A few weeks ago, I was on the way back to the church from Restore Hope, where I had served communion. I decided to stop by the old church building that had been Grace Methodist Episcopal. This congregation predated our own here at UUMC, but merged with our congregation in 1928, just six years after a bustling group of people had started meeting on a porch just north of our present day building. At the time, the congregation at University Methodist met in a wooden tabernacle, but the congregation at Grace M.E. had a permanent building that had a story all its own. You might remember the 9/25/12 blog post in celebration of the 101st anniversary in which I scanned the original Tulsa World Article article “Church built in a Day: Pastor Doesn’t Know” and reflected on the day the congregation accomplished that feat because they were tired of meeting in the school basement! As you see from the photo, the church building was sold to our German cousins, the United Brethren Church when the Methodist congregations merged. Interestingly, the United Brethren denomination later merged with the Methodists to form the United Methodist Church in 1968. After that congregation died or merged with another, the church building was (and continues to be) used as a recording studio, for many years co-owned by Leon Russell, where some fairly notable albums were recorded. (Urban Tulsa Weekly did a profile on the re-opening of the “Church Studio” in 2009, and though it is hard to find on the web, our “insider member” at the TU library (Chris Jones) tracked it down for me and I can get you a copy if interested!)
Hila Church also records in the 50th anniversary History of UUMC that the years of the merger between Grace and University Methodist Episcopal Churches was not easy. She writes, “The days of unification were trying days, but the membership, from both churches, was strong in faith and was truly led by the Holy Spirit through the ordeals of understanding and cooperation.” One aspect that had precipitated the merger of the two congregations was that the neighborhood was beginning to deteriorate around the Grace ME Church building at 3rd and Trenton, and the financial turbulence of 1928 was also being felt by members in both congregations. Can you imagine being part of the membership of an established church which merged with a newer congregation and then re-locating to that newer church’s facility—a wooden tabernacle? There must have already been some “Holy Stuff” (mentioned in last week’s article) and things with stories attached to that congregation. In the merger, those stories needed to be combined with the narrative that guided the congregation meeting on College Ave. So, it was an attitude of grace and openness that led to the two congregations becoming one in 1928. Hila Church mentions that the proceeds from the sale of the building at 3rd and Trenton financed a new Sunday School building and an expansion onto the tabernacle at University Methodist. The following year, the plans were proposed for the structure we currently enjoy. Though the Great Depression made some alterations to that original plan, the congregation persevered and built a place in which people to this day find solace, inspiration, and beauty.
This comes to mind in part because recently at our “Reignite Workshops” some of the attendees from other UM churches lamented that their own congregations were dwindling. Some of our church members who attended and were in conversation with these folks were interested in starting the conversation of formalizing some kind of plan to either merge with those congregations or invite their membership to unite with our congregation if it was a good fit and those other churches closed their doors, so they brought it up at a recent Church Council meeting. I relay this bit of history from our church’s story to show that blending church “DNA” usually carries some difficulties, but always leads to new possibilities. When the matter was brought up at Church Council, I mentioned that our District Superintendent has a process by which these kinds of arrangements are made, but it would probably mean a whole lot more to him if the interest of the church was conveyed by the church members rather than by me, the pastor.
My hunch, based on some things happening in Oklahoma City is that struggling churches in promising locations are going to be yoked to large and prosperous churches (such as St. Luke’s UMC, a congregation with 6000 members, $32 million in assets, raising $4 million a year for ministry), as “satellite locations” of that church’s ministry. That is what has happened with three churches facing closing their doors over the past couple years in the OKC metro area—they have been “reopened” as satellite locations (beaming in the sermon from St. Luke’s UMC, and tailoring worship to the particular context-including one satellite in a Spanish language setting). I don’t know of any plans to replicate that kind of arrangement here in Tulsa, but the “model” was showcased at Annual Conference last year, so it makes me wonder if the conversation isn’t happening, though the District Superintendent may be interested in implementing alternatives. In any case, it occurred to me that the “gospel hospitality” that Dr. Amy Oden preached about at the beginning of April is sometimes most keenly felt by our “cousins” in other Methodist congregations. How might we embody the “connectional spirit” with the most grace in a context where we see some of our sister churches struggling to keep their doors open?