before the replanting stage begins, which is where Dankenbring came in.

His philosophy of ministry, he said, is that the church find its niche in the community.

“I really believe that all of the churches in a community need to work together and that God places each church family in the community to do a specific thing. Of course, we are all here to follow the Great Commission (Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to preach the gospel throughout the world), but each one of us can be a light in a certain area or a certain challenge or opportunity in Sweet Home.”

Dankenbring said he and church members have been quizzing others they meet to ascertain what the needs are in the community.

He noted that Freedom Hill members have already participated in last year’s Harvest Festival, in providing lunches for needy children and in a project to restore a mobile home in a local park last year.

“We have a lot more plans coming up, to reach out into the community,” he said, such as a Valentine’s Day drive-through for children at the church held Saturday, Feb. 13.

The Dankenbrings, who have been married for 10 years, have a blended family of adult children and young grandchildren.

They said they have been surprised at the warm welcome they’ve received in Sweet Home, not just from their church.

“The community exceeded my expectations, as far as friendliness goes,” Dankenbring said, noting that he grew up in small towns in Dallas and Independence. “It blew me away, how welcoming the people were. I’m extremely grateful for that.”