Our roots go back to September of 1976. Dick Blackwell and his family felt a call to come to the Valley of Virginia and as the Lord’s leading became more clear, they knew the location to be Harrisonburg in particular. Soon after moving to Harrisonburg, Dick put a notice in the local newspaper about a church to be starting at the Holiday Inn. It was to be called Church in the Valley. On the first Sunday of September 1976, 30 people came to the Holiday Inn for the service. By December the church had grown to 75. A large percentage of those were college students.
As size increased, services were moved to the Isaac Walton League Barn near Lake Shenandoah in 1977. By this time attendance had risen to 150. One of the people coming to the church owned a tract of land adjacent to the Walton building. Church in the Valley decided to buy the tract of land and remodel a barn on the land to use as a church building. When remodeling was completed in mid-1978, church services began in the new facility and growth continued.
For a couple of years, the elders were not in agreement on the direction of the church, particularly with regard to church planting and outreach. To resolve the deadlocked situation, Dick Blackwell, along with staff pastors Robert Clark and Scott Bradshaw, resigned from their positions in December 1984.
Shortly thereafter, Grace Covenant Church was born, officially organizing in January 1985 with approximately 280 people. Our purpose and goals had become clear. Worship, fellowship, ministry, training and outreach were considered the top priorities based on a strong commitment to the Scriptures.
In late 1986 and early 1987, the Lord led in planting several churches. One in Montevideo, Uruguay and two others: one in Fredericksburg, Virginia and the other in Waynesboro, Virginia.
Having grown to 500 people and needing larger facilities, land was purchased in 1986 and construction began in 1987. We began meeting in the present location in June 1988.
One of the programs developed was an Easter production called Lamb of God, a dramatic presentation of the last days of Christ’s life on earth, His death and resurrection. As many as 5,000 people a year attended the performances.
In 1991, we started sending mission teams to Saltillo, Mexico which led to a close relationship with a number of pastors in that city. In 1997, the church ordained Mike Hughes and commissioned him and his wife Marilyn as full-time missionaries to Saltillo, Mexico. Their purpose was to assist the pastors in that city in building up the people in their churches. In 1999, we built and dedicated a building as a training facility and home for the Hughes in Saltillo.
In the mid-nineties, we planted a church in Staunton, Virginia and were involved in another church start in Richmond, Virginia.
Through the years we have maintained a strong commitment to worshipping the Lord with all our hearts, providing a dynamic children’s ministry, growing in relationships through small groups and supporting a number of missionaries around the world.
Robert Clark was installed as the Senior Pastor in September of 1996. Under his leadership, we grew as a church in our passionate worship and love for God. We also began staffing ministry positions in line with our 5 core areas of purpose: Worship, Training, Ministry, Fellowship and Outreach.
In the fall of 2002, we celebrated paying off the mortgage on the buildings and property. Since 2002, the staff at Grace has more than doubled, with the addition of many new positions to serve the church body.
In 2005, we refocused our missions and outreach involvement to offer our primary service and support to 7 missionaries/missionary families and 4 local ministries. The short- term mission’s ministry has recently grown to over 75 persons annually.
In 2006, Pastor Robert Clark resigned. As a church, we underwent a very thorough process to carefully appoint a new leader. In January 2007, Merle Shank was installed as the new Lead Pastor of Grace Covenant Church. In his new role as Lead Pastor, Merle along with the rest of the pastoral staff, worked diligently (with the help of many other leaders within and outside of the church) to create a 5-year Strategic Plan. This plan helped provide a comprehensive means to carry out the vision that God has given us as a church. Key aspects of this plan included structuring our church around the 5 ministry areas of (Worship, Training, Ministry, Outreach and Fellowship) and staffing appropriately. This plan came to a close in 2012, so in the fall of 2013, the Pastors, Staff, Elders and additional key leaders began working on the next 5 year strategic plan. One major outcome of this plan has been the creation of a new Mission Statement: Love Big, Grow Deep, and Go Out, as well as a new Vision Statement: To see thousands saved, healed and passionately following Jesus! The work on the new strategic plan is ongoing, several sub-teams are in place to focus on areas that have been identified for growth and improvement.
In mid-2020, Merle & Sue felt like the Lord confirmed to them that Merle’s time as Lead Pastor at Grace was coming to a close. In September 2022, after a year-long transition process, Merle Shank passed the Lead Pastor role to Mike Souder, previously an associate pastor. The Shanks are still committed to this church and plan on remaining a part of the Grace Covenant family – just no longer on staff. You can read Merle’s final update HERE.
If the fruitful and adventurous history of Grace Covenant Church is any indicator of what lies ahead, we anticipate an exciting future as we forge ahead to Love Big, Grow Deep and Go Out!