Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Three strapped churches merge

Some thrilled with decision; others say they did not get chance to weigh in

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Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
Diana Bell of Montgomery Village claps her hands at the start of the second Sunday service of the newly formed Faith United Methodist Church. All three of the Methodist churches were built by the descendants of local slaves.
Economic difficulties and dwindling attendance forced three churches founded by descendants of freed slaves in Germantown, Clarksburg and Boyds to join together and form one — Community of Faith United Methodist Church.

More than 125 people of the newly merged congregation attended an 8 a.m. service on Sunday, filling the seats at John Wesley United Methodist Church in Clarksburg, where the congregation is meeting temporarily.

The sun peaked through the multicolored stained glass windows and the congregation rocked from side to side during a performance by the 16-member youth choir.

The new congregation is combination of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Boyds, Asbury United Methodist in Germantown and John Wesley United Methodist Church in Clarksburg.

Community of Faith held its first service on Easter Sunday because the three churches were already planning to worship together that day, as they did last year. Easter Sunday was also chosen to tie the resurrection of Jesus Christ to the birth of the new church.

Attendance averaged only 20 people per service at John Wesley before the merger. John Wesley’s building is deteriorating and the church did not have enough money to repair it and still pay for a pastor and electricity, said Harry Smith, one of the temporary pastors of the new congregation.

Smith had been serving as pastor at both John Wesley and Asbury since January 2007.

Termites were eating the floor at St. Mark’s and the local well ran dry, which put a financial strain on the congregation, said the Rev. Tim Warner, former pastor of St. Mark’s.

‘‘People feel energized by the fact that we will be able to do ministry in a stronger way,” said Warner, now serving at Community of Faith.

All three of the Methodist churches are a part of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, which includes 700 churches in Maryland, the District of Columbia and the panhandle of West Virginia. The bishop of the conference will make the decision of who will become the pastor of Community of Faith, but a timetable for making that decision is not known.

Warner said the three churches have been talking about merging for a few years, but urgent financial woes pushed the merger.

Kelvin Johnson, 44, of Frederick, who has been a member of John Wesley United Methodist for 10 years, said the merger is a great idea. He said the congregation will now have more access to spiritual guidance since Community of Faith has two pastors.

‘‘More youth will be able to come together,” Johnson said. ‘‘Wherever there is youth, you have life in the church. It takes some of the burden off some of the older members.”

However, some of the older members of the churches feel a sense of loss so strong that they are in mourning because they have to leave their historic church buildings, Warner said.

The district superintendent and the leadership councils of all three churches voted unanimously on Feb. 10 to merge.

The leadership council at Asbury and John Wesley could have allowed all members of the congregations to vote, but both councils decided not to do so and the final resolution was approved on March 4.

St. Mark’s leadership council also did allow its greater congregation to vote.

Some members of the Asbury congregation are angry at not getting the chance to have their say.

Lois Prather-Greene, 74, of Germantown, a member of Asbury United Methodist, said many members of Asbury will not be attending services at Community of Faith as a form of protest because the greater congregation did not have the opportunity to vote.

‘‘I’ve been in that church since I have been born,” Prather-Greene said. ‘‘It made us feel bad that we did not even have a say in the merger.”

The Rev. Vivian McCarthy, the district superintendent involved in the merger, said the creation of the new church gives members the best opportunity to have a strong ministry and presence in the community.

‘‘There is some sadness and difficulty in coming to a decision like this,” she said.

Forty-two Asbury United Methodist Church members signed a petition stating they were against the merger. They also wrote a letter urging the bishop to hold a new meeting to allow for another vote.

The three churches have worked together many times in the past.

Smith said that John Wesley is a great site for Community of Faith to meet because it is right off Route 355 in a prominent location. He said the churches will be able to combine their transportation resources to bring more people to church by bus or van.

‘‘Each ministry of the church has really tripled in size,” Smith said. ‘‘That is going to make us more able to do a lot of the things we have to do.”

Michele Keyes, 16, of Germantown, who sings alto in the youth choir, said she loved the service on Sunday. She became a member of Asbury in June and said she is excited about the future of Community of Faith.

All three of the Methodist churches were built by the descendants of local slaves and two of the church buildings are over 100 years old.

Smith said he understands if some people have mixed feelings about leaving their traditional churches.

‘‘We have folks who were born at those churches,” he said. ‘‘It is difficult to let go of something with such a rich past and rich history.”

Florence Phillips, 71, of Boyds had been a member of St. Mark’s for at least 50 years. She sang in the church choir, worked on the finance committee and served as an usher at St. Mark’s over the years.

Phillips is now an usher at Community of Faith and has warmed up to the idea of the three churches merging together.

‘‘I didn’t like it at first, but I don’t mind because I can worship God anywhere I go,” she said. ‘‘I think it is a good thing. There is always time for change. We just have to try to do the best we can.”