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A new journey begins for United Methodists in Elgin

Posted: October 26 2020 at 12:08 PM
Author: Diane Strzelecki, NIC Communications Specialist


Two churches in Elgin, Welsey UMC and Epworth UMC, combined congregations on May 31, 2020, and formed Journey of Hope UMC—just five months after merger talks began and despite a worldwide pandemic. 

The congregations had previously explored merging with each other and other churches, but the idea of possibly giving up their buildings was difficult. Ultimately, Wesley would agree to sell its property and “move” to the Epworth building, and the two churches would combine their rich histories, local mission work and musical talents with a new vision for the future. Due to the State’s COVID-19 restrictions on in-person gatherings, Journey of Hope’s first service was held online via Facebook live. 

Foundations for a merger

After former Epworth pastor Rev. Deb Percell encouraged the congregation to explore merging with another church to expand their ministry and vision, Epworth leaders attended a 2018 NIC workshop titled “New Models of Mergers and Cooperative Ministries” organized by Rev. J. Martin Lee, NIC Director of Congregational Development and Redevelopment.

“We attended thinking ‘someday’ this might be part of our future so we should go and listen,” noted Carole Burris, former Epworth Staff Parish Relations Council Chair, who describes herself as a lifetime member of the church. The workshop covered vital mergers, adoption mergers, and partnerships as well as ways to partner with another church in ministry.

In 2004, Wesley revitalized its mission when it merged with Elgin: Grace. Shortly afterward, the church began nurturing a Hispanic ministry, which fit its location in the heart of Elgin and its growing Hispanic population. Wesley’s vision was to become a legacy church, eventually leaving their building and finances to the Hispanic congregation. Elgin District Superintendent Darneather Murph-Heath notes the congregation could see the handwriting on the wall. “When I came in as district superintendent six years ago, that was their story. And I resonated with that story, too,” she says. 

With a Hispanic pastor at the time, dual services were very easy for Wesley, but the Hispanic congregation numbers dwindled after the pastor left due to the General Conference turmoil. Then Wesley’s October 2019 charge conference brought with it a reality check. Gary Newton, a Wesley member for 51 years, says they learned they didn’t have enough people to fill their committees.

“At that point in time, it was like, well, we don’t have enough hands to do the job, how can we justify keeping our church?” Newton said. 

Coming together

A few years after attending the NIC workshop, the ‘someday’ arrived, and Epworth leaders faced the hard reality of their financial situation. One solution: selling their church building.

“When I learned that Epworth was considering selling their property and moving into a smaller facility because the financial costs were too steep, I held out hope that there would be another way,” Lee said. “The location is one of the best that we have in our annual conference, with high visibility and easy access. I encouraged the leadership of the congregation to enter a process of discernment, and to anticipate that other possibilities existed, included working with other UM congregations.”

After Rev. Jarrod Severing was appointed to Elgin: Epworth in August 2019, he listened to the congregation and encouraged them to revitalize the church right where it was.

“We started working through a couple of different things, like increasing social media presence and visioning what the church could be to multiple generations,” Severing said.  “The congregation was really getting behind the mission and vision of what the church was going to be.” 

Not long after, Wesley leadership officially approached Epworth about forming a new faith community together, and both congregations approved moving forward with the merger.

“We were able to get together and do some brainstorming and have some really good conversations face to face with everyone, and then all of a sudden COVID hit,” Severing says. “And then we immediately went to technology and held meetings via Zoom to work on a number of different things; mainly, the legalities of the merger, navigating the mission and the vision, as well as choosing a new name.”

The process felt different for everyone involved. “We were not initially of one mind,” Newton noted. “There was some instances of Epworth people thinking like Epworth people and Wesley people thinking like Wesley people.” Newton said although they struggled to select the new church name, Journey of Hope, the process helped them work through the emotions of the merger. 

Murph-Heath understands these emotions well. “I think people are so tied into the building and it becomes ‘my mother was buried out of this church’ or ‘my children were baptized out of this church and that’s normal, that’s natural,” she says. “But it kind of blinds us from seeing that we together we can do more.”

Lee agrees. “Growth means change, and change is a difficult process because people resist in the face of fear, the fear of losing something dear to them,” he said. “Another congregation moving into this building means that the location of precious memories, baptisms, weddings, funerals, youth group lock-ins, Christmas Eve services, has been lost. The anticipation of that relocation can be a weight.” 

Newton credits Severing with bringing the churches together in more than just the merger. 

“I cannot tell you how strongly we appreciate our leadership coming from Pastor Jarrod—he’s a blessing,” Newton said.  “When I think about him, all I think are positives: he’s warm in his relationships, he’s a good speaker, he's intelligent—and he understands technology, especially sending out our services via Facebook, thank goodness for that!”

Burris notes that Severing’s leadership helped them through conflict. “He talked to team members saying we have to keep in mind that Wesley is giving up their building to come to ours, and we need to make sure that they feel like they’re not just ‘moving into our house’ but that we are merging together,” she said. 

“The biggest keys for us were transparency and communication,” Severing adds, pointing to a monthly newsletter, weekly emails, and communication with all the ministry teams. Most of all, he talks to as many congregation members as he can, whether they stop by the office or call him on the phone. “But I think the other key is just listening,” he said.

Moving forward

The pandemic might have stalled the merger, but Severing and members of the team pressed on. “God was working through some strange circumstances in the world to kind of lock us together,” Severing said. While keeping an eye on local restrictions, the church moved to in-person worship in July 2020 while maintaining online services. To help the new congregation stay connected, Severing developed a midweek online worship service and online weekly devotions.  

On August 30, Wesley held a decommissioning service for their church building to provide closure for the former Wesley congregation. “Rev. Darneather was able to participate and I preached on ‘This is Not the End’,” Severing said. “Unfortunately, they were unable to have a celebration meal as they planned, but the service was good.”

Journey of Hope is also creating a space to honor the history of Grace, Wesley and Epworth, churches that dated back to the late 1800s. Newton heads a committee formed at the suggestion of Rev. Murph-Heath to fill a room with photos, documents and artifacts commemorating the churches, and he thinks it’s likely that a framed 10- by 2.5-foot stained glass piece with the word “Grace” at the center will be prominent in the space. Newton’s involvement in this and other Journey of Hope committees and small groups has helped him get to know people from Epworth better. “I’m feeling pretty good about the merger right now,” he says. 

The new congregation has a lot to look forward to once pandemic restrictions on gatherings are lifted, especially in music. They are restoring a set of bell chimes from Wesley so they will ring true and clear in the hands of Journey of Hope musicians. Newton anticipates a combined adult choir of nearly 40 voices, and musicians sharing their talents weekly. But most of all, he looks forward to a day where they can all worship together and shake hands or embrace. 

“Touching elbows doesn't get the job done, you know?” Newton said.  “I guess that's part of my hope; that we’ll get beyond COVID and we'll be able to show each other our love.”

Burris is ready for the future as well. “Pastor Jarrod has been sharing through his messages a lot about helping people understand that the church is not about ourselves—it’s being in ministry to those who don’t have Christ in their lives yet,” she said. “I think truly in our hearts we understand that this is where we’re being called to be in ministry.”

Martin Lee recognizes this call.  “I thank God for the clergy and lay leadership who have been essential in this merger process,” Lee said. “It is now time to focus on the people outside of these four walls.”

 “This is a journey of hope—we’re going to keep moving forward with the idea of hope, so I believe this is a positive merger,” Murph-Heath said. “You can love somebody from the past and still fall in love again.”

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