When leaders of Grove United Methodist Church in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota, gathered last Sunday to discuss their new plans for saving the church from extinction, the church’s current members did not exactly welcome them to the stage. Before the pastors began to speak, according to one attendee, a “little old woman” in a wheelchair interrupted. “Shut up and sit down,” she shouted. “I’m going to talk now!” She relented only when another older woman wheeled over to encourage her to let the leaders speak.
Tensions are high now at the Cottage Grove church, days after a St. Paul Pioneer Press article declared the church’s alleged plans to “usher out gray-haired members in [an] effort to attract more young parishioners.” That article quoted one member accusing the church of “age discrimination” in its attempt to expel elderly congregants. The accusation was abhorrent enough to turn a tiny Midwestern church’s internal politics into national news. It confirmed every stereotype about contemporary churches obsessed with growth over depth, branding over authenticity, and youth over wisdom.
Grove’s leader, Rev. Dan Wetterstrom, age 59, told me on Tuesday that the church is not singling out elderly people for exclusion. Instead, he says, he is trying to save the tiny church from certain death. Grove United Methodist Church has two locations in the St. Paul area, and according to Wetterstrom, the Cottage Grove campus currently has just 30 people attending most services—a number that has remained stubbornly low despite multiple efforts to revitalize it. (The other location attracts about 400 people each Sunday.) The majority of Cottage Grove members are older than 60; when the Pioneer Press reporter visited on a recent Sunday, he saw only one family with children at the service. Wetterstrom, who heads both church locations, said he has tried out several campus pastors in the past several years and made efforts to reach out to the local community. “Everybody agrees that we have not been able to be successful at that,” he said. “Our goal is to launch a thriving intergenerational church.”
Without further intervention, a church in that condition will die a natural death in the next five years, said William Willimon, a professor of Christian ministry at Duke Divinity School and a bishop in the United Methodist Church. “I’ve been in that situation, and you hate to see a church die,” he said. “But this church is dying. You look at a human gathering where the median age is 70, and you do the math.”
Consulting with denominational leaders, the Cottage Grove church’s leadership team voted last year to temporarily close the Cottage Grove campus starting in June 2020. They hired a 32-year-old “planting pastor,” Jeremy Peters, who will be charged with redesigning the church’s programs and Sunday worship style, and updating the building with the goal of attracting new—and yes, younger—members.
Peters held his first meeting with the Cottage Grove congregation on Tuesday evening, where he said that he invited all current members to serve on the “transition team.” Current members will not need to “reapply” to attend the church in its new form. “We have not, nor ever would, suggest someone must apply to be welcome at our church,” Peters said. But Wetterstrom did say that the current members who simply want to attend worship at Cottage Grove are encouraged to wait 15 to 18 months to return.
This suggestion that members delay their return to the church by up to 18 months was the main source of the controversy. “It was a bolt from the blue, handed down from on high and very shocking to the current members,” said Jim Baker, 82, who founded the church in 1989 and now attends as a member. “The congregation was eager and totally open to a new approach, and particularly to [the idea of] a new minister [being] appointed or to start[ing] a renewal process. But they really wanted to be included in that.” (Wetterstrom insisted that the timeline is a suggestion, and that no one will be turned away.)
The plan is to relaunch the church later this year. This “close and then relaunch” model has been successful for other struggling Methodist churches, including others in Minnesota. The historic Vineyard UMC in Hutchinson, 75 miles west of Cottage Grove, closed most of its operations for almost a year recently to focus on remodeling and figure out how to attract new attendees. That church reopened in October with significantly more weekly attendees than when it closed.
The Cottage Grove church’s internal drama is happening concurrently with a larger denominational drama over same-sex marriage and gay clergy. Earlier this month, UMC leaders proposed a plan to formally split the denomination, with “traditionalist” churches leaving the existing church. Both Grove UMC congregations fall on the progressive side of that conflict, Wetterstrom said.
Wetterstrom emphasized that the congregation’s size alone is not the measurement of its failure or success. In a small rural community, “the faithful thing to do would be to stay open until the last person is around to turn off the lights,” he said. But the town of Cottage Grove is not a dwindling rural outpost. It is a fast-developing suburb of the Twin Cities, expected to grow in population by more than 20 percent in the next 20 years. By definition, a church in a setting like that is failing if it is not attracting any of its new neighbors.
Willimon, who has made his own similar decisions to close and relaunch struggling churches, said that accusations of age discrimination paint the church’s last remaining members as victims. But he views younger people in the community as victims, too, because they do not have a church that meets their needs. Meanwhile, he said, the United Methodist Church has effectively been subsidizing a small weekly gathering of friends. “If you print this, I’ll get people saying, ‘How dare you criticize these sweet, wonderful, faithful people,’ ” Willimon said. “But they have also been propped up by the larger church.”
Historically, the United Methodist Church has been hesitant to close churches that are obviously withering. It has long been a denominational point of pride that there are said to be more Methodist congregations than U.S. post offices. But the denomination, founded in the 18th century, is also shrinking in the United States. This year, experts predict that U.S. members will become a minority in the global Methodist church for the first time. Almost one-third of UMC church members are 65 or older, according to Pew. “I’m 73, and it’s almost like the UMC has passed a rule that no one under 40 can be a member of our churches,” Willimon said. “We didn’t actually pass a rule, but we didn’t have to. The way we do church mostly appeals to one generation.”
Baker acknowledged that the Cottage Grove church is small and predominantly elderly, but he described it as tightknit, loving, and committed. “If the policy is to go into these ‘dying’ congregations and clean them out to make way for new blood, that’s really not very kind, and I think it’s counterproductive,” he said. “I pray the congregation will find a way to acknowledge difference, and to be a supportive community for people like dear Kathy, who pushes a walker carrying an oxygen machine four blocks to get to church, or for Joan in her wheelchair, or other aged people who have come to our church because they want to be a part of what they themselves describe as warmth and acceptance.”