First United Methodist sees renewed enthusiasm after unofficial split

Published 9:00 am Saturday, November 11, 2023

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Despite losing a significant number of members — even ones in key roles — leaders of LaGrange First United Methodist Church say others have stepped up and the church continues to thrive.

After the church’s vote in August on whether to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church failed to get the required supermajority to officially split, many longtime First United Methodist Church members left to form the Wesley Methodist Church of LaGrange.  The new church appears to be thriving as well. 

Wesley officially held their chartering service on Oct. 15 and continues to grow.

“The split was unfortunate and unnecessary, but I believe in many ways turned out to be a blessing for this church,” Chair of Staff Parish Relations Heather Graham said.

Interim Minister Dr. David Naglee, who was placed after the unofficial split, said one of their first goals moving forward after was to continue the outreach ministries the church has always been known for, like Meals on Wheels and the soup kitchen.

Steve Cole, head of missions and volunteers for LaGrange FUMC, said they initially had concerns about being able to continue the programs with significantly fewer people, but they were surprised by the number of people who stepped up.

“I was most surprised the Sunday after the disaffiliation vote,” Cole said. “We were just astonished at the number of people that were there and we’re going, ‘Oh, where’d all these people come from?’ It was kind of our first indication that there were so many people that wanted to stay in the church and wanted to be involved and keep things going.”

“We’ve had a surge of people who have come forward and with their hand up and said ‘I’m ready to serve.’ In some of our areas we actually have more people on the list to serve and do things than we’ve ever had before,” Cole said.

Cole said one of the most impressive examples he has seen is their Meals on Wheels ministry. Last Monday, the church delivered 123 meals out of our kitchen and fed 65 homeless people. That’s almost 200 meals and that’s actually a few more than the average, Cole said.

Cole said the church has been doing the Meals on Wheels program for over 25 years and it has spread to other churches. 

“We do Monday. Another church does Tuesday and another does Wednesday and so on,” Graham said.

Cole said that they also worked together to restart a trunk-or-treat event.

“Over the last couple of years, we’ve estimated about 1000 to 1200 people have come to that event, and we found out that it had been taken off the plate by someone else. We said, ’Wait a minute, that’s one of our biggest outreaches to the community.’ So all of a sudden people just started saying, ‘I’ll do this and I’ll do that’ and within three weeks, the whole thing was put into place,” Cole said. “We probably had 1200 people that came through the parking lot that Saturday afternoon.”

Dr. Naglee said that the community has also stepped up to help, especially LaGrange College, which is a Methodist affiliated college. 

Graham and Cole said that much of the resurgence comes from new members or returning members.

“It’s an exciting time. It’s I’ve been in the church over 40 years, and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the kind of excitement that I’m seeing,” Cole said.

Naglee said that there was a period soon after the vote where members mourned losing the fellow congregants that they had gone to church together in some cases for decades.

“I got here Oct. 1, so they’d basically had a month and a half to kind of start processing that. By the time I got here, they were moving from that to where we have an opportunity to do something new and different. Let’s just seize that,” Naglee said. “Every day, you bump into folks that you’ve seen, and there’s still this oddness or uncomfortableness, but yet we’re still trying to be Christian and be kind to one another.”

“Now I hear less and less of those kinds of conversations and more and more about us moving forward and how will we face the future and what does that look like here for us now,” he said.

Naglee said that they have also had people from other churches that are being active with LaGrange FUMC who are just there to support the church.

“We have a couple of people on the Meals on Wheels team that were disaffiliators that have said, ‘I love this ministry. I’m not I’m not giving up this ministry. It doesn’t make any difference where I go to church,’” Cole said.

“While there are things to lament, there are also things to be thankful and grateful for,” Graham said. “Maybe this is a divine plan to have us fulfill a mission that God wants us to fulfill and perhaps the other church might be fulfilling a different mission that God needs people to fulfill.”

Graham and Cole both said there is renewed enthusiasm at LaGrange FUMC and that people are returning to the church after being inactive.

“All of a sudden, they’re showing back up and not only are they showing up, but they’re showing up with their hand raised wanting to help,” Cole said.

Graham said that many of the people returning are from a younger generation.

“We’re now a much younger average-age congregation than it was before. I think that builds sustainability for the church for the future because you’ve got to have an influx of younger members to come in,” Graham said. “I think that being open and inclusive to hearing the voices of the young families and wanting to know what their wants and needs are is something that I think they find appealing.”