by Hines Boyd & Betty Messer, Open Hearts UMC
Six months ago, a group of about 40 long-time United Methodists in Monticello found themselves suddenly isolated from their chosen home church by the disaffiliation movement. They believed that United Methodism has it right and that they had simply been left standing by the road—on a faith path they preferred not to travel.
They were still a group of socially close-knit, committed believers. But they had no place to gather for worship and no administrative structure to support the daily activities of an effective church. The same group of 10-12 people who had organized to vigorously oppose disaffiliation immediately turned their attention to finding answers that would allow them to stay together.
The answers came quickly—from two churches. The Monticello First Presbyterian Church said, “You are welcome to meet and worship in our fellowship hall.” And Trinity UMC said, “We will help you with whatever you need!”
A “Leadership Team” of 10 people put together a plan for a new church they would call OPEN HEARTS UMC. Knowing that there were some things that would be difficult to do by themselves, they met with Rev. Dr. Matthew Williams and Rev. Wayne Curry about possibly becoming a mission of Trinity UMC. The Monticello group laid out a weekly service that was intentionally informal and easy to execute with little help from professional staff, yet that was worshipful and connectional.
On May 21, 2023, about 35 members of the estranged Monticello flock met to form OPEN HEARTS UMC. It was the first of their on-going weekly services at the First Presbyterian Fellowship Hall. OHUMC officially became a mission of Trinity UMC on July 23, 2023, when 44 membership transfer letters were accepted into Trinity UMC at a Monticello service led by Rev. Dr. Matthew Williams accompanied by a large contingent from Trinity. An OHUMC member described that emotional service in an email a couple of days later:
“The Healing/Membership Service on Sunday evening (July 23) was a bit overwhelming with over 70 people in attendance,
including clergy, staff, and friends from Trinity UMC. The outpouring of love and excitement by all of the UMC people for what we are and what we are doing was huge. The message (from Rev. Matthew) was spot on: God’s got this! The music team that Trinity brought with them was great. The service closed with the prayers of eight (8) United Methodist Ministers. We weren’t the only ones with a few tears…tears of joy for healing and for a strengthened resolve for Open Hearts UMC in Monticello”
Since midyear 2023, Sunday morning average attendance has grown from the low twenties to near 30 worshipers, including a recent contingent from Madison. The worship services are simple but effective. The messages usually come from visiting ministers (many of them retired ministers at Trinity) or former OHUMC Sunday School teachers. Sometimes, the early contemporary service at Trinity is streamed. YouTube is full of diverse, interesting, and inspirational music to lean on. Lots of planned social interaction before, during, and after the service helps maintain group connectivity.
Most of the OPEN HEARTS members are over fifty. They are longtime active church-goers with a discipleship mindset. Many of them are exceptional group nurturers and very committed to local mission work. They know that their small group can’t do everything. So, their programs are designed to support the interests and strengths of this membership base. Already, the Nuture Team and Mission Team are very active.
The OPEN HEARTS mission congregation is comforted by the support and safety net emanating from their mother church, Trinity UMC. The services provided by Trinity include:
- Acceptance of the transfer of membership letters
- A reservoir of mostly retired ministers for worship and communion services
- Accounting and depository services for tithes and offerings
- Technical assistance for online services and communications
- Pastoral counseling services, if needed
- Consultation and guidance on church matters
OPEN HEARTS now has about 22-24 regular giving units, most of whom brought their tithes with them from the disaffiliated church. They have developed a budget to support their programming, to pay rent for a facility, and to reimburse Trinity for administrative support by providing a weekly percentage of their collections directly to Trinity.
Small groups are not new to the Christian Church. Jesus started with a group of 12. Growth in the early Christian Church came almost exclusively from small gatherings for worship. Small groups are extremely effective in supporting the spiritual, social, and often the physical needs of their members. But today, most church growth is coming from mega-churches many with multiple campuses, in part because the business model works in their favor. They can afford the budget to maintain expensive facilities and large staffs, requirements that keep many small churches struggling to survive.
The Florida Conference and other Methodist conferences are filled with small, often rural churches and, now, disaffiliated groups that are challenged by the business aspects of staying together. Perhaps they should pay attention to the successes of the Trinity-Open Hearts mission that is thriving in Monticello.
In this season of Advent, we are grateful to be able to joyfully live into the future of United Methodism.
The Open Hearts UMC logo is original artwork by Ava Corley, a senior at Florida High.