One 70-year-old member called the church leaders’ decision to fold temporarily to start a new congregation “age discrimination.”
The situation at the Grove United Methodist Church has put the spotlight on widespread generational challenges across the country, with many leaders trying to attract younger people without alienating the seniors who are often the backbone of their dwindling congregations.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press recently suggested in a headline that the Cottage Grove church will “usher out gray-haired members in effort to attract more young parishioners.” But the Rev. Dan Wetterstrom, its head pastor, said allegations of age discrimination unfairly represented the strategy for a church that has been on the decline for two decades.
“No one is being asked to leave the church,” said Wetterstrom, 59. “People are disappointed that the service is being canceled.”
Church leaders voted to temporarily shutter the facility, and then reopen it after what they call a “replanting.” Leaders said Tuesday they never asked members to leave, but they did say the church will relaunch with some changes to its look and feel.
There will be a new pastor, Jeremy Peters, 32. The music will be different from the traditional choir and hymnals the church has been using — although it remains unclear what exactly will replace it.
Members who did not join the new church’s planting team are being encouraged to step aside and temporarily attend the church’s separate, Woodbury location, which attracts about 400 worshipers on a weekly basis and is about a 15-minute drive from the Cottage Grove location. They would transition back to the remade church after 15 to 18 months.
“It felt like they were targeting us even though they didn’t put an age number on it,” said William Gackstetter, 70, who lives about four blocks from the church.
The church’s building sits on prime real estate because it’s across the street from an Aldi and down the street from Target, he said. He is worried the church will be shut down permanently and turned into apartments, like other shuttered churches across the country.
Methodist leaders said the strategy is part of a relaunch effort that has been successful in other parts of the region, said Bruce Ough, who is the Methodist bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota region and provides oversight to congregations. Minnesota has had a steep decline in worship attendance, but the state saw some modest growth starting in 2018, he said.
“This is about trying to live into what people all the time criticize us for not doing: make the church relevant and find innovative ways to reach the persons who claim to be spiritual but not religious because the settings they walk to that are religious don’t awaken their spirit,” Ough said.
He said for many communities with younger populations or different ethnicities, leaders might need to adjust long-standing traditions.
“We haven’t rejected anyone because of age,” he said. “What I do encounter from time to time is people who turn it into ageism because even though they say they want to reach young people, they’re reluctant to make changes that are necessary.”
Even the United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the country, is not immune to the declining membership numbers affecting other churches across the country in recent decades. The Pew Research Center in 2014 found that nearly 4 percent of Americans identify with the Methodist wing of Protestant churches. Baby boomers make up 38 percent of the denomination, compared with 13 percent of millennials.
The Cottage Grove-based church, which began in an elementary school in 1989, averaged 29 weekly worshipers last year.
Efforts to revitalize the existing congregation have not worked, said Wetterstrom, who oversees the Cottage Grove and Woodbury locations.
The decision to temporarily shut the doors at the Cottage Grove location was not because the church was financially struggling, Wetterstrom said. Cottage Grove is one of the faster-growing areas in the state, he said, and Minnesota’s Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church decided to pour in $250,000 to shut that location and replant the congregation. Peters, the new pastor, will meet with members of the community and invite them to small group gatherings before starting services again in the fall. (The church is already part of the liberal wing of the larger United Methodist Church and is not part of a nationwide denominational split over same-sex marriage.)
It can be challenging for pastors to convince older parishioners that taking more dramatic measures to close the generation gap is valuable, said the Rev. Jason Byassee, a professor at the Vancouver School of Theology who has served as a Methodist pastor in North Carolina. “The attitude can be, ‘We give the money, don’t change a thing,’ ” he said. “That’s not church, that’s a club.”
But congregations are growing older as younger people are less likely to identify as religious. In 1998, 29 percent of the average congregation was over 60 years old, said Mark Chaves, a sociologist at Duke University who studies congregations in America. In 2012, that percentage was 37 percent, and he said recent data suggests the percentage has continued to climb.
Churches have tried to solve a larger problem of decline by merging congregations, but it rarely works, Chaves said. About 1 percent of churches in the United States close every year.
“Organizations of all sorts have a kind of inertia, and it can be difficult to make changes,” he said. “So it’s easier to start another one than try to modify an existing one.”
Gackstetter’s daughter Stella Knapp, 34, who sometimes attends the church with her family, said members were afraid of where their funerals might be held during the transition and feared that the temporary closure was not accommodating to the congregation of mostly elderly people.
“There’s a lady who walks to church with a walker with oxygen,” Knapp said. “How is she going to get to the Woodbury campus?”
Knapp gave The Washington Post notes from a Dec. 12 meeting in which pastor Wetterstrom wrote that members were asked to be “silent partners in the Planting Project through prayer, community expertise and support services.” The notes do not suggest elderly members were specifically targeted in those remarks, or that members were asked to “reapply” to return to Cottage Grove, as the Pioneer Press wrote.