‘A force of nature’

Pastor Marlys Hershberger says she has had many adventures in her life and now she is ready to take on a new one.

She is retiring from the Hollidaysburg Church of the Brethren and will preach her last sermon there on Sunday.

She said when she came to the church 15 years ago, she found it easy to fall in love with the people, and it has been fun to work with them, but now she wants to spend more time with family.

Looking back, she said she has seen the church grow in its openness to each other and the community.

“It’s like a flower bud that keeps opening and unfolding,” she said. “They are a wonderful bunch of people who complement each other well.”

Among those members is Keith Eldred of Hollidaysburg, who said Hershberger is a “shepherd who tends to, protects and inspires her flock. She is dedicated, warm, patient and persistent.”

“Pastor Marlys is a force of nature,” said member Bonnie Imler of Hollidaysburg. “The energy, attention and care that she has brought to her position and our congregation has been amazing to behold. A pastor is called to take on so many different roles, and I haven’t found one area yet in which she didn’t excel.”

Hershberger even takes on roles that are not part of a pastor’s job description.

Eldred said she has made hand-written signs that hang throughout the building to help direct newcomers and visitors to the proper rooms.

“She has fantastic handwriting,” he said, adding that she takes the time to send birthday cards and notes to the 100-member body that includes diverse ages.

As a matter of fact, the number of youth in the congregation has merited the church hiring a part-time coordinator for children’s ministry.

Hershberger is a wonderful mentor and role model for them, Imler said.

“Her gift for including our children and youth into the worship and life of our church has allowed them to grow in their faith journeys,” she said, “and inspired many of them to take on church-based service and professional roles.”

Hershberger is also a pastor who leads by example, and Eldred said she is not afraid to get her hands dirty. He said she works alongside everyone else at projects, such as Rock in the Lot, an outdoor community festival with music, food and children’s activities that the church has held for about six summers.

“As the end of the festival, she is as messy and tired as anyone else. Then, she has to get up and preach the next day,” Eldred said.

In addition to being willing to do whatever needs to be done, Hershberger is a knowledgeable preacher whom he described as scholarly.

Yet she has a fun personality, he said.

David Banaszak, district executive minister for the Middle Pennsylvania District Church of the Brethren, has known Hershberger for 27 years and can attest to her inclination to study and enjoy learning.

In 2007, he and five others, including Hershberger, went to Europe on a Lilly Endowment to learn more about the Church of the Brethren’s history. They traveled to Schwarzenau, Germany, where the denomination started, and the Netherlands, as well as other parts of Europe.

“She was knowledgeable and knew facts about the Brethren’s history. She was quite a resource,” Banaszak said.

Before accepting his current position, Banaszak was a full-time pastor and noted that Hershberger covered the pulpit for him at Clover Creek Church of the Brethren in Martinsburg in 2003 when he took a three-month sabbatical.

“She filled in wonderfully there and established a good rapport with the people,” Banaszak said.

He said she is a gifted storyteller who has a knack for using narratives to convey a message.

Formerly a teacher, it was Hershberger’s work as an interim pastor that led to her full-time assignment at Hollidaysburg Church of the Brethren.

As a licensed pastor, she would preach from the pulpit on Sundays, and then return to her full-time job as a Spanish and French instructor weekdays at Spring Cove School District.

When Hollidaysburg Church of the Brethren was without a pastor in November 2003, she and her retired father, the Rev. Lowell Witkovsky, served as co-interim pastors there with each preaching twice a month.

The church eventually asked her to become its pastor, and she left her more than 25-year teaching career in August 2004.

Imler sees Hershberger’s prior career as a benefit for the congregation.

“Her teaching background is evident in her patience, her use of many different methods to instill learning and her ability to find gifts in each individual,” Imler said.

A graduate of the TRIM or Training in Ministry program, Hershberger took online courses from Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Ind., and other classes at the Susquehanna Valley Ministry Center at Elizabethtown College. She was ordained when she took on her full-time position.

“It’s amazing how God moved and worked,” she said of her transition that allowed her to earn her seminary education from her Woodbury home.

In addition to her own transition, she has seen the church continue to increase its outreach. It has hosted Family Services’ Lunch and Learn programs as well as opening its facility for Home Instead training. Along with other Hollidaysburg churches, the congregation provides free soup for a month of Saturdays during the winter.

During the warmer months, the church assists the American Rescue Workers by using its parking lot as a drop-off spot for nonperishable food and clothing.

“Hollidaysburg Church of the Brethren is great support,” said Pastor Deb LaValla, who along with her husband, Pastor Victor, are co-directors at the American Rescue Workers. “Marlys helps to lead the way in that support,” she said, adding that she is instrumental in getting church members of all ages to help out in some way.

The LaVallas and Hershberger are also members of the Hollidaysburg Ministerium board, where Deb said Hershberger has been an encouragement to the pastoral community as well as working with other pastors to take care of people’s needs.

“She is very well-balanced (in that area),” Deb LaValla said. “She sets boundaries and gives abundantly. That’s difficult to do sometimes. She has compassion but is a good steward of resources.”

And while Hershberger loves serving in many ways, her favorite duties are facilitating Wednesday night Bible studies and planning worship services.

Some of those roles may be repeated later in her life as she considers being an interim pastor during retirement.

But first, she plans to take at time to be with her husband, Terry, who is director of music and worship at First Church of the Brethren in Roaring Spring, and their children and grandchildren.

The family includes: son, Jeremy in Texas; son, Stephen and wife, Emily, and grandchildren, Mason and Joseph in Hanover; daughter, Natalie in Washington, D.C., and Natalie’s twin, Nathan and his wife, Stephanie, and their three children, Aiden, Eli and Ava, in New Enterprise, as well as Hershberger’s father and Terry’s parents.