Joining in Ministry Brings New Life
Joining in Ministry Brings New Life
When neighboring churches struggle to maintain membership and financial viability, an obvious suggestion from the outside view is that they merge into one congregation. While the numbers may make that an obvious conclusion, the realities of joining two into one are much more complicated.
In the last year, two pairs of churches in the Crater Lake District have used merger as a tool to move forward in ministry.
For the United Methodist Churches in Coos Bay and North Bend, two adjacent small towns on the Southern Oregon coast, long time community rivalry was one of the challenges to overcome. While both struggled to survive financially, they were determined to maintain their individual identities. That all changed on August 7, 2012 when fire consumed the North Bend church.
This sent the congregation, which averaged 36 in worship each week, on a journey. The first stop North Bend congregation was to see, is if it could survive by locating in a local shopping mall. The second stop was to participate in Congregational Leadership Development (CLD) training provided by the Conference.
In July 2013, Rev. Laura Beville, who was already serving the Coos Bay community, was also appointed to serve North Bend. Coos Bay also participated in the CLD training. Working with both churches, she was able to build bridges and open communication. She observed that, “Some [in North Bend] were holding on to the old city divisions. Others just wanted something - anything - to happen, and move forward from the place where they had been paralyzed following the fire.” Something did happen. Through a series of progressive votes, the Coos Bay congregation invited North Bend to join them as “two churches, one site.” Then North Bend voted to explore a merger option and the churches started getting to know each other. Shared work teams, gatherings, a worship survey, and combined worship experiences helped build unity. And on January 11, both churches voted to approve the merger.
Beville and church leaders knew that merger wasn’t just about a vote. They would have to lose the identity of “First” “Coos Bay” and “North Bend” in the newly merged church. As part of the discussion process they moved beyond geographical names and found Harmony United Methodist Church. To help make it clear to everyone that this was a new thing, Beville then sat down to complete new membership certificates for the members.
Looking forward she says, “We are Harmony United Methodist Church, not because we seek to be something that we are not. We are continually discerning our vision and place in ministry for our community.”
You can read a complete narrative by Rev. Beville including the full story of how the name Harmony came to the church. She is happy to entertain questions about the joys and pitfalls of a merger process at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The churches in Halsey and Harrisburg, faced similar financial challenges, but they weren’t situated as close together as the Coos Bay and North Bend communities. People are used to drive distances in these Willamette Valley farming communities that are also bedroom communities for Eugene and Albany. But would people feel connected to a church if it was 10 miles away? And in a merger, which building would become the ongoing home of the church?
Dwindling membership, challenges to maintain facilities, and a sense that growth in the community would be slow or non-existent were factors that triggered the process. Harrisburg initially opened the discussion, and for the Halsey congregation it was taken as a sign of trust that they had reached out to Halsey, and the congregation wanted to respond in kind. Harrisburg had tried many things to connect to the community, but it wasn’t happening.
Building on a tradition of attending each other's events and special services, Boy Scout troops, pancake feeds and ice cream socials, the churches formed a Merger/Transition committee. Like the process in Coos Bay and North Bend, the leadership worked to create a process that was planned and deliberative; making sure that everyone felt heard and respected. Pastors Christine Webb and Warren Light helped the churches find the bigger issues and have a community perspective. Light shared a list of biblical verses that center on hospitality as part of the conversations.
Church votes in October were nearly unanimous. A few weeks later the new congregation voted on several names, Spirit of the Valley United Methodist Church at Halsey was overwhelmingly approved. For Pastor Warren Light, “Spirit of the Valley United Methodist Church in Halsey has become a regional church with active membership reaching from Harrisburg to Shedd, from Brownsville to Corvallis. The people who have stayed since the merger are now sitting, worshiping, serving, praying, laughing and eating with each other - as though they have been one congregation for many years.” When deciding where the new church would be located, the congregation chose Halsey. Although it was the older building, it was in a more central location for the many communities being served. A new look came to the church when a team from NOMADS came to help repaint the building inside and out. Nomads On a Mission Active in Divine Service (NOMADS) is a group of United Methodists from around the county that travel in recreational vehicles and do work at churches and ministry sites.
Spirit of the Valley will continue to own the former church facility in Harrisburg, using it to provide a ministry connection in that area. Currently it supports a pre-school, Boy Scouts, monthly pancake breakfasts and usage by community groups and the neighboring schools. Although not holding regular worship, a Methodist presence continues in the city.
Lay Leader Karen Scranage says, “It’s exciting. We’ve had new life breathed into our congregation by growth from the area and the merger. It’s making us stretch, and that’s a good thing.”
Both churches made their transitions with the support of District Superintendent Gwen Drake. She was able to help them understand the church requirements as they moved through the process. When she looks at the two new congregations in her district she observes that, “They have more energy together.” After attending worship at Harmony she felt that, “this merger has breathed new life into this worshiping community!!”
READ MORE: Other churches in the conference have used merger at a tool for bringing new life to ministry.
The Amity Church in Boise merged with First UMC and has now built a new sanctuary and experienced growth in a two campus setting.
The Tigard and Metzger Churches merged in 2013. Now Bethlehem House of Bread offers community gardens and a food pantry.
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