Rev. Nancy Johnson is the pastor of St. James UMC and the Beulah Retreat Center. Beulah Retreat Center was once Beulah UMC, a church that closed years ago. This is a story about a closed church and God moving within Nancy through a simple gesture of faithfulness.
“Not Dead Yet!”
A “Vital Congregations” Story
St. James UMC/Beulah Retreat Center
Pastor Nancy Johnson
Just over a year and a half ago, I was appointed to serve as part-time pastor of St. James United Methodist Church in Gladstone and to help facilitate the Beulah Retreat Center for the Lynchburg District. The Beulah church closed about 10 years ago when the retreat center started. Since the closing of their sister church, the small and aging congregation at St. James has struggled on their own to remain vital.
Upon arriving, I began asking some questions: “What can we do as a congregation to reach out in the name of Christ to our community?” As someone who has spent many years in ministry serving in various staff positions with larger congregations, my natural inclination is to think in terms of “programs”…organizing people to do things…”What can we start?” “What new thing should we be doing?” Over the last year, the congregation has participated in more mission projects than ever before. We have expanded our outreach to children and families. However, as time has elapsed, God has shown me that true vitality can take many forms; it often emerges in unexpected ways and in unlikely places.
I am often at the Retreat Center on the weekends. It is important to understand that it’s not the kind of place you will pass on your way to somewhere else….it is on a isolated road that gets very little traffic. Hours can go by without a single car ever driving by! From all outward appearances, it is a dead church that lost its vitality years ago. There are several family cemeteries on the grounds. I often see friends and relatives stopping by to pay their respects to loved ones, to bring flowers for the graves, to remember a once vital life.
Occasionally, the St. James folks share stories with me about “the good ol’ days” when their church was on a four-point charge with Beulah. They remember Sunday School picnics on the lawn, youth events, hymn sings, revivals, bible schools…at time when their church was alive and vital. Even though only a handful of people remained when Beulah closed, I began wondering what happened to those people…”where are they now?” Some, I was told, joined other churches. Some have since died. But the rest just stopped attending…anywhere. I also began to find out about the numerous people that were once a part of St. James that stopped attending years ago. Some got mad about something and left angry. Some have gotten too old to get out anymore. Some moved away or attend elsewhere now. But many just stopped coming altogether.
So last December before Christmas, I decided to adorn the old Beulah church and sign with a couple of simple wreaths. I’m not sure why, but it just seemed like the right thing to do. My two teenagers failed to see the wisdom of this, especially when I asked for their help: “Why are we doing this again?” they whined. “No one is going to see it anyway!” “Maybe not,” I responded, “but there was a time when this church was very important to the people in this community. You never know what this might mean to someone passing by during the holidays.” So, not unlike those frequent cemetery visitors, we placed our Christmas decorations on this dead church to honor the life of the vital congregation that was once there.
Christmas came and went. Months later, long after the wreaths on the Beulah church had been taken down and forgotten, St. James had the rare pleasure of two visitors one Sunday morning. Upon meeting Joleen and Milly Walker, I was overjoyed to discover that these two sisters were former members of the Beulah congregation.
After the service concluded, Milly pulled me aside to chat privately. With tears in her eyes, she asked, “Are you the one who put the wreaths on the doors of our church.” “Yes,” I replied. “It is such a beautiful old church!” Tears of joy began to stream down her cheeks as she shared with me how much this simple act meant to her and her family. She began telling me stories of the church and of her family, how active they were at one time, how much she missed it and how hard it was for them when the church closed. Since that time, they had not been attending church anywhere regularly. They tried “visiting around,” but the Beulah church was home to them and nowhere else felt quite right. As the daughter of a UM preacher, the spouse of a UM pastor and now a UM pastor myself, I have moved 30 times in my life. My faith memories are not tied to a particular place or church building. But as this dear lady continued to pour out her heart to me, I began to recall the heartfelt cries of the Israelites of the Old Testament, when they were in exiled in Babylon and longed to worship in Jerusalem once again. For them, God dwelt in that place like nowhere else (read Psalm 137: “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?”, v.4). I was beginning to understand.
Then she said, “I can’t tell you what it meant to me to drive by the church, see those wreaths and discover that someone still cared!”
After everyone left that day, I found myself sitting alone on the front pew. I needed to take a moment to thank God for blessing me with the idea to nail up a couple of wreaths, and that He used that very simple gesture to touch the heart of someone that needed to see and feel the love of God in Christ. Vitality was there….a heartbeat….a pulse….glimmer of hope!
God provided a way to connect with this family, to let them know that Christ and the church still care about them and that the St. James family welcomes them with open arms! We now had the opportunity to help them create some new faith memories.
Even though St. James has been on life support for a while and the vital signs and statistics indicate that it may be time to pull the plug, God has continued to allow this congregation, now in its 160th year, to survive for a while longer. Maybe it’s because there are a lot more “Millies” out there that need to be reconnected to the church. Maybe there are more stories that need to be told, more pain that needs to be healed, more bridges that need to be built and more memories that need to be honored.
God continues to show me that for St. James, becoming a vital congregation is not so much about starting new programs or following a “one-size-fits-all” prescription for vitality. It’s more about having personal encounters with people for Christ’s sake, hearing the heartbeat of their faith as they share their stories, and helping them connect to the life-saving love and grace that Christ and the church offers to everyone.
So often, we want an overwhelming response, but God sends a single answer; we want a tidal wave, but God provides a trickle; we want fireworks, but God lights a solitary candle; we aspire to do great things, but God asks us to faithfully do small things with great love in His name….
I look forwarding to meeting more “Millies!”