By: Christa Meland
Shortly after beginning her part-time call at Magnolia UMC in mid-2018, Rev. Nancy Manning asked the dwindling congregation about its mission. One person told her, “Our mission is to keep our doors open.”
The congregation had recently separated from another church in the same charge, and it was down to about 20 in worship attendance.
Manning, a recently retired elder in the Dakotas Conference, had agreed to serve the church in a quarter-time capacity for three months. She lived in Brandon, South Dakota—just 26 miles from the 288-person town of Magnolia.
When she arrived, members seemed to have one big question on their minds: Are we going to be able to survive?
Manning told them, “Yes, you can. God’s not going to leave you alone in this process. We just need to be patient and faithful.”
She immediately looked for opportunities for the church to turn outward and partner with its community. Members began working with their local food pantry and other social service organizations, and they connected with a home for troubled youth. Manning assured them that their mission was much bigger than keeping their doors open and urged them to discern what it was God was calling them to do.
Many people had left Magnolia UMC in the months before Manning’s arrival. But as things turned around and a more promising future seemed within reach, members began contacting them and encouraging them to give the church another try. A good number of them did, and at the same time, Manning established connections with new people through a series of funerals she officiated.
The three months Manning intended to spend at Magnolia UMC is now 18 months and counting, and she’s not planning to leave anytime soon. Today, worship attendance exceeds 30, and it’s evident to Manning that the Holy Spirit is breaking through in some remarkable ways, including the involvement of children. Whereas there were 2 kids in Confirmation and five kids in the church’s annual Christmas program in 2018, there were five kids in Confirmation and 15 in the Christmas program in 2019.
Last year, Manning expanded the Confirmation program to be inter-generational, and 12 adults joined the five Confirmation students for a study focused on knowing, loving, and serving God. Manning likes the study because it covers the basics for those with less biblical knowledge while also helping more mature Christians grow in their faith.
“There are signs of hope and growth,” said Manning. “And it’s not me; it’s God. God is at work within them and I’m a vessel that God is using.”
One member of the Church Council recently noted, “It’s really exciting that we need to fill more than one communion tray!”
When Rev. Fred Vanderwerf, Southern Prairie district superintendent, recently visited Magnolia UMC for an annual check-in, members couldn’t stop testifying to the turnaround within the church. In addition to greater worship attendance, new members, and a renewed energy, they noted that they found the resources to make $15,000 in building improvements, are now paying their apportionments in full, and have a healthy balance in the church’s checkbook.
“I have never had a visit to Magnolia UMC where I wasn’t greeted by warm hospitality, but a year ago, they weren’t sure what the future might hold,” said Vanderwerf. “However, on my last visit, I was not only greeted by hospitality but by a renewed hope. Pastor Nancy has been instrumental to that hope!”
The church is currently engaged in a “super food drive,” a theme that plays off of the Super Bowl, through which they are collecting non-perishable food items and hygiene products and inviting their friends and family members to join them. It’s the latest way in which they are partnering with their community.
Because the church is growing in its number of children, Manning hopes to start Sunday school in the fall. After that, Magnolia UMC will see where God leads them next—and they are ready to embrace whatever it may be.
“We are working on being more of a community of ministry than a congregation of people,” said Manning. “There’s a willingness to start new things and to see what God is doing in our midst.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church