What can be done? What are answers to the Thomasville UMC problem? Yes I am calling it a problem. There are only suggestions at this point and I am not naming any names to not cause too many ripples. But it looks like there are at least four congregations that are nearing the point of having to do something. Membership is down or hitting a plateau. Deaths are becoming overwhelming. Their building are old and need of repair and the cost of the upkeep in some cases is too much for congregations to handle. Within these four congregations the cost of the clergy ‘package’ (salary, healthcare and pension) is estimated at $225,192. When it comes to apportionments, two of these congregations paid out at 100% and one paid nothing.
There are bright spots in these congregations. Some have wonderful outreach to the community and thriving programs for children, youth, and adults. There are plenty of good things happening but will it be enough to sustain long lasting and fruitful congregations down the road? Plus, with a hat tip to Jim Collins, is good getting in the way of great?
What would happen if these four churches came together to form a new congregation? Combined the average attendance would be almost like the largest congregation in Thomasville, 300 worshipers each Sunday. Down the road it would only take one senior minister for this congregation (and other staff of course) but the senior minister ‘package’ would be cut by 2/3rds. Which means instead of $225,192 it would look more like $75,000. That frees up a ton of money to pay out at 100% the apportionments for this congregation. It would also enable the congregation to have money to create a new worship space and not be tied down to older buildings.
Yes, this is pie in the sky because there are realities. One, not all members would be excited about this and we would be silly to think all 300 people would continue to come to a new congregation. There would be a lot of pain involved because people would have to say good-bye to ‘their’ church. We would have to die to ourselves to become something new. (I think there is something biblical about that though) It would probably take years to prep the congregations, make plans, and take those baby steps forward until we were ready to make the move.
Land would be a major issue. Some of these congregations have graveyards and I am not sure what you do with those. Plus with the state of the Thomasville economy I don’t see selling the prosperities as a slam dunk either. What if these church facilities would turn into mission outposts? Maybe homeless shelters or soup kitchens, learning centers, affordable adult and childcare facilities, other things the city needs instead of another steeple.
There are even more issues when you get down to money, debt, power, and committees. Who knows if it would ever work? I wonder if this has ever been done before in other places in the nation and within United Methodist congregations? What I do know is that Thomasville is not the only small city out there with this issue, too many small congregations JUST making it. I am sure many other small cities in the Western North Carolina Conference, the state of NC, and heck all over the US have similar stories and situations.
I am not saying that small congregations are bad or that you cannot be a God loving, Jesus following congregation unless your average worship attendance is over 300. But we have to look at the fruitfulness of our congregations and the weight that the finance and facilities of these congregations are dealing with. Could more ministries be done in the name of Jesus if a church consolidation happened in Thomasville? If we pooled our resources together, instead of holding them within the walls of our 50-90 year old buildings, what could we do in the name of Jesus?
If we in the Western North Carolina Conference are to Follow Jesus, Make Disciples, and Transform the World, what are we willing to do to follow that calling, that mission? Does this live into the “Power of 3” vision our conference is currently in? Are we willing to just hope it all works out or are we willing to ask hard questions of our congregations, our cities, our districts and our conferences, and make the necessary changes to be fruitful disciples of Jesus Christ?