New models for ministry poise rural churches for growth and vitality

August 31, 2016
Palm Sunday at Cornerstone UMC in Marshall.

By: Christa Meland

Visit Cornerstone United Methodist Church in Marshall, and it’s apparent that the congregation is vibrant and full of energy. It’s growing in number. It has a strong mission statement. It has new outreach, communication, and other ministry teams to help it fulfill its vision to reach younger families.

It’s almost hard to believe that it’s the product of two churches that used to be struggling. A few years ago, Wesley United Methodist Church and Albright United Methodist Church both found themselves declining in attendance, and Albright was struggling to make ends meet financially. The two Marshall churches were already combining efforts for Wednesday night children’s ministries and had the same youth pastor—so they made the bold decision to merge in the hopes that together they would become a stronger church better able to serve the community.

That’s exactly what’s happened. Cornerstone now worships 150 to 200 each Sunday and is poised to launch a second worship service and expand its space.

Mergers and new ministry models are helping several rural churches in the conference to re-imagine their futures and “be” church in a new way—and they are simultaneously infusing once-dwindling congregations with a new vitality. The Minnesota Conference has come alongside these churches by providing coaches and consultation.

Two other rural churches are exploring becoming one church with two sites. When Rev. Paul Woolverton, who serves Wells United Methodist Church, learned that Grace United Methodist Church in Kiester had a heart for ministry but was struggling, he asked: “What if we were to work together?”

Wells UMC and Grace UMC are now in the midst of a year-long exploration of what it would look like to become a rural multi-site church. Woolverton preaches at both sites each Sunday, and the churches have had several joint gatherings and worship services. They’re also finding ways to work together and share best practices. For example, Wells UMC noticed that taking out several pews to make room for tables and chairs was a big draw for young families and suggested that Grace give it a try too. Additionally, the churches partnered to offer Vacation Bible School in both of their communities this summer—particularly significant for Grace, which hadn’t had Sunday School for many years.

“This offers a whole new opportunity for what it means to be a missional church in a rural area—to come alongside and partner with another congregation toward vitality,” said Woolverton.

In January 2017, the churches will vote on whether to become a multi-site church. Woolverton sees the potential for four or five churches in the area to eventually become part of the same multi-site.

“We’re talking about resurrection and new life across the board,” he said.

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

122 West Franklin Avenue, Suite 400 Minneapolis, MN 55404

(612) 870-0058