OTTUMWA — The end is coming for three churches in Ottumwa. But that has led to the opportunity for a new church to rise up.
“This is the people’s decision,” said Pastor Chris Childs, who will be leading the unified Grace Ottumwa Church. Each of the three congregations — Willard Street United Methodist Church, Wesley United Methodist Church and First United Methodist Church — voted in December 2018 to move forward with the merger, he said. All three passed by the two-thirds majority needed.
The merger is not something that, though being voted on merely six months ago, came together quickly. Childs said it was his understanding that initial, vague discussions began about 15 years ago. “It’s been seriously discussed for maybe the previous two years.”
He said maintaining three different buildings had become a strain on the congregations. “I think they found that the buildings required most of their energy and they weren’t able to reach out into the community,” Childs said. “They felt like they had more to offer as one congregation working together.
“It’s a different kind of merger,” Childs said. Traditionally, when a merger happens, people from the smaller organization will move to the larger part with the larger one keeping its pastor. “What they find,” he said, “is that within three years the church is down to the size of what the larger congregation was and there’s no new identity. We really want this to be a community church for all of Ottumwa.”
So, despite there being three United Methodist Church buildings in Ottumwa, Grace Ottumwa will not utilize them. “We’re going to worship in the high school cafeteria,” Childs said. “Entering a church building is scary for a lot of people, so the cafeteria is a more neutral location.”
In the meantime, offices and an activity center for the new congregation are located at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and Elm Street. “One of my hopes, though, is we’re telling the staff to be there as little as possible,” Childs said. In his effort to reach out to the community, he plans on holding most of his office hours in restaurants and coffee shops in Ottumwa. “If someone there needs a pastor to talk to, they can have a seat.”
Part of his reasoning for this is bringing the church into the community. He said according to data available to the church, 16,000 people in Ottumwa have no church home. “They go on Christmas, Easter or for a wedding or a funeral, but that’s it,” he said. “If 16,000 people in Ottumwa don’t have a church, then the church has got to go to them.”
Childs said Grace Ottumwa will hold its first worship service at 9:45 a.m. July 7 at Ottumwa High School. “We’re doing our soft launch in July, and we’re simply hoping to bring the congregations together.”
A more public launch is planned for late September with the intent on directly reaching out to those without a church home.
The church itself has a long-term goal of having a new property sometime in the next three years. The church wants to take its time with developing a permanent location in an effort to “fit the unique needs of Ottumwa,” Childs said. “We need to figure that out first before we build otherwise our building will define who we are,” he said.
Childs said the three buildings of the individual congregations are being sold. Wesley and Willard Street have already sold. “They went very quickly. There are several buyers,” Childs said. His understanding is that they will be renovated inside for residential use while maintaining their current structure.
The First UMC building remains on the market, but, “We have several different groups interested in the First building,” Childs said. “All the money from the sales will go toward Grace toward its future location. It’s all staying in Ottumwa.”
There will also be a shift in personnel. Childs was brought to Ottumwa specifically to lead the Grace congregation, meaning the current pastors, Jon Disburg, Leila Disburg and Jim Shrimplin, will be relocated to new congregations elsewhere in the state.
“All three got here at about the same time. They’ve been in this community seven years and have walked with their congregations in this process knowing that if it moves forward, they would be leaving,” Childs said. “I appreciate their humility to lead their congregations to do what they’re called to do when they know it means they have to say goodbye.”
Childs said that the merger brings mixed feeling to those involved. “There’s definitely grieving and loss for the people. Even in choosing something, there’s loss,” he said. “But more than that, I think there’s hope.”
Features Editor Tracy Goldizen can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @CourierTracy.