One of the first United Methodist Church congregations to join the LGBT lobbying group, Reconciling Ministries Network, will close next month.
St. Paul United Methodist Church of Denver, Colorado, a theologically liberal congregation that became the third church to become a Reconciling congregation, will soon close its doors.
The Rev. Jessica Rooks, head of St. Paul UMC, told The Christian Post the final worship service will be held on Sunday, May 22.
"St. Paul has opened its doors and built relationships with the LGBTQ community, the homeless and hungry in Denver, those struggling with addition, and individuals who struggle to fit into the current culture. St. Paul UMC created a safe and welcoming place for all to experience the love of God," said Rooks.
Rooks also told CP that members are discerning where to attend after the final worship service takes place.
"Our members are in conversation about where they will go next, and many are reaching out to neighboring United Methodist churches to decide which congregation is the best fit," she continued. "They have a number of options in and around the city of Denver, and I am prayerful they each find a church home soon after the closing of St. Paul."
Founded in 1860, St. Paul was one of the first congregations to join what became known as Reconciling Ministries Network, an advocacy group that works to make the United Methodist Church more accepting of homosexuality and transgenderism.
In 1984, the St. Paul congregation joined RMN, being the first of several hundred congregations to have voted to affiliate with the LGBT advocacy organization.
M Barclay, spokesperson for RMN, provided CP with a statement regarding the news of one of their founding congregations shutting down.
"Reconciling Ministries Network is grateful for the ministry of St. Paul's United Methodist Church of Denver, especially for welcoming LGBTQ people at a time when so few were offering a safe place to worship," read the statement.
"Their witness was a catalyst for what has become a steadily growing network of more than 750 unique Reconciling communities across the country."
While some celebrate the history and actions of St. Paul UMC, others denounce their departure from traditional theology and argue that such a departure contributed to their decline.
Mark Tooley, president of the theologically conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy, told CP that St. Paul's fate comes as "no surprise."
"Few churches can long survive when primarily focused on political or social causes instead of Gospel evangelism," said Tooley.
"More broadly, only declining denominations surrender their biblical marriage teaching and invariably their decline accelerates. Reconciling type groups boast they're about open doors, but their cause inexorably leads to closing church doors."
At its peak, St. Paul had approximately 800 members. The nadir came in 1989, or five years after becoming a Reconciling Congregation, when the church had only 15 members.
By 2010, local media reported that the membership increased to about 250, with hundreds more active in the various charities that the congregation oversaw.
When asked by CP if she thought there was a connection between the Reconciling affiliation and St. Paul's membership woes, Rooks responded that she did not believe there to be a link.
"After becoming a Reconciling Congregation - one of the first three in the nation - the community experienced an increase in worship attendance, membership and community involvement," replied Rooks.
"In the last 10 years the congregation has experienced decline for a number of different reasons, and this spring the leadership and members decided it was time to close."
'A Death and Resurrection Story'
St. Paul UMC is one of three churches being closed in the Metropolitan Denver District, according to District Superintendent the Rev. Paul Kottke.
"Rising out of the closure of this historic church will come a new ministry, with a new vision for people who are not presently in our churches," said Kottke to CP. We're closing three churches in my district this year, and starting five new ministries, two of which are Hispanic.
Bishop Elaine Stanovsky, resident bishop for the Mountain Sky Area of The United Methodist Church, told CP that the start of the new ministries within the district show they are " leading into a season of new Wesleyan vitality in our region."
"We are helping churches in decline re-engage their neighborhoods, and when that's just not possible, we help them make 'end of life' decisions that give birth to new initiatives," said Stanovsky.
"We see St. Paul as a death and resurrection story. Just as St. Paul reached out to people outside the church in the 1980s, we continue to learn that new forms and styles of ministry can engage people who are not in our current congregations."