Out of church closings arise new ministries of hope

April 18, 2016
Submitted by the Rev. Paul Kottke
Superintendent, Metropolitan District

A dominate story of human culture is that death is final and that closure is the end. The story of our faith, the Gospel Story, is that out of death comes resurrection, out of endings comes new beginnings. We are in the Easter season, 50 days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost, which affirms the various ways we are to understand resurrection and new life. Indeed, this was the essence of the early church’s understanding of faith. This is the essence of what it means to be Christian today.

On at least three occasions, the risen Lord is not at first recognized. In the garden, Mary assumes that he is the gardener. Not until he speaks tenderly to her does she recognize him. This is perhaps one of the most powerful passages in all of scriptures (John 20). There is his appearance to the eleven in the Upper Room (John 20 and Luke 24).  And of course, his walk to Emmaus (Luke 24).

The new life that follows a closing and resurrection that follows death are not simply replicas of what existed before. But they carry with them the spirit, the sacred essence. And so, we are able to powerfully declare “Oh death, where is your victory! ” Of course, it is one thing to declare new life following death. It is quite another to truly believe. It is our human tendency to hold onto what is. Indeed, one of the great judgments of organized religion is that over the centuries, it has become the “keeper of the status quo”.

Recently, The Denver Post carried a front page article about the closing of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. This came as a surprise for many people and that it was on the front page was even shocking. (I think that tells us that organized religion carries significant influence in a time when many would readily declare that church is irrelevant.)

This coming Annual Conference, I will be bringing three petitions for church closures from the Denver Metro District. This is not being done casually. And above all it is not being done simply as an administrative function of a dying denomination.

With every ounce of my faith, I believe that the spirit of God is moving through Denver, through the Rocky Mountain Conference, and through the Yellowstone Conference in a powerful way. Shame on us if we do not mobilize our churches and our ministries to embrace this Spirit! But it will take risk. It will take courage. There will be those who will decry the change.

Of the three churches — Merritt Memorial, Alameda Heights, and now St. Paul — the time had simply come. Not unlike when the medical doctor walks into the room and invites the family members to begin thinking of hospice for their dying loved one. Any who have experience hospice have found it to be a most sacred time. Rather than denial to the bitter end until it is too late, hospice allows a sacred time for telling stories, for honoring the love, for honoring the relationships and the experiences of a time past. And then with a sense of dignity, embracing the final moments. Merritt’s final service was Sunday, Jan. 31. St. Paul's will be May 22. Alameda Heights will be June 12. The services are scheduled for the afternoon to allow others (clergy and laity) to come and offer honor and respect.

But the story of the Metro District is anything but dying. Out of the three churches, there will be two new ministries occurring in their location. Gracia Divina at Alameda Heights. Belong UMC at St. Paul. Merritt will empower the formation of a northwest Denver ministry, anchored by Highlands UMC, Lakewood UMC, and Wheat Ridge UMC. The closures did not occur to make way for the new ministries. The closures occurred because of their own life cycle. But in their closing is the Easter Resurrection.

Size is not the issue – vitality is. John Collins UMC has created a Spiritual Village, under the guidance of the Rev. Al Scarffe. Bethany UMC serves uniquely within neighborhood. Berkeley UMC has a multi-cultural ministry. Goode Centennial UMC has laid the ground work for a multi-cultural ministry.  Montclair UMC has laid the ground work for a new ministry into the Montclair/Stapleton neighborhoods. First UMC Aurora and Burns UMC both have strong multi-cultural ministries.

We have 45 United Methodist Churches in the Denver Metro District. As I declared at our Annual Meeting in February – now is the time! These 45 United Methodist Churches can indeed be anchors of hope, health, and courage for the communities to which we are called to be disciples of the Living God.

May it be so!