When Pastor Ed Preston delivered his first children's message at Mardorf United Methodist Church 16 years ago, only three children sat around the altar to listen - and two were his own.
When he gave his final children's message as the church's pastor Sunday, the children filled three pews. Preston and his family left Altoona Thursday for Lemont where he will lead the more than 800-member Mount Nittany United Methodist Church and his wife, Donna, will serve as director of Christian education.
"You go where God sends you," Ed Preston said. "I believe God is in it."
(Mirror file photo) Pastor Ed Preston shares a children's message at a past service at Mardorr United Methodist Church. He and his wife, Donna, often minister to children.
Leaving Mardorf on Juniata Gap Road has not been easy for the family who has served it and several other churches in Altoona for more than 1 decades.
For a pastor in the Methodist denomination to remain in one church that long is unusual, said Randy Green, who has been part of the church all his life.
Green, 54, who serves on the Mardorf and its Gap Care after-school program boards, said most Methodist ministers serve a church for three to seven years before receiving a new assignment. He believes Preston has served the church longer than any other pastor in his lifetime.
"A lot of people are grieving his leaving," Green said.
He said he also will miss the Preston family but feels blessed that they served the church for so long and said the church has been living on borrowed time for the past eight years.
"Each year was a blessing for him to be here," he said.
Green of Altoona believes that a combination of factors may have lead to the Prestons not being reassigned earlier, and attributes the outreach work the Prestons initiated as having played a role.
When their ministry began in Altoona in 1996, the Prestons looked for a way to serve families in the community and determined an after-school program was needed. Gap Care was started in 1997 with five children, said Donna, who holds bachelor's degrees in elementary and special education and a master's degree in education as well as a certification to work with autistic students.
She said the local Methodist conference gave Mardorf a $5,000 grant to get the program started which supports students attending Juniata Gap Elementary School. In ensuing years, a before-school program was added and 53 children took part in the program this past school year.
Under the Prestons' leadership, Mardorf also began and will continue to offer summer programs, such as music and art camps, along with vacation Bible school. Sunday school is available, but Mardorf offers children a bonus Sunday nights called God's Awesome People or GAP.
Ed started a children's choir about 15 years ago and the church started a Halloween event called Let It Shine about five years ago.
Green credits Donna with playing a major role in the children's programs.
"She was a very active leader in the church," he said. "We got a double bonus - two for one."
Green also believes Ed Preston's work in leading Mardorf through the Matthew 28 initiative that began several years ago contributed to their stay. It is one of the first churches in the area to participate in the process to make them more welcoming and adaptive to the times while remaining true to the gospel.
Green said that Paul Borden, executive minister of Growing Healthy Churches in San Ramon, Calif., personally visited Mardorf to assess its condition with his fees being paid by the Methodist conference.
"He met with us [church leadership and the congregation]," he said. "It would have never happened if Pastor Ed had not been there."
Heather Fleck, children's ministry coordinator, said she will miss the Prestons' friendship most of all.
Fleck, 36, of Altoona grew up in Mardorf church and began helping with the children's ministry four years ago when Donna injured her leg. She and worship leader and music director Jim Beatty worked with Donna on the Sunday evening GAP program.
"They are friends," she said of the Prestons. "We didn't have to be always talking about church."
She remembers that when the Prestons came to the church, the congregation consisted mostly of people who were 60 and older. She said now younger families attend.
"It's a very family friendly church with the focus on children," Fleck said.
Beatty of Tyrone said he, Fleck and Donna would talk for an hour or two on a regular basis after each GAP program.
He also worked with Ed to coordinate the worship music with the Sunday morning message. He said he often would have no clue what Ed's sermon was about, but his music selections would fall into place.
"We could speak without talking to one another," Beatty said.
He said the Prestons are warm, down-to-earth people who others want to be around.
"He is more than a pastor and she is more than a pastor's wife. We were family and will continue to be family," Beatty said.
Jon Fleck of Altoona said when he is in the pulpit Ed Preston is able to take Scripture written 2,000 years ago and correlate it to today's circumstances.
"He shows how it is connected to your life," Jon Fleck said. "He shows you the way, the path, and challenges you to get on it."
Reflecting on his time at Mardorf, Ed said he appreciates being able to share the journey of life with people.
Among the more joyful moments are baptisms and being able to confirm those same children 12 years later.
"You don't get to do that often in this business," he said.
On the other hand, he also has conducted many funerals.
"I buried a lot of faithful pillars of the church," he said. Through the years he had become close to many of them.
"It's harder burying a dear friend," Ed said.
In addition to Mardorf, he also is leaving the pulpit at Broad Avenue United Methodist Church and previously served the congregations at Fairview and Wehnwood United Methodists churches for a time.
His community service included coaching soccer and serving on the Allegheny Ballet Company auxiliary, the Parent Advisory Committee for Altoona Area School District, the Logan Township Planning Commission and the Family Services Inc. board
The move will also leave less time to spoil their grandson, Carter, because their son, Jonathan, and daughter-in-law, Jenna, will remain in the Altoona area. Daughter Nikki has moved to the State College area with them.
The congregation Ed will lead beginning in July is more than four times the 180 members who attend Mardorf, but similar in worship styles.
Ed sees the assignment, determined by the bishop and district superintendents, as "a good fit." He has met staff and members of the congregation and said he is "feeling very comfortable."
"God is doing a new thing," he said. "This is God's change. We can trust him in that."