Two McAlester churches vote to merge

11/21/2008

On Jan. 1, Grand Avenue (inset) and Wesley churches will unite as First UMC of McAlester. On Jan. 1, Grand Avenue (inset) and Wesley churches will unite as First UMC of McAlester.

On Jan. 1, Grand Avenue and Wesley churches will unite as First UMC of McAlester.

The members of Grand Avenue UMC, in downtown McAlester, voted Oct. 26 to merge with Wesley UMC, on the city’s south side. On Oct. 27, the members of Wesley voted and, with the signature of McAlester District Superintendent Sandy Wylie, made the merger official.

The decision was approved at Grand Avenue by a vote of 89-5, and at Wesley 5-0.

The official date of merger will be Jan. 1, 2009.

The name of the combined congregation will become First United Methodist Church of McAlester.

Until a new facility is constructed, enhancing the Wesley campus, the church will operate as one congregation with two campuses.

Wesley sits directly across from ball fields, frequented on evenings and weekends by hundreds of children, youths, and their families.

Conversations between the churches began in September.

The lay leadership at Wesley voiced enthusiasm about what merger could mean for their future. The 2008 Journal reports worship attendance averages 17 people.

The members of Grand Avenue also were excited about possibilities of merger and relocation. Worship there averages 153.

Wesley UMC has struggled in recent years, said Pastor Lisa Anderson. "The fear is removed that the church will have to close. While there is some uncertainty in what it will mean for the individual members and a sense of loss of the familiar, most are at peace with the decision. (Some) see increased opportunities with a larger congregation. I feel God’s presence in the peace and hope that comes with the decision."

Rev. Wylie said, "They were realistic."

The Grand Avenue property lacked parking space, a play area for children, and water problems were ongoing. The land on the Wesley campus accommodates building on one level, and the busy school sports complex is immediately north of the property.

"I honestly think this has a chance to be one of the better mergers I’ve known about," Wylie said. Representation is part of the merger agreement, he explained. Both congregations will be represented on the building committee and other major committees.

In 1963, Wesley was a church plant launched by Grand Avenue to minister in the neighborhoods of south McAlester. It was constructed, along with a parsonage, on 5 acres of land.

Grand Avenue was founded in 1924, as a merger between Mary Phillips M.E.C.S. and First Methodist Episcopal churches.

Just after Easter this year, the members of Grand Avenue began discussing visioning for the future, said Pastor Charles Neff. Building repairs were mounting. Topping that list were accessibility issues, additional parking, and the desire for a family life center.

At first, the congregation sought to do an extensive remodel that would include a gymnasium expansion, Rev. Neff said. The estimates for that work totaled about $8 million. In September, the members began to explore relocation.

A plan began to take form that included merging with Wesley, purchasing an additional 5 acres adjacent to Wesley’s property, and building a new facility at that site. After securing an agreement to purchase the additional acreage, the merger proposal was presented to both congregations for vote.

"This is really a family reunion more than it is a merger," Neff said. "Wesley was birthed out of Grand Avenue, which means we share a common heritage and history.

"Our goal in all of this is to be more effective in ministry to our community. Grand Avenue is a great building for study and worship, but the needs of people today are so much greater than what can be provided in the current space. The congregation has believed this for a long time."

During construction, there will be a "Wesley Campus" and "Grand Avenue Campus."

There will be an early worship service at one and a later service at the other; Sunday school at both; and church meetings and events will be split between the two, based on the size of the group or event.

The proposed new facility will include a 300-350 seat sanctuary, education space, and a family life center. The Wesley classrooms will be reconfigured as offices, and its sanctuary will be preserved as a chapel. A preschool is also in the plans, along with evening and weekend drop-off child care for families at the ball fields.

Neff said the plans include sale of the Grand Avenue building, with the proceeds to help fund the new facility. Futher facilitating the vision for growth and expansion, First United Methodist Church of McAlester has included salary for an associate pastor in its 2009 budget, to be activated in June.

"So many things had to fall into place to get us to this point. None of this would have been possible even five years ago. God has made it happen," Neff said.


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