Lawton’s First United Methodist Church is dismissing rumors that it will shutter its doors at the end of the year.
“Our numbers are small right now, but we are having a rejuvenation and we are being very optimistic that we are going to be able to stay open,” said Cathy Hittle, ministry assistant for the church.
According to Hittle, the church will remain open at least through the end of the year. After the first of the year, the bishop’s council will convene at the annual conference, at which time the council will decide the fate of the church moving forward.
Jeff Taylor is serving in a dual role at the church. First and foremost, he is acting as a consultant for the church as it endures this trying time. Taylor, a retired minister, is also serving as the church’s interim pastor.
While some of the church’s problems come from a lack of funding, Taylor said that they also must be placed in context with the larger issues facing mainline denominations in the U.S. as a whole to be truly understood.
“Through the years, due to mistakes and processes we’re not fully aware of, the church began to lose money. When the money went so did the membership,” Taylor said. “But the Methodist church in general has been in decline for several years. All mainline denominations have been facing problems. This is the context we’re in today, the millennial motto is ‘if there is a denominational sign on it, we’re not going.’”
Additionally, Taylor said that the current split within the church over whether or not to ordain LGBTQ individuals has not helped the denomination’s image or appeal.
“We have a lot of battles to fight. The issues are greater than the fact that the church lost money that it could have saved years ago,” Taylor said.
When the council made the decision to reevaluate the church, Taylor was hired to serve in the role of consultant.
“I was brought on to look at the situation and help them make a decision,” Taylor said.
The council gave the church four options: remain at their current location and attempt to restructure, sell the building and move to a new location, merge with another Methodist church in Lawton or disband altogether.
The church has chosen to fight by staying in its current location and restructuring to avoid the less favorable options of moving, merging or disbanding.
“We’re in recovery mode. We are reevaluating who we are and developing a mission and a purpose,” Taylor said. “Ultimately, the bishop and the cabinet will make the final decision. But, if we can show that we can be self-supporting, I think they’ll let us go forward as a church.”
Taylor said that, despite the troubled times the church is facing, they still have some strong ministries including a Boy Scout Troop, a monthly community breakfast, a women’s ministry and a Bible study.
For members of the community who are looking to assist the church during its struggle, Taylor said the main thing they can do is pray.
“I know this sounds a bit mystical, but that’s who we are, I think the thing people can do for us is pray. Most of the churches in town have their own issues, so the main thing is to pray. We’ve got a great group of people here, they’re very spiritual and they want to succeed,” Taylor said.
Taylor’s consulting contract runs out at the end of the year. He said that the church should have a definitive answer by the beginning of next year about the church’s future. He is hopeful that the church will be allowed to continue.