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A cycle of change: New life for shrinking churches Mallory McCall, Aug 6, 2010
Hope.Gate.Way., the new home of Chestnut UMC and New Light community, is located on the ground floor of a parking garage in Portland, Maine.
By Mallory McCall Staff Writer
When the congregation at Austin (Minn.) Fellowship United Methodist Church learned they could no longer afford a full-time minister, they turned to their district superintendent, the Rev. Rufus Campbell, for advice.
After 52 years of faithful ministry, the congregation—which once had more than 300 members—had dwindled down to about 35 active members.
“They had done great ministry, but there were some things happening beyond their control—like the economy and changing demographics in the community,” said Mr. Campbell. “And they no longer could reach people. They felt like it was time to return home.”
“Returning home” was one of the options Mr. Campbell presented at a congregational meeting in early June. Originally a new church start launched in 1958 by First United Methodist Church of Austin, the remaining members now feel God is calling them back to the stability of FUMC.
The congregation voted in early July to close the church. Austin Fellowship will hold its final Sunday service Aug. 29.
The Minnesota congregation is just one of many United Methodist churches that are faced with a declining congregation.
Since 2005, some 1,550 United Methodist churches—about 300 a year—in the United States have closed, and about 524 churches have merged with larger congregations, according to the United Methodist General Council on Finance and Administration.
The folks at Austin Fellowship say the spiritual assets they’ve gained will help birth something new.
“Every organization has a life cycle, even the church,” Mr. Campbell said. “Only God is eternal.
“Local churches may close, but as baptized Christians, we will continue to be used in God’s ministry, wherever that may be.”
Option to merge
In the United Methodist Church, there are two kinds of mergers—basic and vital, says the Rev. Dirk Elliott, director of congregational development for the East Ohio Conference. Basic mergers are two or more churches that come together and consolidate to the bigger and better facility.
In a vital merger, participating churches agree to sell all their properties and church buildings, develop a new mission and vision statement, define a mission field, take a new name that isn’t related to any of the former church names, buy or build a new campus, and are appointed a new church-start pastor.
Among the factors that lead a church to merge are economics, a lack of resources, neighborhood transitions and declining attendance, says Mr. Elliott. But the overpopulation of United Methodist churches in a community can also lead to consolidation.
“Sometimes it’s a matter of how can we do ministry better together?” says Mr. Elliott. “How can we combine resources and be much more effective for the kingdom of God?”
Over the last decade, Mr. Elliott has studied 10 basic mergers in the East Ohio Conference. In eight of the 10 cases, attendance is less today than it was the day the churches merged, he said.
In the last nine years, the Conference has had five vital mergers; four of those churches are healthier today and have a higher average attendance than they had at the time of the merger. The fifth church has maintained its average attendance since the merger.
Mr. Elliott says there are often positive results that come with a fresh, new identity. “We’re finding really good success with this model,” he said. “ It’s going to produce some positive fruit in the future.”
A different merger
While some congregations are finding new life by merging with existing churches, one church in Portland, Maine, formed a unique partnership with a new church start in an effort to revitalize United Methodist mission and ministry in their area.
Chestnut Street United Methodist Church—once known as the “Methodist Cathedral of Maine”—had a huge, sprawling campus with 44 rooms and a sanctuary built for a thousand people. The church attracted ministers from across the country, but over time, the congregation slipped to roughly 30 people.
“They had more rooms than people, and they couldn’t heat it, let alone, maintain it, ” said the Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill, who serves as a pastor for Chestnut UMC and New Light Community.
The remaining congregants had to decide whether to sell the building and close the church, or relocate the congregation. Church members often intended to close the church, but whenever it came time for the vote, Mr. Ewing-Merrill said they felt the Holy Spirit saying, “No, it’s not time for that.”
Maintenance expenses eventually forced the church to sell their National Register of Historic Places facility, but the congregation did not completely disband. Members continued to worship in a nearby synagogue as they tried to figure out the next step. The congregation lost members in the transition, said Mr. Ewing-Merrill.
He and his wife, the Rev. Sara Ewing-Merill, were appointed in July 2007 to help rejuvenate the Chestnut Street church and plant a new community of faith that would target young adults as well as those who had little or negative experience with traditional church.
A site team from Chestnut UMC spent 18 months praying for guidance and researching needs and opportunities in the neighborhoods of the Portland peninsula. They eventually purchased a 2,800-square-foot commercial condominium on the ground floor of a parking garage in the Parkside neighborhood—the most densely populated square mile in northern New England.
The area was experiencing such urban challenges as drug trafficking, prostitution, domestic violence and cross-cultural clashes, but that’s exactly where members decided to start the New Light community by meeting in people’s homes.
“We’re an alternative sort of community,” Mr. Ewing-Merrill said. “It’s very conversational, interactive and focused on building community.” The New England area has some beautiful but antiquated church buildings that supported ministry at one time, Mr. Ewing-Merrill said, but they were built for a different era.
“Ministry has changed, and culture has changed,” he said. “I think there are places all across the country where these facilities have really become an albatross around the necks of congregations.”
Chestnut members say that selling that building has freed them up to be focused on ministry and mission in a new way, he added.
Time to prevent
In Austin, Texas, nearly a dozen United Methodist churches with lagging membership are participating in a program called the Ecclesiastes Project, based on the Scripture passage that reminds congregations that there is a season for everything—including a time for change in the church.
Spearheaded by the Rev. Kathryn McNeely and the Rev. Bobbi Kaye Jones, the Austin district superintendent, the project assesses the needs and ministries of participating churches. Each of the urban churches either averages fewer than 125 in worship attendance or has financial or facility concerns.
“Some congregations were worried about being labeled as part of the project,” said Ms. McNeely, who served as the part-time interim pastor at Hyde Park United Methodist Church, one of the project’s churches that recently voted to close after 100 years of ministry.
“But this is not a rubberstamp kind of program where we go and tell them to do this and that and they will survive, nor is it an edict from the [district superintendent].
“This is about getting congregations to think about how they will move into the future.”