Grand Forks' Wesley United Methodist Church to close in June
The final service at the church, named “Celebration Sunday” by church leadership, will be on June 5.
GRAND FORKS — Wesley United Methodist Church, one of the oldest churches in Grand Forks, is closing in June after nearly 150 years of ministry. The final service at the church, named “Celebration Sunday” by church leadership, will be on June 5.
While the service that day will mark the end of Wesley UMC, Pastor Jeff Lathrop doesn’t want it to be entirely sad. He says the invitation to gather at Wesley UMC’s final service has been extended to everybody in the Wesley UMC community, including former clergy.
“It’s hard to say that we’re going to celebrate when it feels more like a death or a funeral,” said Lathrop. “But as a pastor, even entering into the midst of conversations with family after the death of a loved one, I always try to make a point to say ‘Friends, this is not the last word. Death is not the end, it’s the beginning of eternal life for them.’”
After Wesley UMC closes in June, it will live on in another way. In March of this year, when members of the church voted to close the church, they also chose to leave a legacy gift that the Dakotas Annual Conference, the governing body for United Methodist Churches in North and South Dakota, will use to start a new church in Grand Forks. The legacy gift will include money from sale of the building, parsonage and any investments.
“The hope is that the birth of a new church would really bring some new vitality to the community,” said Lathrop.
Lantrop started as pastor at Wesley UMC in 2018, and he says at that point, the congregation was already shrinking. The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated those trends.
“A lot of churches struggled through the pandemic, but it only hastened something that we were already struggling with addressing,” said Lathrop.
The building in which Wesley UMC is housed was previously a high school, and its size became a burden as congregation numbers lagged, said Lathrop. When discussions about the future of the church started, the building was the first issue addressed.
“The church doesn’t belong to the people, it’s God’s church and we’re just stewards of it,” said Beth Valentine, a member of the Wesley UMC Leadership Council. “It’s a small part in a larger whole, so we got to the point where the cost of maintaining the building was starting to interfere with our ability to do ministry, and for me, it was easy to take that first step and consider selling the building.”
From there, discussions about the future of Welsey UMC grew more general. Looking at trends in the church, Lathrop said the congregation’s capacity to give to the church was not sustainable.
“Part of your membership is to give your time and your energy to the ministry so that it is sustainable, not just the finances. Finances usually get the focus, and obviously, it’s an easy point to make concerning the unsustainable path, but volunteerism wasn’t there, either.”
Mark Guy, chair of the Wesley UMC Leadership Council, said there was no single issue that led to the decline in membership at Wesley UMC, but that it is part of a pattern in the United States.
“I don’t think the decline is unique,” said Guy. “I feel that it’s just a part, perhaps, of the time we’re living in.”
The role of LGBT individuals in the United Methodist Church has recently been a point of contention in the denomination as a whole, and Lathrop says it may have contributed to the decline in membership at Wesley UMC. But, he said, it was not the only reason.
The United Methodist Church maintains the stance that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and the church does not allow pastors to be “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” or conduct same-sex weddings, according to a statement on the United Methodist Church website.
However, there is disagreement about this stance within the denomination, and in 2019, a special session of the General Conference, the governing body of the church, met to discuss how to address the role of LGBT individuals in the church. At that special session, the conference reaffirmed its stances regarding homosexuality. Still, liberal UMC churches, especially in the U.S. and western Europe, have pushed back against those restrictions.
Leaders in the church were set to discuss the topic further at the 2020 General Conference, which was delayed two years in a row because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in March, was delayed until 2024. On May 1, a group of churches broke off from UMC to create a new, theologically conservative Methodist denomination, the Global Methodist Church.
“I would say that, yeah, that contributed to the hastening of loss of membership, but at the same time, I wouldn’t say it was a major piece when the trends were such that it was already not looking great,” said Lantrop.
Guy also said denominational disagreements about LGBT individuals in the church could be a small contributing factor to the decline in membership at the church.
Lathrop said people on either side of the spectrum left — both liberal and conservative.
“I had been upfront about what has been happening in the denomination, but I also said exactly what our bishop said at the time — let’s not make a decision until a decision has been made,” said Lathrop.
Wesley UMC is one of the oldest churches in Grand Forks, and according to Lathrop, some claim it is the oldest. Its history stretches back to the first Methodists to come to Grand Forks in 1872, and the first church building was constructed in 1874.
Guy has been a member at the church for seven years, but knows many in the congregation who were baptized there as children.
“For many members, it’s been really sad,” he said.
Though the decision to close the church and create a legacy gift was a hard one to make, said Guy, church leadership was unanimous in the decision.
“We feel it's a vital decision for the future of this church, and it’s providing a legacy,” said Guy.
Valentine, who started attending Wesley UMC in 2019, says the way she was welcomed into the church and given opportunities to serve made the church a special place.
“I am happy that we’ll continue that tradition on with our legacy gift,” she said. “The name might not be the same, but we’re still contributing.”