This week, one of my former churches closed and another one voted to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church. I am not sure that sets any kind of record, but it does lead me to reflect on 50 years of ministry.
Calvary United Methodist Church, Hawthorne, PA was part of a three-point charge–Hawthorne, Oak Ridge and Mt. Zion--where I spent my first two years out of seminary. Following the merger of the Evangelical United Brethren and the former Methodist church four years earlier, in all honesty, there were too many small UM churches in the Redbank Valley. In the tiny hamlet of Oak Ridge, the EUB and Methodist Churches had been pressed into a merger with the old EUB building padlocked and sitting there as a painful reminder. So I guess you could say I started my ministry in the shadow of a closed church. When I left we closed Mt. Zion which was running about a dozen in worship on a good Sunday, held together by two aging couples. Over the decades, church participation has declined along with the population in the area until finally, Hawthorne held its last worship service last week.
I served 10 years at the Dexter United Methodist, my longest appointment. The church was growing so we purchased land, made plans to relocate and since then it has grown to more than 1,000 members under the leadership of its current pastor. It has also become much more conservative and aligned with the Wesleyan Covenant Association. This week they voted overwhelmingly to leave the UMC and join the fledgling Global Methodist Church.
Add to that, one of the first churches I served in Michigan, Davis United Methodist, closed a few years ago, so I am hoping this is not a trend.
This week I received the news from Hawthorne and Dexter with sadness. I invested a dozen years of ministry in these two places and in both congregations there were good people who blessed my life. I regret the closing of Hawthorne, even though as I say, there are too many small UM churches in the Redbank Valley so perhaps it was inevitable.
The decision in Dexter gives me greater sadness. I suppose it was also inevitable, given the effectiveness of the pastor in bringing people together around his vision. I’m a firm believer that as a former pastor, when you leave you leave, but I left a part of myself there. I assume the congregation will go on, do good ministry and help build the Kingdom, but for me it feels like the loss of a significant part of my legacy. I wish them well, with regret, and pray God will bless them. Most of all, I pray for folks who no longer feel at home in a place which has been their church home for decades and generations as they seek a new place to live out their faith.
Hawthorne, Mt. Zion, Davis and Dexter represent 17 years of my ministry. Amid the feeling of loss, a word of reassurance comes from the Order for Confirmation in the old hymnal. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear in the current hymnal. I wish it did:
“Dearly beloved, the church is of God and will be preserved till the end of time for the conduct of worship, the due administration of His sacraments, the maintenance of Christian fellowship and discipline, the edification of believers and the conversion of the world. All persons of every age and station stand in need of the means of grace which the church alone supplies.”
Looking back and looking forward, I truly do believe that even amid our divisions and dead ends, our fumbles and failures, the church IS of God and will be preserved till the end of time.
Thanks be to God.
NOTE: Next Sunday, Nov. 13, I will be the guest preacher at St. Philips Episcopal Church in Beulah. If you are in the area, come and join us.