Merging of Two Denominations – a Selfless Act

The Heart of a Small Church: Part 4

Federated churches have their beginnings in the early part of the 20th century and reached their zenith in the period from around 1915-1940.  Federated churches involve forming a local church congregation that relates to two or more denominations, with members each deciding to which of the denominations they choose to belong.  (See ¶208 of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016).

Here in East Ohio the combos have been United Methodist and either Presbyterian Church U.S.A., United Church of Christ, or Congregational Church. There are five Federated Churches in the East Ohio Conference.

Chatham Community Federated Church

By Pastor Patty Humphress*

Photo of both Chatham churchesIt is hard to have two churches within a quarter mile of each other in a small town. Many of our small towns have the same problem, and with dwindling attendance, the situation sometimes feels hopeless. Chatham looked at the situation differently. In the late 1980’s, the Chatham United Methodist Church and the Chatham United Church of Christ Congregational decided it was time to be a true community.

Even though the two churches would have liked to remain separate entities, they recognized community resources would be thin. That is truer even today. Chatham, like most small towns, is losing its younger people to opportunities beyond the township and even the state. Here is an ebb and flow of membership as Chatham is a very stable, non-transient area. We are surrounded by bigger churches and yet maintain our big hearts to do more and be more.

The Work of Becoming a Federated Church

It was a long thought-out process meant to unite the community to do greater service for God. Part of the work that needed to be done was writing a constitution that embraced both UMC and UCC polity.

Although there is not a huge difference in the belief system, there are some areas where the two denominations disagree, including the issue of ordaining practicing homosexuals. The differences at times will allow the church to be open in dialogue; there are very few closed minds as they have been together for so long and are part of the same community family.

In April, 1991, they merged together into a Federated Church, alternating between a UMC pastor and a UCC pastor.

“I remember the merger as a time when people gradually came to the conclusion that neither denomination could afford to exist as separate entities. It required a great deal of compromise on the part of both denominations, because of the differences in the way the two denominations are structured.

The UCC building was locally owned while the Methodist building was owned by the Methodist conference.

Methodist ministers are appointed while UCC minsters are called. The Methodist church has apportionments while in the UCC the local church determines what it gives.

The merger was also difficult, because for many people there were strong family ties to one or the other buildings. I think this has lessened as new people without these ties have joined the church. It took time and compromise on many people’s part to make it work. I’m sure glad it has.”

Carol Menon, Chatham Community Federated Church Treasurer, UCC member

But what to do with the two 150+ year old buildings? Initially the churches bounced back and forth for worship services. Ultimately, they settled into the congregational building that features a larger sanctuary. The Methodist Church was eventually turned into an outreach center.

Today’s Church

There are about 150 members of Chatham Community Church. Our average worship attendance runs around 55. The membership of the church contains about an equal number of UMC and UCC people, plus a third category of people who did not declare to which denomination they wanted to belong. Many still cling to their denominational roots. In fact, last fall one UMC member passed away and it was her wish that she be buried out of the United Methodist Church building, which is our outreach center. Having said that though, the church is very united in their mission to worship, fellowship, and serve God together.

It seems many who did not claim denominational status in the UMC or UCC churches no longer attend. I think that’s an interesting fact. These who came in under non-declared status came in under one or two pastors. Those who are strongly denominational were not in favor of this, fearing that the church and might become nondenominational.

“I believe that it has been good for both churches otherwise one church would have had to close. It has been a lot of work on everyone. Everyone didn’t think that the merger would work, but it did. I think it has to do with the attitude of the people. We all have worked hard to make our church what it is.”

Rosalie VanGilder, church member, UMC member.

The Community Knows We Care

The congregation is wonderfully involved in outreach ministries. About five years ago, Alcoholics Anonymous asked if they could begin meeting in the church. Despite some misgivings by the Board of Administrators, they unanimously agreed to let the group begin meeting there, and it has blessed the congregation and the community immensely.

We are also blessed to be part of the ministries of Matthew 25, of St. Herman’s House of Hospitality, of the Medina County Community Services Center, and of the local veterans’ homes. Our mission is to be God-centered, sharing the love of Jesus through worship, fellowship, and service. Because of this, we are a small church with a big heart to serve God and community.

We gather local children together around Christmas to share a make-it-take-it wood project they can take home and give as a gift or keep for themselves. Each Christmas season we put on a Journey to Bethlehem which takes people from the prophecy of the birth of Jesus to the stable. Live animals enhance the journey, and each year nearly 100 people come and walk through in the space of two hours. Nearly everyone in the church participates to bring the Good News to people who come from miles away – rain, ice, or snow.

As with many older congregations, Chatham Community Church is built on tradition and the community Memorial Day Parade offers yet another opportunity to be involved with the community. Two new members have joined the church simply because volunteers who do not walk in the parade stand in front of the church with cold water for parade participants.

The community trick-or-treat always is also treat for our volunteers who dress up, sit in front of the church, and pass out candy. The cool thing is every kid and parent gets a treat after they walk up the front steps of the church. If someone is not able to climb the steps, the volunteers go down, offering hot cider and other treats.

Last but certainly not least, did I mention the famous Chatham Apple Butter Festival, now celebrating its 50th year? Yes – and put on by the Community Church that cares. It is a cornucopia of deliciousness! Apple Butter is made on the premises and served on fresh, hot biscuits. Served is a full lunch and dinner menu featuring our homemade bean soup and chili, as well as the best donuts ever – made fresh hourly. Bluegrass music and Celtic music fill the air. A magician, birds of prey, and play area allow kids to be just kids. Crafters and picture opportunities are in autumn abundance. (on a side note, when I was a child, I attended this festival every year with my mom – so much fun!)

For the last few years, the staff, which includes just about everyone who attends Chatham Church as well as their family members, all wear Chatham Church apparel. No one can fail to recognize the Apple Butter Festival as a church event, something I failed to note as a youth. We now invite people to church and interact with the larger community as we share smiles and love with the attendees.

A Matured Church

There have been difficult times, to be sure. A gentleman once told me he wondered who would be the last one left to lock the doors for a final time. And just when I stood in front of the church and said that it was okay that we were a middle-aged church, when we thought no new children would grace our doorstep, we did a prayer walk around the community and five new children started attending! God works in mysterious and wonderful ways.

The guiding motto of Chatham Community Federated Church is “Joined in the Spirit” I believe this was a great marriage that has matured the faith of both denominations. We are truly joined in the Spirit and continue to feel the presence of the Spirit in our midst. We laugh together, cry together, and praise God together, because we believe God is good … all the time.

*Patty Humphress is pastor of the Chatham Community Federated Church in Medina, OH (Chatham Township, Firelands District)

Whether in a quaint, rural setting or in a bustling, ever-changing urban area, every church has a unique story to tell. Each works with its own story-line and parameters with its blessings and challenges.

Stay tuned for The Heart of a Small Church Part 5: Age is Just a Number – Bigelow United Methodist Church