By Rick Wolcott*
“This church has meant a lot to me,” Ida Campbell reflected.
Standing in Beallsville United Methodist Church (Southern Hills District), she looked around and said, “I have been blessed by coming here.”
Campbell and 50 other people ignored the single-digit January temperatures and made their way, one last time, to the church on the hill.
“It’s a bittersweet day. This United Methodist church has been in service for 197 years to the Beallsville area, doing God’s work, helping people, and telling them about Jesus,” said Joseph Fox, chairperson of the trustees and a church member since 1978.
“We’re down to about a half dozen people supporting this church right now so we just can’t keep the church going because we don’t have the money to do it,” he said.
Church Treasurer Charles Paine has spent his entire life at the church. “I was baptized here and it’s the only church I’ve ever known. Unfortunately, we ran out of people. It’s the circle of life.”
Campbell knows that problem all too well. It was the closing of her previous church, Beallsville Church of God, that brought her to Beallsville UMC shortly before Pastor Jean Cooper was appointed in 2012.
“In just the few years that Jean’s been here the church has added multi-media presentations and started a Saturday night service. They were bold in trying new things,” said Southern Hills District Superintendent Gail Angel.
“They’ve maxed out their capacity in the most vital ways to reach out to young people and to new people in the best way that they could,” she said. “They haven’t lost their spirit and they haven’t lost focus of what their mission is in the midst of not knowing what their future would be for so many years.”
“It takes courage and prayerful discernment for a local church to decide to close its doors when it has been determined that ministry is no longer sustainable in a particular building, location or community,” said Bishop Tracy S. Malone, resident bishop of the East Ohio Conference. “We honor their courageous decision and celebrate their many years of faithful witness and service, and we remember their legacy of faith.”
In December, the congregation, and the Steubenville community, said goodbye to Simpson United Methodist Church (Ohio Valley District).
“Simpson UMC had a 143-year presence that was honorable and admirable in the Steubenville area,” said Pastor Ivy Smith, who was invited back to preach the final sermon at her home church.
“I learned much through this church. In fact, what I use today in my ministry came from my years here at Simpson in youth ministry, musicals, vacation bible school, and so much more,” she told the congregation. “Even though we stand here today saying goodbye to this church, God is still good! And God won’t stop being good when we end this service.”
She and Cooper reminded their congregations that the legacy of a church continues long after its bell stops ringing in the steeple.
“The closing service for a church should be pure celebration and joy. For to release a church building is a life-changing experience. But you can rest assured that God will walk every step with you in the newness,” Smith said.
“Death comes, but we are promised the resurrection,” Cooper said. “Death has finally come to this body called the Beallsville United Methodist Church, but there is a resurrection, there is hope, there is a continuation and by practicing love, faith, hope, encouragement and peace it will continue in whatever congregations we find ourselves in.”
Pastor Jim Jensen, who began his ministry at Beallsville UMC in 1995, returned for the final service to deliver this message: “Today is a celebration of life, a celebration of all that this church has accomplished, don’t forget that as you move forward. Take the energy and the spirit with you when you go to your new church.”
Many members of the Simpson UMC congregation now worship only a couple of blocks away at Finley UMC, while those who worshipped at Beallsville UMC will transfer to their sister church, Jerusalem UMC.
“We’re very fortunate to have a church a few miles up the street that we can go to,” Paine said. “So thankfully the United Methodist presence will continue in this community.”
The congregations of Beallsville UMC and Simpson UMC are not the only ones who have had to make the difficult decision to close. Each June at Annual Conference, the Cabinet leads delegates in a litany to remember the ministries of churches whose memberships have voted that year to close the church.
The legacies of these 25 churches have been celebrated over the past five years:
Bethel UMC (Canal), Bracken UMC (Southern Hills), Brownsville UMC (Southern Hills), Conotton UMC (Ohio Valley), Delphi UMC (Firelands), Eden Chapel UMC (Mid-Ohio), Everals UMC (Three Rivers), Harmony UMC (Mid-Ohio), Hendrysburg UMC (Ohio Valley), Homer UMC (Three Rivers), Holy Trinity UMC (Canal), Kipling UMC (Southern Hills), Lancaster Chapel (Ohio Valley), Locust Grove UMC (Southern Hills), Marion Heights UMC (Mahoning Valley), Massillon Wesley UMC (Tuscarawas), Mingo First (Ohio Valley), Mt. Olivett UMC (Southern Hills), New Hope UMC (Ohio Valley), Oceola (Mid-Ohio), Oehlhoff UMC (North Coast), Rinard Mills UMC (Southern Hills), Sandusky Salem (Firelands), Smithville UMC (Mid-Ohio), Trinity UMC (Southern Hills)
“When a church closes it means that God has a different form of work for people to do,” Angel said. “People will take the light that they had gathered in their church and they will join with other sources of light and hope somewhere else to become a miracle rebirth.”
*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.