For more than a century and a half, Faith United Methodist Church has been the place of worship for Methodists in Farmington. But next year, the old church will close its doors, to be replaced by a new church aimed at millennials.
The closing of the 160-year-old church is in line with the Minnesota United Methodist Church’s goal to reach out to a younger generation and build their waning congregations. But some members of the church worry that the change may exclude the elderly population.
“It’s such a mixed-up, hurt feeling all in one,” said Phyllis Betzold, a member of Faith United for 65 years.
Betzold said the congregation was shocked last month when their bishop told them the church’s governing body planned to close their building and start up a new site outside of Farmington. “We were just stunned. Everybody looked at each other and said ‘What?’ ”
She said many older members are worried about getting to a church on the outskirts of town, and some have even considered leaving the Methodist denomination.
Bishop Bruce Ough, who oversees the Dakotas and Minnesota Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church, said although it may be difficult for some members to understand, the church needs to focus on recruiting younger — and secular — people to keep the faith from continuing to decline, which will require a more welcoming building in a new location.
“It’s time for something radically different,” he said.
To replace Faith United, the conference will first launch a satellite church out of Rosemount United Methodist Church in a neutral facility, like a public school or community space, so people who aren’t currently members will feel more comfortable coming to services, Ough said. The new site will open sometime in the next year and Faith United will likely close next July.
Multi-site churches are typically started in communities where there aren’t any United Methodist churches or, as is the case in Farmington, in a new location that’s more attractive to young people. In Minnesota, Methodist leaders opened five multi-site ministries from 2009 to 2013. During that period, they opened 18 new churches and closed 17.
Churches usually close when there are continuously fewer than 20 people attending services, said Christa Meland, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Newer churches — those less than seven years old — average about 80 people at every service, she said.
Ough said the Rosemount church seemed like a perfect fit for the conference’s mission because it’s seated in a growing city.
Rosemount United’s lead pastor, the Rev. Karen Bruins, said the church has built a strong connection to the community through tutoring at the elementary school and volunteering at local shelters, which has possibly helped with its success. The church also has programs for children and different worship styles offered for members of all ages.
“We see a lot of young families — families that are just having their first babies, families with young children,” Bruins said. “We have a very strong children’s ministry and I think that’s been appealing.”
Faith United’s senior pastor, the Rev. Kevin Fox, said the new church will make an effort to reach out to younger adults through social media — a tactic he says is crucial to gain the attention of millennials.
But Jeff Partington, a former member of Faith United, said he doubted the new efforts would drum up interest.
“I don’t think that just because you build a new building 100 people are going to show up for church,” he said.
Partington stepped down from his position as chairman of Faith United’s board of trustees after church officials announced the closing. Now, he’s thinking about leaving the conference and possibly joining a Lutheran church. Some of the older members will likely just stop going to church altogether, he said, because they don’t agree with the direction the conference is headed and they feel thrown to the side.
Though the new site is aimed at young folks, Fox said, its purpose is “not to be exclusive of the elderly; it’s trying to build a place that’s for both.”
Fox will leave the church this spring to allow for a new pastor who specializes in transitioning churches.
Ough said that there’s never a “good way” to close a church and that he understands why some members are frustrated. But he hopes they’ll be willing to let go of Faith United to make room for a new church.
“We’re really trying to be careful to move at a pace that allows for adequate attention to the grief that people are feeling … but at the same time we’re very, very firm and clear that we are going to do a new thing in the Farmington community,” he said.
Meghan Holden is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.