By: Christa Meland
In early June, leaders of Hill City UMC made the difficult decision to have a majestic, 100-year-old Cottonwood tree on its property taken down. It was dying, and the branches were at risk of falling on people walking by and vehicles parked below.
After the tree was felled, only a large stump remained. Rather than grinding it down, leaders decided to have an event around the stump to honor the tree and the 112-year history of Hill City UMC. People from both the church and the community were invited to an evening of food, camaraderie, and “stump speeches”—(non-political) short stories from anyone who wished to speak to the crowd from the stump. Forty-five people came—significant for a congregation that worships 20 to 30 each week.
Prior to the event, one member painted the top of the stump, and another carved steps and a railing into it. They created something beautiful from the ruins of the tree—and they noticed that the stump was still sending up new shoots and showing clear signs of life.
Hill City UMC, like many churches across the state and the country, has seen its worship attendance decline and its membership age in recent years. But the stump and the speeches served as an important reminder to members: God is not done with us.
“We are still alive,” said Rev. John Scheuer. “We are not dead. We can still be vital in this community. We just need to grow a little bit, like the stump.”
Art Elling, who retired from the U.S. Forest Service 16 years ago and has been a member of Hill City for 42 years, isn’t one to give speeches. But he gave a beautiful reflection about the stump as a metaphor for the church. He reminded those gathered that like the stump, the church has been through hard times before. In fact, the initial church building burned to the ground around 1950. While the congregation was surely devastated at the time, its members didn’t give up. They rebuilt and created the building that Hill City UMC now occupies. Elling pointed out that while in recent years the church has faced challenges, there are positive signs of growth for Hill City UMC just as there are for the stump: The community responded positively to the church’s root beer float socials in the park over the summer. The church bought a trailer that it’s used for outdoor worship services in the community and to participate in the town’s Fourth of July parade to reach new people. The stump speeches themselves attracted individuals who weren’t part of the church.
“All these things are signs that hey, we’re not giving up,” said Elling. “We’re going to live on. We’re going to get stronger, and our numbers will increase. We will continue to be part of the Hill City community. We have a lot to do yet.”
Other stump speeches were about hunting and fishing. Some people told jokes. Goldie Lowney, an elementary school student, told a story she made up about misbehaving kids. Another member relayed a poem by Robert W. Service called “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” Scheuer’s friend from high school, who learned about the event on Facebook, went out of her way en route from the Twin Cities to Ely so she could give a heartfelt stump speech about her elderly father finally taking on a date a woman he’d loved from a distance since high school.
“It’s one of the best evenings I’ve had in a long, long time,” said Scheuer, who intentionally didn’t give a speech so as to make space for other voices.
People left the stump speech event joyful and inspired. A couple from the community who attended the event started coming to worship.
The stump and the speeches were so significant, in fact, that church members decided they’re going to keep the stump and gather around it at least once or twice a year to remember where the congregation has been and remind them where they’re headed. On Oct. 31, in celebration of All Saints Day, the church will have outdoor worship and has personally invited all families that have had any connection to the church in years past through baptism, youth group participation, Vacation Bible School, or other avenues.
“The stump is a reminder that we are not dead,” said Scheuer. “The stump, even in its old age, has purpose. It still has the power to transform, even though it’s no longer the tree we park under.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church