For Rev. Barbara Marks and the congregation of The First United Methodist Church of Middletown, Connecticut, Easter Sunday 2022 was particularly glorious.
For one thing, after several nomadic—at times traumatic—years, it was the first Easter that they convened in their new building. Even better, the crowd of celebrants was, she says, “the largest number we’ve ever had,” since Bishop Thomas Bickerton consecrated the new site in October 2021.
“Some folks had extended family with them, which was just wonderful. We had a choir here for the first time, singing in the new building. And we had a big Easter egg hunt—hundreds and hundreds of eggs that were stuffed with goodies by a local Girl Scouts troop.”
“We’re really coming back,” smiles Rev. Marks. “We are back!”
There’s no doubt that it’s been a long road for First United Methodist. In the summer of 2014—citing dwindling membership and mounting expenses—the congregation made the painful decision to sell the building that had been their home since 1931. They first moved their worship services to the ballroom at the local Elks Lodge. From there they began to worship with the South Congregational and First Congregational churches.
As Rev. Marks said at the building consecration, “This has been a very long journey for the Middletown church. It started a long time ago. But here we are now, and when I look at the faces here, it could not have happened without so many of you. Voices that came to sing us along the way, giving to us financially…so many, many things.”
“It feels like we are finally on the other side and growing.,” she told attendees. “We have re-engaged in Sunday School and have baptized two babies and are soon going to baptize three more.” They even held a couple of outdoor concerts over the summer.
Make no mistake, though, she pauses, “It took a village to build this church.
Where Is God Calling Us?
“There were so many challenges when we lost our building, our home,” she noted. “It was heartbreaking for people. They really, really struggled. Where is God calling us? Is God calling us to build a new church or not? I mean, the church was homeless.”
Not surprisingly, many congregants felt abandoned. “At that time, my main focus was trying to help them heal. That was because there was some bitterness. They felt that somebody should have helped them. And when they were asked if they wanted to be acquired by another Methodist Church in the area, they said ‘absolutely not. We are not doing that.’”
“In a nutshell,” she continues, “after selling the building, people just didn’t know what their future was going to be. Many people thought that the church was just going to fail, even expected it to fail. But there are about 40 people who stuck with it, kept on believing and just didn’t give up. Their dedication and perseverance have been just wonderful.”
Ultimately, the congregation decided to build anew with the million dollars they earned from the sale of the old church. “Despite the unknowns,” Rev. Marks underscores, ‘they stepped out on faith that they were going to take the money that they got for the old church and purchase a new place.”
Rev. John Blossom, who joined the effort in 2016 as an associate pastor while he was completing divinity school, worked to secure the land, while Rev. Marks says she “was trying to restore the pastoral side of the ministry.”
Rev. Blossom, who had been leading the East Berlin UMC and Trinity UMC in Meriden, Conn., passed away in September 2019 after he became ill while on a church-related conference trip to South Korea.
Once the land was purchased, Marks’ late husband, David, set things in motion. “He got the architect, knew who to pull in as a project manager,” Marks said. “He did a lot of the early legwork.” To honor his contributions, not long after he passed away, one of his shovels was used in the groundbreaking.
District Superintendent Rev. Dr. Alpher Sylvester also is quick to give kudos to Rev. Marks. “She's a local pastor, but her leadership is really exemplary and her faith walk is what drives that,” he says. “All of these things together--and the support of her congregation, obviously under the anointing of the Holy Spirit—allowed her to realize and see the success of the building being built.”
A Look into The Future: The New Room
“We're all going to bless this space together,” Bishop Bickerton greeted the gathering at the consecration. “Over the years I've had occasions of doing services like these, and one of the things that I say in each of those settings are these words. ‘Get dirty. The next time I come I want to see crayon marks on the wall, coffee stains on the carpet. I want to see a demonstration that this building is you. It is not a monument. It has got to be worship facility that is given to the glory of God for the ministry of God's people. . . You will not succeed unless you go beyond the confines of these walls.”
So far so good. At the event, Rev. Marks introduced the concept of “The New Room,” which she describes as something of a microcosm of the collaborative parishes model.
“The concept of The New Room is not a particular space. But rather our new identity,” she notes. “Instead of being just our separate churches, we can pool our resources.” She explains that, in joining both the laity and clergy of this particular group of churches together, “we can strengthen each other spiritually and be a resource to one another on an ongoing basis. Our connection to Christ and scripture is always central. People might decide to join Bible study at one church and participate in an outdoor worship at another. It comes back to the intentional foundation of ‘the connection.’ The New Room brings it back full circle to John Wesley’s belief in having as much laity involvement as you can.”
Currently the members of what became the New Room Cooperative Parish, are, in addition to the Middletown church:
- First United Methodist Church in Meriden, CT (Rev. Richard L. Hanse)
- Kensington United Methodist Church (Co-pastored by Revs. Hanse, Uche and Marks)
- United Methodist Church of East Berlin, CT (Rev. Chinma Uche)
- South Meriden Trinity United Methodist Church (formerly Rev. Katarina von Kuhn Murray; currently co-pastored by Revs. Hanse, Uche and Marks)
“Rev. Katarina offered up the name, “The New Room, because it is part of John and Charles Wesley's Methodist history and legacy,” Rev. Marks explains. “It was used as an extension of worship, not to compete with worship, but to complement it. We thought that this is what we might try to achieve.”
Rev. Hanse, the New Room Cooperative Parish Coordinator, says that the churches are well on their way towards achieving it. Already, he says, Ryan Milloy, a parishioner who fully embraced the New Room concept and wanted to reinvigorate men’s ministry, began having monthly breakfast meetings at neighborhood diners.
Men from First Meridan and Middletown regularly attend, thus reimagining ministry and strengthening their bonds. And thanks to the support of Bishop Bickerton and District Superintendent Sylvester, Rev. Hanse says that even bigger changes are afoot.
In the near future the New Room concept is “going to the next level by integrating things and hard wiring everything together administratively.” There will, for instance, be one staff parish council and one finance committee, and each church will have an equal voice in decisions made, regardless of size. “I am convinced this is really going to make each church healthier and enable each church to thrive in ways we haven’t imagined yet,” he says.
Middletown’s new campus is already assisting in this process. Their new building, with its state-of-the-art electronics and projection system, make it the perfect place to hold the New Room’s contemporary worship service, which is held the second Tuesday of each month.
“Middletown is very much supported by three other congregations,” Dr. Sylvester adds.
“So even when they dedicated the building all of those congregations were there supporting Middletown on that Sunday. It was an expression of what parish ministry would ultimately be like where we have multi-site churches living in to a single Vision, within a set geographic area to make disciples and to grow Ministry.”
Rev. Marks takes a moment to reflect: “I think this is a vision for future ministry. We are stronger together.”
Two Very Special Baseball Hats
There was plenty of laughter and applause on the day of the Middletown church’s consecration. But never more so than when Rev. Marks concluded the ceremony by introducing some happily lived-in baseball hats. “I have worn one of these many times in the last couple of years,” she laughed. “I had been looking for it. It is my beloved late husband’s Dave’s baseball cap. He played a very big part in making this all happen today.”
When she found the cap, however, she was surprised by a jolt of Karma: Also in the closet, near Dave’s cap, was another one that she had not seen in quite some time. “I said, of course you will come with me.’ John Blossom gave me this hat and he was instrumental in getting this land purchased for us. So, there are just a cloud of witnesses and saints with us here right now.”
Today, she laughs, “In October, the bishop told us to get our hands dirty. And, believe me, we are following his orders to get out there and mess things up.” Amen.