|A Tale of 2 Churches
Or rather, a tale of four churches that became two. Heres how congregations in Chattanooga and Tazewell Districts combined to make what Holston leaders believe are stronger churches with bright futures.
By Annette Bender
In June 2002, the Annual Conference voted to close four churches, reducing the total number of Holston Conference congregations to 925.
The vote was swift, requiring only moments of the Annual Conference's attention. The real decision-making occurred months before, when the respective church leaders and district superintendents gathered to discuss options for churches that could no longer survive with dwindling attendance and finances.
Even when it's obvious that a church might need to close, the decision is usually a painful one, members say.
For a while, we couldn't let go, even when it was the right thing to do, says Barbara Jean Justice. She is a former member of Tazewell District's Blackford United Methodist Church, one of the four churches officially closed by the Annual Conference last summer.
But sometimes, members opt to merge with another congregation, creating a new church or strengthening an existing one. Mergers don't happen often, but when they do, the results can be inspirational, conference leaders say.
When churches hold high their mission to make disciples and can put aside their own identities for the greater good of the Kingdom of God, the merger is a viable option, says the Rev. Gordon Ridenour, executive assistant to the bishop and overseer of new church development in Holston. It's not always that easy. It takes intention and commitment for two churches to work it out, but it can be done.
From different sides of Holston Conference, here is how four congregations recently combined to make two.
Embracing change in Chattanooga
With fewer than 20 in worship attendance, members at Wiley Memorial UMC were concerned about the church's future last year. Considering the church is 135 years old and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the decision to close is more difficult still.
Recognizing that nearby Bethlehem Community Center had the vitality the Wiley congregation desperately needed, church leaders approached Bethlehem's Rev. Lurone Jennings about a possible partnership.
Jennings already headed a dynamic seven-year-old ministry, reaching 60 children in an after-school program, 160 children in summer literacy programs, 700 people in the credit union, and hundreds more in periodic outreach efforts. More than 100 worshipers attended weekly church services in the center's gymnasium.
But Jennings says he had reasons to consider a partnership with Wiley.
They had a strong sense of history and heritage of the United Methodist Church, he said. We were seven years old and still learning the heritage and history
We needed them because we respect our elders. We need our elders.
Bethlehem leaders also were attracted to Wiley's historic building, three miles away, as a possible worship center. They saw potential for expanded outreach in downtown Chattanooga, District Superintendent Al Bowles said.
Inspired by the possibilities, the two churches put together a leadership team (basically the administrative councils of both churches, Jennings said) in February 2003. Jennings says he insisted that team members read two books, Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson and The Empowerment Church by Carlyle Fielding Stewart III. He also had them read the Book of Acts and built the team meetings around prayer and devotions.
I didn't want to fuss and fight, Jennings said. I wanted God to orchestrate this.
Over the following weeks, the vision began to unfold, Jennings said, and we began to get excited about what Jesus was about to do.
On June 22, the newly named Bethlehem-Wiley United Methodist Church held its first Sunday service in the downtown building with more than 300 worshipers.
On that day, Superintendent Bowles said he was greeted in the parking lot by people who joyfully said, Welcome to Bethlehem-Wiley.
There were tears in people's eyes, especially those from Wiley, Bowles remembers. They said, We had children today!'
The transition has not been without challenges, Bowles admits. Changes in worship styles have jarred some members and choosing the new name created as much tension as anything else.
But they've been wonderful to work with, Bowles said. I wish all mergers could go like this.
In addition to weekly worship services, Bethelehem-Wiley has started midday Bible studies at the downtown location. Earlier this month, the church hosted a fish fry attended by 300 community members. (People love to see a cooking preacher, Jennings said, laughing.)
At the same time, former Wiley members are attending financial literacy classes and tutoring children at Bethlehem Center.
I have a feeling that Bethlehem-Wiley is going to be a strong, strong church, right down in the heart of the city, which is where we need to be, Bowles said.
Forming new ties in Tazewell
In the 2002 conference statistician's report, published in the forthcoming Journal, First Honaker UMC will be listed as the Holston congregation with the largest percentage increase in membership. Between 2001 and 2002, Honaker grew 51 percent, from 97 to 148 members.
The increase reflects a membership transfer of nearly the entire congregation of Blackford UMC.
Blackford closed in November 2002 when the congregation no longer had the resources to pay the pastor's salary, according to Tazewell District Superintendent Gene Lovell.
An official merger wasn't discussed. But Blackford members were already familiar with their sister church located one mile away and also pastored by the Rev. Michael Ward, according to Barbara Jean Justice.
Mike made the transition so much easier, said Justice, whose children were baptized at Blackford and whose in-laws built the most recent church building. For Ward, it was a matter of gently loving the people and suggesting we can be better together than separated as we are.
I think the Blackford members were afraid they would have a black mark against them and would not fit in, he said. But to Honaker's credit, they were very welcoming. Some church officers even offered to give up their positions so that Blackford members could be represented in the leadership.
Today, First Honaker's average worship attendance is 70, compared to 42 in 2001.Lovell says he's inspired by the blending of the congregations.
That was really a pretty doggone amicable scenario, he said. I'm in my sixth year [of leading the Tazewell District] and that just doesn't happen all that often.
So many people are emotionally attached to their church buildings and don't see themselves as servants of God's will, Lovell explained. To them, the church is the building, not the people.
Now that community members are so mobile, we don't need as many churches that are so close together.
Blackford saw what needed to happen, and they did it. You can't help but feel good about the spirit in which these two churches came together.