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This Week’s LION: United Churches of Lycoming County

This year is the 75th anniversary of one of the most amazing organizations in our area. The United Churches of Lycoming County grew out of twenty-four churches and two organizations that met in November 1945 to discuss how they could cooperate together. From that group, the United Churches of Lycoming County was officially formed on January 4th, 1946.

Since that time, nearly two hundred churches have participated in activities that range from ministry outreaches to nursing homes, prisons, colleges, radio broadcasts, food pantries, phone helplines, and a lot more. They established programs such as Shepherd of the Streets to provide spiritual and material help to those on the streets, confronting fear, hunger, homelessness, unemployability, or other difficulties, as well as Family Promise, an organization designed to help families cope with temporary housing problems.

This amazing religious and social services outreach that has continued for three-quarters of a century has not happened by accident. The success of the United Churches of Lycoming County can be attributed to the excellent leadership it has enjoyed over its long existence. From 1973 to 1990, the executive director was the eminent Dr. Alton M. Motter. Previously, he had served in a similar position on the St. Paul (Minnesota) Area Council of Churches from 1959 to 1973. In that capacity, he was managing editor for a national magazine for pastors published by the Christian Century Foundation. Dr. Motter was selected to serve as a Protestant observer to Vatican II in Rome in 1965. When he retired from the leadership of United Churches in 1990, it would appear that it would take a giant to fill shoes as big as his.

Gwen Bernstein was anything but a giant. A small, humble woman, Gwen was a Williamsport native who received her bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Anthropology from Lycoming College. She took a job at a local Baptist church as an administrative assistant and found the work quite fulfilling. Then one day in 1990, she saw an ad in the United Churches newsletter for the position of managing director of the organization. Even applying for such a high position seemed absurd to her, but she could not shake off the conviction that this was what God wanted her to do. Finally, after a restless night’s sleep, she knew she must obey this calling. God was at work more than she realized. After her interview with the committee, they did not desire to interview anyone else — they had found their giant.

In January of 1991, Gwen Bernstein took over the mantle of leadership and got a baptism of fire almost immediately. In the summer of 1991, the Ku Klux Klan had planned a march down Fourth Street in Williamsport. Though it never materialized, Gwen used it as a rallying point for the churches to come together. In fact, it began an interfaith dialogue with the Jewish community that has continued to this very day.

Gwen Bernstein has been a guiding force for the past three decades by leading by example. She does not just administrate these programs, which is more than a full-time job in itself, but she was an active participant as well. An original program that United Churches initiated back in 1946 was holding church services for nursing homes. Before COVID, they provided 600 services a year to the dozen nursing homes of Lycoming County. Beth not only coordinated the schedule but also conducted five or more services a month herself.

On March 1st, Gwen Bernstein will be stepping down as executive director (though still continuing to volunteer!) and succeeded by Tammey Aichner. This extraordinary woman has served as a youth pastor and senior pastor at First Church of Christ (Disciples) on Almond Street in Williamsport. For several years, she has been a campus minister at Penn College for United Churches of Lycoming County.

Like Gwen, Tammy Aichner engages people’s hearts and minds. One example was several years ago when she was serving as a youth pastor and engaged some preteens who she noticed bicycling up and down Almond Street. She created fun activities for them but also taught them how to serve, visiting shut-in elderly folks in a nearby apartment building.

United Churches of Lycoming County have been greatly blessed to have visionary leaders like Alton Motter, Gwen Bernstein, and now Tammy Aichner to guide this very valuable and needed organization. May the next 75 years be just as blessed! For more information about activities, check out

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