By the Rev. Matthew Alexander
LANCASTER—On Nov. 11, 2020, the Lynnwood United Methodist Church Council voted to begin discussions with its sister church, Grace UMC, regarding a future merger.
That vote became reality in October, as the two churches gathered as one: Grace-Lynnwood UMC.
But the Grace-Lynnwood story goes back with generations of a shared history.
A close history
In 1898, Grace UMC was organized within the Lancaster mill village. For years, Grace thrived on Brooklyn Avenue.
In the 1940s, about two miles away, a group of faithful women started a regular prayer group modeled after a traditional Methodist class. Bible reading, prayer, reflection and holy conversations shaped their life together and fueled their impulse to reach outside themselves. In 1947, this class grew into a church called Lynnwood UMC.
As the new church looked to build a meeting house, a few acres of land on Lynwood Drive were donated from a member of Grace UMC, and the people of Lynnwood began laying bricks.
Over the next several decades, both churches grew as they ministered to the families of Lancaster. In the 1990s, Grace began to sense a call to relocate to a larger plot of land to build a contemporary facility better suited to the mission of the church. By 1998, Grace had spent several years worshipping in a local elementary school, sold their former building and built a multipurpose sanctuary and Christian education building on Country Club Drive.
This move brought the two churches within one mile of each other, and their mission in Lancaster continued to grow.
On March 1, 2011, Lynnwood UMC launched a ministry to the Lancaster community called “The Bridge.” The Bridge quickly grew into a community-wide ministry including a partnership with dozens of churches and organizations over the next decade. Each Tuesday night, dozens from the Lancaster community were hosted at Lynnwood for a hot meal, fellowship, a time of worship and an optional bag of groceries. Around these tables, seasoned Christians served and shared meals with people who were new to the church, building relationships. The hot meal was prepared by a different group each week, including people from Grace UMC.
A shared life
On July 1, 2018, Grace and Lynnwood were gathered into a common charge, the Grace-Lynnwood Charge, with the Rev. Sh’Kur Francis serving as their first pastor. Francis fostered the relationship between the two churches, investing energy in the ministry of The Bridge and coordinating combined worship and outreach events.
In March 2020, during the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, Francis organized the two churches around a shared drive-in worship service, setting the stage for the two congregations to worship together and in-person throughout the pandemic.
On June 30, 2020, the Rev. Matthew Alexander was appointed to the Grace-Lynnwood Charge. It took no time to recognize the churches’ desire to deepen their shared life.
Within a few months, several members from each congregation vocalized desires to explore the possibility of merger.
Alexander began conversations with Rock Hill District Superintendent the Rev. Anthony Hodge and South Carolina Conference Congregational Development Director the Rev. James Friday to explore resourcing and support for merger.
The merger conversation proved to be very timely during fall 2020, when Lynnwood began to be concerned about a structural issue in their sanctuary. After hiring an engineer, the church council received a report that the facility was not safe to occupy, and the repair costs would likely be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
At the close of a prayerful and reflective meeting, Nov. 11, 2020, the Lynnwood church council voted unanimously to explore demolition and merger with Grace.
A few weeks later, with all details in the open, the Grace church council reciprocated with a unanimous vote to pursue merger conversations with Lynnwood.
The plan comes together
On Jan. 4, 2021, Grace-Lynnwood celebrated a new beginning for The Bridge with a ribbon cutting. A group of leaders from both churches, including Shirley Gaston, Brenda Horne, Claudia Johnson, Jerry Taylor, Rick Walters and Alexander dedicated the former Grace Men’s Building as the new home of The Bridge. In its first year in this new location, under the leadership of Rick Walters, 702 clients were served 11,067 pounds of food. (A video of the ribbon cutting can be found at https://glumc.org/the-bridge)
Over the next year, Alexander led the congregation in developing a plan for merger, a vision casting campaign and a communication network to support the process. A merger team was appointed including members from both congregations. Within the merger team, sub-teams investigated four main concerns of the merger process: prayer, communication, finance and properties.
First, the Prayer Team developed weekly prayer initiatives focused on the future of the church, as well as a daily prayer initiative based on Isaiah 43:19a, “See, I am doing a new thing!” Church members set their alarms for 4:31 p.m., so each day at that time, they prayed together asking God to direct them in the “new thing” God was doing among them.
Second, the Communications Team mailed letters, coordinated scheduling and prepared surveys to keep the churches connected with the process.
Third, the Finance Team reviewed the historical financial data of both churches and developed draft budgets for the new church with input from the properties team and the PPRC.
