In the buildup to Christmas last year, Lawton’s First United Methodist Church was busy dealing with rumors of its imminent demise. At the time Jeff Taylor, who was acting as a consultant and interim pastor, dismissed the rumors, however, he admitted that the church was considering a potential closure.
The church needed to vote on its future, it had four options: remain at the current location and attempt to restructure, sell the building and move to a new location, merge with another Methodist church or disband altogether.
“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,” Taylor said at the time.
Taylor’s contract ran out at the end of 2019. At the same time, in Duncan, Pastor Janice Sharp was serving as a minister at Duncan First United Methodist. She had heard the rumors about the church’s financial situation.
“The expectation was that the church was going to vote to close,” Sharp said. “Those options are presented by the bishop and the council, but the council can’t walk in and tell them they are closed, that is their power. And they voted to stay open.”
Not long after that vote, Sharp was named by the bishop’s council as Taylor’s permanent replacement, becoming the pastor of Lawton First United Methodist on March 1. At the time, she was given some insight into the church’s financial history. An exodus of members had led to a downturn in donations.
“What I knew was the attendance and giving had fallen,” Sharp said. “It’s really difficult to maintain a building this size with that kind of population.”
Since the vote to stay open and restructure, and particularly since the appointment of Sharp as a permanent pastor, the numbers have begun to trend upward again.
“The desire all along was to remain where they have historically been and continue to witness out of the same facility,” Sharp said. “As far as the plans are right now, financially we are meeting our goals. As long as we can continue to do that, we will be viable.”
Of course, even after the vote to stay open, the church then faced an outside obstacle that no one had expected in the form of a global pandemic. By the time that Sharp was named as pastor the church had already closed its doors temporarily. It meant that Sharp would be coming into a position where she would be the head of a church whose congregants she couldn’t meet with face to face.
“I’ve met very few people directly, most of my relationship building has been over the phone,” Sharp said.
Fears of the church’s closure had only just begun to subside when the pandemic began and now, as Sharp said, she believes the fear has returned.
“I think there are a lot of fears about what’s going to happen to the church, you know ‘is the virus going to hurt us because people get out of the habit of going to church.’ But I think, for this church, it’s going to make them even more determined to comeback stronger,” Sharp said.
Right now, the church in tentatively planning to reopen on June 7.
“I’m pretty excited about that. We have been really trying to get the word out to as many folks as possible that we are coming back and that church will resume. We want to start building our ministries back up as quickly as possible,” Sharp said.
Those ministries include a Boy Scout Troop, a monthly community breakfast, a women’s ministry and a Bible study, among others.
“And here is the thing with keeping the building, it allows them incredible opportunities and space for these ministries, in a smaller space they would be limited,” Sharp said.
Even though the worst is seemingly behind them now, Sharp is still taking up Taylor’s call for prayers.
“That is singularly the number one point of Christians, to ask God for his help, for his intervention,” Sharp said. “We believe that prayer is the way to do that.”
As the church prepares to reopen and Sharp readies to meet her congregants face-to-face for the first time, she had words of hope and encouragement for them about what the new chapter in the church’s history will bring.
“This is our choice. We get to make all of the choices about how we come back and how we do ministry. It’s in their hands and their hearts,” Sharp said. “ And I know they can do it.”