‘This is not right’: Pastor says United Methodist Church decision to close small church was unfair
A small Ohio congregation belonging to The United Methodist Church is dismayed by the regional body's decision to close the church later this month as part of a process the pastor said was unfair.
Struthers United Methodist Church, a congregation with a membership of 87 and average weekly worship attendance of around 35 to 40 people, was recently told by UMC officials that their church will be permanently closed on May 21.
Struthers UMC Pastor Douglas Theobald told The Christian Post that he believed the East Ohio Conference and his local district superintendent did not properly follow the procedure for closure.
According to Theobald, the situation began last October when Struthers’ Staff Parish Relations Committee met with their district superintendent to discuss reports that the congregation was struggling financially.
“It was explained to her that was not the case, and the church was sound in the financial accounts. We questioned the sources she had contacted to obtain the information, as she had not contacted any of the church committee who oversite the finances,” Theobald recalled.
From there, the district superintendent requested an overview of the last 10 years of Struthers UMC’s operations, which would include records on attendance, expenses and other issues.
“This was set to begin in January of this year,” Theobald told CP. “A presentation was given by the DS and her staff. It was clear that the meeting was turning hostile as topics were discussed and repeated reminders of tasks not completed by the church where the focus.”
Theobald noted that a second meeting was held with district officials. The pastor described it as “more hostile than the previous meeting” and believes inaccurate information was presented about the church’s stability.
In late March, a charge conference was held to determine if Struthers UMC should be closed. Although Theobald said the charge conference was overwhelmingly opposed to closing the church, he told CP that support for keeping the congregation open “seemed to fall on deaf ears.”
After the charge conference, a district committee known as Land and Buildings held a meeting and voted in favor of closure, with the decision to close being told to the church last month.
“I believe this is not right,” Theobald said to CP. “This is a small church that continues to serve the members and the community.”
“It will never be a large church as the community is only around 10,000. This whole process — which it never was — was unfair. The church was misled in that the process would result in closure.”
Theobald noted he and church members “no longer have any options but to close,” noting that because of the denomination’s “Trust Clause,” the building and funds belong to the UMC.
“The church is voting in the upcoming weeks to reform as a new church. We have received offers to meet in locations within our community, but not our church,” he said.
“The sad part of this is the UMC will sell our buildings and spend the monies received from something they never spent one dime building or maintaining. This church merged into UMC in 1968.”
Mahoning Valley District Superintendent, the Rev. Abby Auman, who oversees the district that Struthers UMC belongs to, told CP that last fall, “Struthers UMC experienced a financial event that set into motion our denomination’s viability review.”
“Following the guidelines in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016, we engaged in discussion around historical trends and present realities,” Auman said. “Based on the financial information available, the district board of church location and building and the cabinet and bishop voted to close the church.”
Auman added that the congregation had never engaged in a process of possible disaffiliation from the UMC, nor could they currently hold a disaffiliation vote due to the expiration of a deadline to enter the process.
The UMC East Ohio Conference has, at present, approximately 650 member congregations.