By: Christa Meland
Don Nickel has been a member of Grace UMC in Kiester for more than three decades. He loves his church, but in recent years, he’s seen it shrink in size as members have increased in years.
“We were a hospice church and if we didn’t do something, we knew we’d be closing in a few years,” he said, adding that worship attendance was below 20 and the average age of members was above 70.
So in fall 2015, when Rev. Paul Woolverton from nearby Wells UMC heard that Grace UMC was struggling, he asked both congregations, “What if we were to work together?”
Nickel and other members of Grace UMC were intrigued and figured they had nothing to lose—and members of Wells UMC, which averages about 100 in worship attendance, were interested too. Wells was one of the first churches that went through the Healthy Church Initiative, and through it, members had come to see the importance of trying new things.
The two congregations spent 2016 exploring what it would look like to become a multi-site church (one church, two campuses), and late last year, they both voted unanimously in favor of combining. There are several urban multi-site churches within the Minnesota Conference, but this is the first one in a rural setting. After the vote, Wells and Grace renamed themselves “Open Doors United Methodist Church,” and they have embraced a new energy and momentum. Each week, Woolverton preaches at both campuses, which have combined their finances and worked to create a shared mission and vision.
“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. “We’re talking about resurrection and new life across the board.”
Nickel said Grace UMC’s mindset has shifted since the congregations began working together. It revived Sunday School after a 25-year absence and brought back an adult faith-formation class. Members no longer have to sing along to a CD in worship—Woolverton not only preaches each week but also accompanies them on the keyboard.
“We have more life,” said Nickel, adding that Woolverton has emphasized the importance of evangelism, and the church has begun to embrace that concept. “We know we have a good message to share and we want to get young people coming to church again.” Already, there is a young family with children that’s started attending worship.
Exploring and discerning
During the year the two congregations spent exploring a merger, Woolverton used the liturgical seasons to guide the two churches’ discernment. For example, during Epiphany, there were opportunities for members of Wells and Grace to get to know one another and to pray about how the light of Christ was guiding them forward. During Lent, each congregation reflected on past ministries and spent time discerning how a merger might help it fulfill the ministries to which it is being called in the future.
The churches also started to work together in ministry and share best practices. In the summer, they partnered to offer Vacation Bible School in both of their communities—particularly significant for Grace, which hadn’t had VBS for many years. They also created a float promoting both churches, and members of both congregations rode on it in three separate parades. They had an all-church picnic gathering one Sunday in the summer after a joint worship service. And in the fall, the youth director from Wells worked with Grace to host an event and scavenger hunt to reach out to children in the community.
Meanwhile, several members of both congregations began serving on a joint merger team. They contacted a lawyer to provide advice about how a combination might legally work, and they asked Centennial UMC in Roseville to share its approach to a second site that it recently launched. A regular newsletter was mailed to people in both congregations to keep them posted on the merger team’s progress and to share fellowship opportunities at both Wells and Grace. These actions set the stage for the successful merger vote.
A missional opportunity
Woolverton was thrilled to see the churches’ partnership solidified and looks forward to a future filled with hope and possibility.
“What I kept thinking about was: We can’t afford to lose our presence in our communities across the rural landscape,” he said. “There was a missional opportunity with so many families to reach out to in Kiester.”
That made it an easy decision to help the churches think about joining forces.
“My call is to rural ministry and also to help people find opportunity in areas where they might not otherwise see it,” said Woolverton. “You lean in to however the Holy Spirit guides—that’s what I’m committed to. If I’m on target with what the Lord is calling, I’m running to keep up. We’re in it together. Together, we are the church and God calls us into the mission field. So let’s do it.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church