COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. — A prayer for survival rose from the back of the church last Sunday.
“I pray for this church, getting through this age-discrimination thing,” said William Gackstetter, as the gray-haired heads around him nodded in agreement.
Gackstetter and other members of the Grove United Methodist Church in Cottage Grove are upset enough that their church is closing in June. What makes it worse is that their church is reopening in November — pretty much without them.
The church wants to attract more young families. The present members, most of them over 60 years old, will be invited to worship somewhere else. A memo recommends that they stay away for two years, then consult the pastor about attending the Cottage Grove location again.
Officials say the church needs a reset, and reopening the church is the best way to appeal to younger people.
But the older church members say they see that as an insult.
“This is totally wrong,” said Gackstetter’s wife, Cheryl. “They are discriminating against us because of our age.”
After the plan was explained by a pastor on Jan. 5, she said, “I called him a hypocrite. I said, ‘You are kicking us out of our church.’ ”
Founded 30 years ago
Thirty years ago, the Peaceful Grove Church was founded by pastor Jim Baker in an elementary school.
It moved into its own building, then merged with a larger church in Woodbury in 2008. Today, the churches are the Woodbury and Cottage Grove branches of the Grove United Methodist Church.
The Cottage Grove church struggled with membership and finances. Seven years ago, Methodist officials said they could no longer pay for a minister for the church.
That’s when the Cottage Grove church switched to lay ministry, with weekly sermons by members of the church. The decision was made by two leadership teams within the two-church organization.
“This created a lot of independence. We kept it going,” said church founder Baker. That’s why the members are so fiercely loyal, he said.
Recently, the church’s attendance and finances have stabilized, with an average of 25 people worshiping weekly.
‘How to reach new people'
But stabilizing isn’t good enough. Cottage Grove is growing quickly and the church should be growing, said the Rev. Dan Wetterstrom, head of the two-location Grove church.
“We have not figured out how to reach new people there,” he said.
Cottage Grove is underserved by churches, he said. The benchmark is one church for every 1,000 residents, so 37,000-population Cottage Grove might be expected to have 37 churches. In fact, it has only 13.
In a memo summarizing a Dec. 12 meeting, Wetterstrom said the church could soon die, saying, “… unless something changes, we are nearing the end.”
The answer is a new appeal to younger families.
“Jesus said we are called to reach new people,” said Wetterstrom.
He said that Methodists’ regional Annual Conference is paying $250,000 to restart the church. They have hired a specialist in starting new churches — Jeremy Peters.
Peters, 32, has moved to Cottage Grove with his wife and three children. He is working with community groups, laying the groundwork for the relaunch, probably in November.
“It’s a new thing with a new mission for a new target,” said Peters, “and a new culture.”
The older members will not be physically barred from attending, but the expectation is that they will not.
“We are asking them to let this happen,” said Wetterstrom. “For this to be truly new, we can’t have the core group of 30 people.
“The members of the church have other options. They can come to Woodbury during this phase.”
How long should they stay away?
Wetterstrom’s timetable for the transition explains: “15-18 months after weekly worship is launched at Cottage Grove campus — those members of the current campus who are interested in migrating back … connect with (Peters) about how to best make that transition.”
Church leadership has suggested the present-day members could be welcome if they supported the youthful new identity of the church. “If they are on board with that, they are welcome to attend and engage,” said Peters. The plan was communicated to all church members.
But not all of those members feel welcome.
“The past few weeks have seen confusion, anxiety and anger,” said member Ron Purcell, as he opened the Jan. 12 service.
The 35 people in the pews listened, their faces grim. The service continued with a 6-year-old recorded sermon, and a puppet show by church founder Baker.
Afterward, William Gackstetter said the aging membership has been asked to continue maintaining the church until it reopens without them.
“They want us to mow the lawn and shovel the snow,” he said. “As if anyone would do that. This whole plan makes me sick. I believe it’s evil.”
Cheryl Gackstetter added: “We are supposed to be silent partners.”
She admitted that the membership was not exactly youthful.
“We are mostly 60 and up,” she said. They don’t want to go where they are not wanted, she said.
“They want to create renewal,” said church founder Baker. “I am all for renewal, but why not do it with everyone? It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
He questioned the wisdom of trying to reopen the church in the same building and with the same name, with the pews full of vibrant young families.
‘This church is very kind to us'
In other words, people like the Knapps.
Stella and Jon Knapp of Cottage Grove were the only members with children at the service, and they say they hate the plan.
“If it happened, I wouldn’t come here any more,” said Stella, 34. As six-year members, the couple loves the church, and do not see how any Methodist miracle can draw in more people like them.
But did it bother them to be the youngest members at the Sunday service?
“Not at all,” said Jon, 34. “This church is very kind to us and our children.”
The article “Best path to a younger flock?” that was published on Forum News Service on Jan. 19 misstated the age and family status of pastor Jeremy Peters. He is 32, and has three children.
The Grove church — with locations in Woodbury and Cottage Grove — plans to shut the Cottage Grove location in June, re-open it in November, and is asking present Cottage Grove worshippers not to attend that re-opened location until 2022.
On Jan. 23, a Methodist church spokesperson made these clarifications, and changes have been made in the article:
A man described as a visiting pastor at the Cottage Grove location was a 13-year pastor of the larger two-church organization.
A decision to switch to lay-led ministry in the Cottage Grove location was made by two leadership teams within the church. The article said the decision was made by church officials.
The plan to close the Cottage Grove location and re-open it later was communicated to all church members. The article did not specify to whom the communications were directed.
The larger two-location church organization did not have any communication regarding changes in financial support related to the plan. A Cottage Grove member was quoted in the article, saying she was expected to continue contributing to the church.
The plan encourages present Cottage Grove attendees to return to the Cottage Grove location in 2022, after consultation with the new pastor. The article said they would be able to “reapply,” but no formal re-application to the Methodist church would be needed.