By Allison Redmond
COLUMBIA—An aging church facing an uncertain future has decided to step up in faith and embrace a forward-focused action plan.
Rehoboth United Methodist Church has been serving its local community since 1911. Today, the congregation is a physical representation of a church filled with history and devout ministry. However, the past few years have brought a new reality to the church: without a younger generation to carry on the ministry of the church, its future is unclear.
Elaine Comstock has worked at Rehoboth UMC for the past 18 years, serving in a variety of roles including the nursery attendant and administrative assistant.
Comstock said during her time at the church she has witnessed a considerable decrease in the number of church attendees, especially youth.
“When I first started, we were (printing) 175 bulletins on Sundays. (Now), I do 70,” she said.
Even with such a decline in church attendance, Comstock said she still has hope for the future of the church. For her, that hope is found in a congregation that is willing to do what is necessary to see the church grow.
“Nobody has said, ‘I’m washing my hands of this, I’m going to go somewhere else,’” Comstock said. “There’s still a group of people who want to make Rehoboth work. I find that encouraging.”
Dr. Constance “Connie” Nelson Barnes was appointed to Rehoboth UMC in June 2017. She said coming alongside the church was an eye-opening experience for her.
“I realized that the membership was much smaller than I had thought,” Barnes said. “And as a result of that, how do we move forward? Because, with the dwindling membership and all these facilities, how will you run and care for all of them? ”
Over the last two years, Barnes has been working with the congregation to set a clear vision and plan for the future of the church.
One resource the church is using to plan for the future is the Forward Focus process, a conference-orchestrated plan for church revitalization unique to the individual church. The process takes about three to four months per church and involves looking inward—analyzing finances, membership, attendance and facilities—as well as outward, trying to understand the current needs of the community.
Rehoboth has been walking through this program since December. Barnes said the process has brought a new energy to the church.
“I believe that (Forward Focus) has energized the congregation, in terms of what we need to do to move forward,” she said.
On June 9, 2019, Rev. Barnes, along with the Columbia District superintendent and a congregational consultant, presented the congregation with the plan developed by a Forward Focus team. The plan included five areas in which the congregation has been asked to commit to: leadership development, mission and ministry, facility updates, stewardship and discipleship.
Each is broken down into smaller steps the team determined would help accomplish the goal.
Karen Pratt, a member of the church’s Forward Focus team, said they are looking at the past, present and future of Rehoboth in order to help the church thrive.
“I think it was accepted pretty well,” Pratt said.
She said the members seem to be on the same page, with a desire to increase church attendance.
“Everybody has to take ownership of what we’re trying to do,” she said, noting the church is following the Holy Spirit and stepping out in faith. “As a mature congregation, we have skills, knowledge, wisdom (and) some have resources. All of these things can contribute to the life of the church.
“I believe it’s going to take the mature members to reach the next generation of faithful disciples.”
Barnes said that the congregation is aware that in order to move forward, there needs to be change.
She sees God leading the church to a brighter future, but she said that future will not come without a little bit of chaos.
“(We’re) changing, and in the process of change, there are growing pains,” Barnes said. “I realized that transformation can’t take place without chaos, some uncertainty (and) some conflict.”
One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, Barnes said, a church member said something that has become her tagline: “We’re not dying, we’re just changing.”