Finally, the Properties Team was charged with evaluating the properties of the two churches for future use by the new church. The Lynnwood church council gave the properties team the authority to recommend actions relating to the Lynnwood properties especially considering the demolition concerns. Over the course of several months, the Properties Team cataloged the inventory of the Lynnwood church, evaluated every item for usefulness and explored contractors for demolition. The team designated every item for one of three categories: useful for the new church, good for donation to another church or disposal. Several items were donated to South Carolina Conference churches, including Mount Prospect-Ebenezer, Green Pond UMC and Bethlehem-Prospect.
Preparing for ‘marriage’
The best quotes for demolition came in at around $55,000. This number could have easily become a point of conflict because it was more than Lynnwood’s annual income and far more than their funds on hand. However, with the Properties Team’s leadership and recommendation, the Grace church council voted unanimously to assist in the demolition of the Lynnwood facility through a loan of $50,000, to be forgiven upon merger.
This moment of cooperation became a sign of a spirit of coordination growing among the two churches.
In January 2021, Alexander led the charge in a sermon series focused on “Pre-Marital Counseling” in preparation for the merger, during which he framed the ‘‘courtship” of the two churches and expectations for what a healthy marriage looks like. As he taught, in marriage, the two become one. Two rich lives are joined to be one life together. There is no more “mine” and “yours” but “ours.”
As Alexander noted, marriage is not 50-50. Divorce is 50-50. However, marriage is 100-100. Marriage is not inviting someone to spend the night but to make a home together. Merger is no different. Merger is not inviting one church to join another but the two making a new life together. Merger is not pooling resources but includes sharing all things in common. Merger is about more faithfully pursuing God’s mission for the church: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
A new name
Over the next year, these thoughts would be put to the test, but Grace and Lynnwood refused to allow anything to divide them. Even in difficult moments, they resolved to stand together. Finally, the last piece of the process was to settle on a new church name.
Alexander began the last merger team meeting by inviting the team to split into small groups and discuss three questions:
1) Who have we been? That is, what has God done through the life of our churches and where has God been at work in Grace and Lynnwood?
2) Who is God calling us to be? That is, what will our future life look like and how will God shape our mission for the future as one church?
3) In light of these things, what will the name of our new church be?
After a lengthy discussion, each group presented their options for future names. Every group brought back the same two names: Grace-Lynn and Grace-Lynnwood. The first option got tossed after a few too many jokes about Memphis, and the team settled on the name Grace-Lynnwood.
As one team member said, “I feel like we’ve been Grace-Lynnwood for a while now. Preacher, from your first Sunday you began worship saying, ‘This is the Grace-Lynnwood Charge of the United Methodist Church.’ Now, we are just dropping three words: ‘Charge of the.’”
Alexander responded to the team’s decision with another story of their shared life.
“Some of you remember April 23, 1968. I don’t. My mother wasn’t born yet. … But many of you do. On that day, a new church was organized called The United Methodist Church. This church came about through a merger of two churches with a shared story and tradition: the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. When they decided on a name for the new church, they did what you have decided to do. They took a piece of the name of each of the parent churches to make the new name. How fitting is it that you have chosen to do the same.”
‘Something that is Grace and Lynnwood’
With the name decided, the merger team had completed their recommendation for a plan for merger. The team presented the plan at town hall meetings with each church to receive feedback from the broader congregations. From these town halls came one amendment, known as the “Tonya Singleton Amendment,” named for Singleton, a member of Grace. During the Grace town hall, Singleton drew everyone’s attention to the picture collages hanging around the sanctuary of what would soon become Grace-Lynnwood United Methodist Church,
“When I look at these pictures, I see a lot of Grace, but I don’t see Lynnwood,” Singleton said. “What if we made these collages into photo albums and made space for something that is Grace and Lynnwood?”
The response was overwhelming affirmation.
With the new amendment, Alexander worked with Hodge to schedule church conferences, during which each church voted unanimously in favor of the merger plan as a way forward.
Finally, on Oct. 17, 2021, at the Grace-Lynnwood charge conference, the membership of both churches voted unanimously to adopt the merger document.
Pending the approval of Bishop L. Jonathan Holston and the South Carolina Annual Conference, they formed a new church: Grace-Lynnwood United Methodist Church.
On Oct. 24, 2021, the new church celebrated its merger beginning with a parade from the former Lynnwood campus to the new Grace-Lynnwood campus.
The service began with a commemoration on the ground where the Lynnwood church facility once stood. Then, a few dozen cars and a few dozen pedestrians proceeded the one mile to Country Club Drive, led by a banner reading “Rejoice.”
The service continued on the church lawn as it had many times during the previous year with a drive-in/tailgating worship format. It included the installation of church officers, a pledge from all members, the reception of two new members, and was followed by a fellowship meal.
A video of the merger celebration can be found at https://glumc.org/who-we-are/
By the Rev. Matthew Alexander