By: Amanda Willis
It started with an open and honest conversation. Some of the churches in the multi-point charge to which Rev. Wane Souhrada had been appointed were seeking more—more pastoral care, more community, and more outreach.
After years of discussion and some joint worship services on a trial basis, First United Methodist Church, Immanuel Evangelical Church, and Salem United Methodist Church in Blue Earth merged. In 2008, Hope United Methodist Church was created, and with it began a remarkable change that’s continued to this day.
“[The merger] proved to the community that churches in the area could grow, not just in numbers, and thrive,” said Rev. Janet Crissinger, who served the church from 2011 to 2014. “This was a symbol to the community that you can build and grow a church even in an anxious time when churches are shrinking.”
The merger didn’t happen overnight. It took many years and a lot of work from a lot of people. The path Souhrada started down in 2003 was followed through by each pastor who came after: Rev. Art Keith, now retired, who served from 2010-2012; Crissinger, now a hospital chaplain at St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth; and Rev. Russ Jacobson, the church’s current pastor. Each of these individuals played a key role in helping the church reach new people and grow in love of neighbor.
When Crissinger started at the church, there were six children in the Sunday School program. When she left, there were 78. The church was ripe for expansion, and in 2011, ground was broken on a new $2 million building that was welcoming and accessible to all.
The decision to build a new space for the church came about after a feasibility study found that there was significant support for the effort.
“I became convinced that the only way that this would work was if they built a new building,” Souhrada said. That building has already been paid off.
When Crissinger joined the church, she focused on ministering to people of all ages. The newness of the building, which included an elevator and a professional kitchen, was attractive to older members, members with a disability, and young families with children.
Hope now boasts the largest Vacation Bible School in Blue Earth, despite not being the largest church.
What makes this merger different is that “this wasn’t a big conference project—it was more organic,” said Jacobson. “It was the churches’ idea and the relationships came first. It’s living proof that if you try something new, you can have a new beginning.”
Today, the church has 335 members and is growing.
It hosts community events and local organizations, as well as a mid-week supper and worship combined with an education program called “Legos.” This mid-week opportunity welcomes young families and offers meaningful expressions of the gospel to a variety of ages and interests. The intentional hospitality practiced by members has led to more than 100 new people choosing to call this church home; most of them are new to the United Methodist Church.
Last year, Hope UMC received the conference’s Rural Church Award. Its focus on hospitality and ministry to the whole family has created visibility within the community and prompted the award.
“The feeling that Hope UMC is successful and that the things came to pass in a way that we thought they could—it worked,” said Souhrada.
Amanda Willis is communications associate for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church