A brand new beginning

As one church heals, another prepares to settle in to the former Church of the Valley

By Kim Walter

The Church of the Valley is no longer.

As of Friday morning, Restoration Fellowship Church, led by Pastor Jay Ahlemann, now owns the property at 2128 John Marshall Highway in Strasburg.

Along with the crosses and flag poles that sit just off Interstate 81, comes 9 acres, the church building and everything inside.

The property became available some time ago, when the then-Church of the Valley decided to deed it back to the church bond company that financed the facilities at its opening in 2008.

Ahlemann’s church, which was started by his son a couple years ago, is getting the property for $3.4 million, which is broken up into a payment plan that fits the church’s income.

The financial situation is a far cry from how the building came to be five years ago.

Ahlemann is known for starting and growing churches across the country. Not far from the valley is Christian Fellowship Church in Leesburg, where Ahlemann led a congregation for 26 years and watched its size grow by the thousands. It was there that he met former Redskin Mark Moseley, who now attends the Restoration Fellowship Church.

Ahlemann then shifted his focus to California, where he again became known for having one of the larger churches around.

It wasn’t until June 2005 that Ahlemann, now 70, gathered himself, his wife and 20 others at the Wayside Inn in Middletown to discuss starting a new church. Most of those in attendance were from the Christian Fellowship Church in Leesburg.

By the end of the summer, Ahlemann said the congregation had grown to 75 members. After feeling “led by the Holy Spirit,” Ahlemann decided to find out if his church could buy the property off exit 296 to construct a church.

The property went to The Church of the Valley for $350,000, and bank financing was secured to pay it off, along with getting the three flags and crosses project started.

“These crosses and flags were part of a vision that God gave to me to present our love for God and America,” Ahlemann said during a recent interview.

In order to move forward with all the construction, the church issued a bond of $4.2 million, which resulted in monthly mortgage payments of $34,000.

Ahlemann admits that he may have preached more than he would’ve liked about the need for congregation members to give funds to keep the church afloat. Mosely said it was a hard thing for his friend to do, and it unfortunately turned some newcomers away.

“I did what I needed to do to present the need to the people,” Ahlemann said.

It was around that time that Ahlemann decided to purchase WAZT Television Network, hoping to carry on the tradition of Christian programming in the area. While he thought he was getting it for a good price – about $3 million – Ahlemann now regrets the decision.

Not only did Ahlemann have to file for personal bankruptcy, but many of his close friends and family who had invested in the station lost a great deal of money.

Ahlemann said that word spread quickly about his financial issues through the Church of the Valley, and one leader and “several vocal members” asked him to resign.

“They felt that if I left, they would have a better reputation and would be able to take care of the finances,” he said. “But we were making our payments the entire time that I was pastor there.”

In November 2010, the pastor resigned from the church he had built, one that he had such a grand vision for. He said he hoped the decision would better the church’s outcome.

However, the Rev. Chuck Jarrett said the church was three months behind on its bond payments by the time Ahlemann left the altar.

Jarrett, 77, has known Ahlemann since his days in Loudoun County, and calls him a “dear friend.” Upon Ahlemann’s departure, the then minister of pastoral care had no choice but to fill the shoes of the man who had started the church in the first place.

“We did not vote him out, my people did not force Jay to leave,” Jarrett said Friday afternoon. “If there were individuals who approached him about it, I do not know.”

Either way, Ahlemann resigned, and the church agreed to pay him $1,000 a week for a retirement fund. Jarrett said the church gave him a total of $20,000 until they caught word that Ahlemann was the pastor of a church in Florida.

After being there for a few months, Ahlemann returned at the request of his son, who asked him to help lead his blossoming church in Stephens City.

Ahlemann was happy to help.

“He had about 40 people, and that sounded nice,” he said. “I wasn’t about leading thousands of people anymore, I had done that.”

Ahlemann said as Restoration Fellowship Church grew, he recognized faces from the still struggling Church of the Valley, but insists that he never contacted any former members as an attempt to grow the congregation.

“I hadn’t been in contact with the folks there since I left,” he said.

In the meantime, Jarrett said his congregation dwindled to about 150 – down from the 500 that Ahlemann gathered at its peak. The payments weren’t made, and he realized every day what that meant to the people of the church.

“There is hurt, there are wounds, but we are a people in the process of healing,” he said. “But I am not bitter. I’m too old to hold grudges or anything like that.”

Instead, Jarrett said he is ashamed and embarrassed that the church couldn’t pay off its debts. However, he also said he couldn’t bring himself to beg his congregation for money every Sunday.

“I guess I was being cautious with the giving, but my people had been bombarded for so long,” he said. “We needed a break.”

Ahlemann received a call from the church bond company about the property being up for sale a few months ago, and said he was made an offer he couldn’t refuse.

His 250-person congregation had an income of about $375,000 during 2012, and was about to put down $100,000 on the property. From there, they will have a monthly payment of $10,000.

“This is truly God’s work,” he said. “We will just keep doing the right things. I pray for the best for the folks that had to leave … I loved those people and I still do. But more than anything I want to be focused on my church, and stick with my philosophy: Love Jesus, love each other, and love people that need Jesus.”

Restoration Fellowship Church will hold its first service on June 30, and will continue to hold services at its Middletown location as well.

Jarrett said he and his congregation are also moving forward.

“From the ashes,” he said.

They have a new name – Master’s Touch Ministries. Jarrett said the Mennonite church located in Strasburg has allowed his 150-person congregation to use their cafeteria for Sunday services. Additionally, the church was able to keep its preschool and childcare services in operation.

Freedom Christian Academy is now located on Founders Way in Strasburg, across from Anthony’s Pizza. They already have about 35 children enrolled.

“That was a big thing for us, to keep the school going,” Jarrett said. “And the community has truly stepped up and donated everything we have. The toys, the furniture, everything. It’s been blessing after blessing.”

Sermons are easier to preach these days, according to Jarrett. He said no longer being attached to the debt and financial burden has allowed the church to “catch a breath of fresh air.”

While the pastor knows there are still some members who are angry, and want to pass blame, he reminds them that looking back won’t fix anything. During the last prayer at the church, Jarrett told members that when they raised their heads, the Church of the Valley would die a peaceful death.

He said the stigma that comes with the name made things hard enough for the congregation, and hopes the past can simply fade away.

“Holding on to that hurt and anger doesn’t help anybody, it only hurts,” he said. “We did love that building, but that’s all it was – a building. What matters is the people.”

Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or kwalter@nvdaily.com