Merger in OKC chisels Cornerstone

11/22/2013

At OKC-Cornerstone, worshippers model their Pentecost-red garments on May 19, which was Uniting Sunday for their church and also Pentecost Sunday in the liturgical year. From left are Dick Parker, Anna Guest, Susan Bryant, Donna Davis, Reba Dawkins, and Ginny Harvey.

By Holly McCray

The marriage of Ridgecrest and May Avenue churches birthed Cornerstone United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City’s inner core this year.

Marriage seems the best word to describe what officially is a merger, because two churches of equal size united. Each had been averaging about 70 people in worship. One mile separated their properties.

About 150 attended the uniting service on May 19 — Pentecost Sunday.

The blended congregation occupies the former May Avenue location, where the outdoor sign declares the new Cornerstone witness.

In the curving driveway, another sign of new life is a weekly drive-in prayer opportunity. During this special hour, more signs sprout. "Drive in for prayer." "Need prayer?" "Let us pray for you."

In response, those traveling busy May Avenue wave and signal thumbs-up. Horns honk. And some drivers turn in to be blessed.

Five brawny workmen spilled out from one vehicle. They had passed by the previous week and had eagerly anticipated the next prayer time.

At Cornerstone, Diana Pruitt and Steven Brant are appointed as co-pastors, rather than in senior/associate roles.

"Mergers are unique. Each congregation has its own culture and traditions," Rev. Brant said.

"It will take 18 months for people to feel comfortable in this new skin. We pray a lot," said Rev. Pruitt. The co-pastors sat side-by-side for a November interview.

Ridgecrest’s ministry dates back more than 100 years, and May Avenue had served 70 years. But analysis of each showed much energy and resources going to structural maintenance. In churchspeak, that’s "survival mode."

But the churches yearned to thrive, to reach new people for Christ, not merely survive.

In Summer 2012, the prospect of merging — already in open discussion — heated up when the Ridgecrest air-conditioning system failed.

In January, an 18-member transition team formed, with equal church representation.

Continuing to build relationships, committees and Sunday School classes combined. The pastors preached about Noah, Abraham, and Moses, called away from ordinary lives to extraordinary witness for God. Members read the books "Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers," by William Easum, and "Our Iceberg Is Melting," by John Kotter. They held Dinners for Eight.

On Oct. 22, about 40 people attended Cornerstone’s first Charge Conference. This month, five stained-glass windows from the Ridgecrest building will be installed on the south side of the Cornerstone sanctuary. The Ridgecrest property will be sold.

To be successful, a merger "has to be for a greater purpose," Pruitt emphasized. "It’s easy to hunker down in comfort zones. We have some brave souls."

Brant concurred, "The reason you merge is for the Gospel, the mission of Christ."

He studies changes in the Northwest 23rd Street corridor, which is "reinventing itself." For him, more children at church has been the highlight of the merger.

"Our outreach into the community is really critical," Brant said. "We are attracting people who are not all white and middle-class," reflecting that area’s demographics.

New people confirm God’s presence, Pruitt said, and carefully unfolded a special towel to display. She recently had baptized a 60-year-old man. Joyous, he had lingered with that towel around his neck. His extended family, his son, and even his ex-wife had celebrated with him.


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