Bluffton campus separates, charters as independent congregation
By Jessica Brodie
BLUFFTON—A thriving satellite church campus in the Lowcountry has reluctantly separated from The United Methodist Church. And while its leadership said no one there saw the division coming, they are pressing on in their work to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world in spite of their lack of denominational affiliation.
In 2012, St. Andrew By-The-Sea UMC on Hilton Head formed a new church community in Bluffton, a rapidly growing community just west of the island. Led by the Rev. Daniel Burbage under then-senior pastor Neil Yongue, the Bluffton campus was intended to be an extension and mission of St. Andrew—one big church with two campuses to accommodate the area’s westward sprawl.
Since then, the Bluffton campus—dubbed “Bluffton Worship”—began to soar alongside its sister congregation on the island, with more than 200 people in worship, a massive (2,000-person-strong) Christmas Eve celebration, a multiracial Easter service with a local African-American congregation, an active food relief effort and the confirmation of more than a dozen young people last year. They have been leasing space in a retail plaza and had jointly purchased 10 acres of already-paid-off prime real estate where they were actively planning to construct their permanent location.
But last year, days before finalizing a loan to begin construction of that location, the deal was halted, and the church began a strategic churchwide planning process that quickly shifted to exploration of the viability of the Bluffton campus, including a hard look at finances. While the two campuses always intentionally shared a budget (part of its original “One Great Church, Two Front Doors” concept), church leadership began looking at separate financials for each. Ultimately the newly formed strategic planning committee decided operating two campuses was too expensive to be sustainable.
In October, the St. Andrew Church Council voted to separate the two churches.
St. Andrew Church Council Chair Sarah Coffin called it a largely amicable separation stemming from financial concerns.
“The decision was primarily based on the inability of St. Andrew to continue to financially support both the Bluffton and Hilton Head churches,” Coffin said. “Both parties felt the agreement was fair, and enables Bluffton to have a chance at being successful in continuing their outreach while minimizing the financial impact to SABTS.”
David Deis, a member of the negotiation team who also served as the Bluffton Building Committee Chair, said they were able to reach a separation agreement out of necessity, despite a rushed timeframe.
“Both congregations received some benefits that will allow all of us to move forward. In the process, both congregations felt the pain and consequences of separation.”
However, Deis said, the separation was accomplished “despite a nearly total lack of support or participation by the South Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church.”
“The New Bluffton Worship remains committed to reaching out to St. Andrew By-The-Sea to maintain a relationship that has a mutual interest in spreading the love of Jesus Christ.”
The Walterboro District did not respond as of press time for a comment on the matter.
Bluffton Worship Lay Leader Jeff Jones, a member of St. Andrew since 2004 who helped launch the Bluffton campus, said he believes both St. Andrew and the Bluffton leadership did what they felt was right, though he doesn’t believe the split was solely about finances.
As Jones wrote after the church vote, “I have served on church council since 2006 and the last 10 of those years as the Bluffton steward. After we moved to get the Bluffton mission up and running, I have never been in a meeting where the troubles of Bluffton Worship finances were discussed. No one has ever said to me, ‘The Bluffton mission is too expensive and we need to find ways to cut costs.’ You would think as Bluffton steward, it might come up: ‘Hey, Jeff, we need to look at that rent. We need to take out the children’s center. We need to talk about staff costs.’ Not one conversation. No agenda item to ask if we could make a plea to raise our giving. Never.”
Burbage said the 10 acres they originally purchased for $650,000 appraised at $4.3 million. He said with the sale of the land, St. Andrew could have been financially solvent for many years.
Regardless, it was clear it was time for the two to separate, whether because of finances or other issues.
After the vote, Burbage said, the initial plan was for him to stay on as an associate pastor at St. Andrew through June, presumably to guide Bluffton through the process.
“The church council decision was that we could either become our own church within The United Methodist Church or become an independent church,” Burbage said.
But shortly after the vote, things changed.
“(We were told) there was no interest from the conference for the 200-plus people from Bluffton to be a United Methodist congregation,” Burbage said. “We were also told that because there was a church council vote, the Bluffton campus, in terms of the Discipline, no longer existed as a ministry, and was likened to the closing of a day care.”
With no choice to be a UMC, Bluffton Worship had to decide whether to shutter completely or become an independent church.
Then, weeks later, things changed again, and Burbage was informed he and his family would be moved in two weeks to one of three locations across the state—and that he had two days to decide if he would comply. Burbage was also informed he would no longer be compensated or receive benefits by St. Andrew in the new year.
His leaving meant Bluffton would be left completely without pastoral leadership at a time when they arguably needed it the most—and during the holidays, with an already-scheduled Christmas Eve service on the calendar and a host of other commitments they were trying to honor as people of God.
Burbage said the Bluffton campus already felt like his baby, as he had shepherded it since the beginning. But instead of turning his “baby” over to a new parent, leaving it at such a critical time violated his personal ethics and conscience.
“It felt like leaving my baby out to die,” he said.
Ultimately, Burbage reluctantly surrendered his credentials as a United Methodist pastor and is pastoring the now-independent church for the foreseeable future. Bluffton staff member Monica Barricks also chose to remain with the congregation.
Today, the church has chartered as “The New Bluffton Worship.” It is in the midst of applying for its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and has quickly raised—in just three or four weeks—$400,000 to operate, plus another $300,000 in pledges. That’s far beyond its regular annual budget and enough to give its membership hope for a viable, God-ordained future so it can continue operating as a church and continue making disciples for Jesus Christ.
Coffin said the two congregations will collaborate on their Christmas Grace mission going forward, as each campus brings strengths to that mission.
As for the 10 acres of property the island and Bluffton campuses of St. Andrew purchased together, it is now for sale and has been appraised at $4.3 million. The property stays with St. Andrew in trust for the annual conference, and Bluffton is slated to get $300,000 from the pre-existing building fund.
They will receive no monies from the sale of the property, Burbage said.
“The whole thing has been incredibly disappointing to me. I never in my life imagined turning in my credentials,” Burbage said, calling the separation “painful and hard” on himself, his family and on the Bluffton church.
Jones echoed that, noting, “Everybody felt hurt.”
But Burbage and Jones said they remain hopeful about what God has in store for The New Bluffton Worship.
“God has been really good,” Jones said. “Everything that has happened has become a blessing, and we are much healthier now than we were before.
“We’re seeing God work in incredible ways, including financially.”