Birthing the next generation of church
We can’t do things the same way any more: This truth became abundantly clear to leaders of two UCC churches as they faced dwindling worship attendance and shrinking energy. Both congregations contemplated closing in as graceful a manner as possible, and both have found rejuvenation by embracing new paths of ministry, essentially giving birth to new congregations from the old ones.
The congregation of First St. John UCC in Hamilton, Ohio, sold their building in 2010, relieving them of financial stress, but with just 35 people worshiping regularly, the future looked brief. Working with the Rev. Mark Young, who initially began serving them as supply pastor, they developed an ambitious plan for renewal. They updated their worship, they began an Open and Affirming (ONA) process, as they began to rework themselves into a 21st-century church.
It didn’t work.
Six months after they started, half of the membership came to Rev. Young saying, in effect, “We hate this. We want our church back.”
“We had made a plan to change everything,” Young said. “I was asking them to do things that I would never ask my grandmother to do.”
They quickly created a new plan. Sunday morning worship returned to its previous format, meeting in a retirement community, and Rev. Young continued to provide solid pastoral care to the membership. At the same time, eight members agreed to become the core of a brand new congregation. Circle of Grace UCC, ONA from its birth, began to meet Sunday evenings on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Six months later, Young counts 28 worshipers.
“Becoming ONA saved our congregation,” said Dr. Craig Ellis, a member of the consistory of Heidelberg UCC in York, Pa., and vice moderator of the Penn Central Conference. About five years ago, only 20 people worshiped regularly in a space that could hold 350, driving to the downtown church from their homes in the suburbs. They considered closing, but chose instead to try a path to renewal that included pursuing the ONA process.
We didn’t understand the benefits, said Ellis. They were able to make new connections with the neighborhood, not just with LGBTQ individuals, but also with people eager to worship and raise children in an affirming environment. The “phoenix rising from the ashes” took its renewed energy into outreach efforts. Heidelberg UCC began offering a monthly coffeehouse and a community breakfast. They house a clothing and food bank in their building. Members of the congregation recently began studying American Sign Language to engage in conversation with the local deaf community.
Worship participation has rebounded, and Ellis said, “The diversity is amazing to see.” They’ve pulled pews out of the front of the sanctuary, and they’ve turned the chairs to face the Christmas window to celebrate Christ’s birth, and the Easter window to rejoice in Christ’s resurrection. Ellis credits pastor the Rev. Amy Schultz with many of the creative ideas that have re-energized the church, and also praises the older members who stayed with the congregation as it reshapes itself.
Circle of Grace has big plans, said Young. They’re working with Miami University to organize a service day in Hamilton, which will engage both church members and students in work projects around the community. “We’re exploring what it means to be different,” said Young, and spreading the word that there is a progressive church in Butler County.
The two congregations are a bit confusing, said Young, but it’s working. Building on the foundation of stable worship and good pastoral care, they’re able to do new things. “I don’t see any reason that any church in the UCC can’t do that.”
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