While Methodists once came by the hundreds to worship on Martha’s Vineyard, now they come by the handfuls. The congregation that helped shape the Island’s history is grappling with such declining church membership that three of the four United Methodist congregations on Martha’s Vineyard have voted to consolidate into a single congregation.
Meanwhile the members of the Chilmark Community Church voted to split from the United Methodist Cooperative Ministry of Martha’s Vineyard, largely because staying united meant contemplating the possibility of closing the Chilmark church.
For the immediate future, the three down-Island congregations will rotate their services among Vineyard Haven, Edgartown and Oak Bluffs on a month-by-month basis. By July, the church expects the congregation will settle on one down-Island location as the central worship center for its weekly services and the two other churches will serve as satellite locations for special services.
The change begins this weekend, with January services to be held at the Stone Church in Vineyard Haven at 10 a.m.
Chilmark will remain a separate entity, continuing its own weekly services, Sundays at 9 a.m.
The four congregations will be served no longer by two full-time pastors, but rather one full-time minister serving the down-Island churches and one part-time clergy member for Chilmark.
The churches announced this week that the reorganization was decided after lengthy analysis by a task force with representatives from all of the four Island congregations.
The task group concluded that membership numbers did not justify supporting two full-time clergy, according to a church statement. The New England United Methodist Conference, to which the four congregations belong, has approved the reorganization. Its leaders will confirm clergy for the Island churches by March.
It is only two years since the four separate churches voted to form the United Methodist Cooperative Parish of Martha’s Vineyard. With only seven dissenting votes out of more than 70 cast by members of the four United Methodist Churches on the Island, the vote indicated wide support for consolidating their fate. The church’s statement announcing that move said, “Although it will take some time to live into the new cooperative parish and work out the details, we are confident that this is a positive step toward a revitalized United Methodist presence on the Island.”
At the time, then-pastor Rev. Dr. Mary Jane O’Connor Ropp told the Gazette the unified parish would allow the churches to “share the wealth, or the lack of same.”
The current United Methodist pastors, the Rev. Susan Haefield and pastor Richard Rego, were appointed to the parish and not to individual churches. They began in July 2006.
Carol Marrama, administrative assistant for the Island’s United Methodist Cooperative Ministry, this week confirmed the latest reorganization but said she knew of no discussion at this time about plans to sell any church property.
In Chilmark, where Methodists have been meeting since the late 1700s, the congregation outgrew several churches before establishing its current home on Menemsha Crossroad in 1910. The name changed to the Chilmark Community Church in 1982 to appeal to all people. In 2002, a parish and education building was built behind the historic church. It houses Sunday school and meeting rooms, a kitchen, bathrooms and a pastor’s study.
Ownership of the Methodist Church’s Edgartown meeting house, the Old Whaling Church, was transferred to the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation trust in 1980, a difficult decision despite the dwindling congregation which had long ceased to fill its pews.
In Oak Bluffs, the Tabernacle is owned by the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association; the gingerbread cottages now iconic in the town and the Island grew around the Methodist revival meetings. The United Methodist Church has held ownership of its house of worship next to the Tabernacle, Trinity United Methodist Church, since it was built amid the Camp Ground cottages in 1879 for $10,000.
Methodist worship began on the Island in Vineyard Haven with a freed slave who later became a pastor here, John Sanders. The town’s 1833 Methodist chapel was practically destroyed by a fire on Sunday morning, Dec. 31, 1922. The Stone Church that now stands was dedicated in 1924.
In 2001, after an internal battle, the Methodist church ceased operations at Lambert’s Cove United Methodist Church. The church conference claimed control of and sold the West Tisbury property for $550,000. Of the $420,00 left after costs, the remaining Methodist churches on the Island chose to establish joint newsletters, hire joint administrative staff and establish a youth ministry. When officially acknowledging the Lambert’s Cove church closing in 2004, a church spokeswoman told the Gazette, “Each of the churches is facing a strain.”
Throughout January all parishioners of the three down-Island churches will meet for church services at l0 a.m. in Christ Church (the Stone Church) in Vineyard Haven. Sunday school for children ages 3 to 11 will be held during worship service, and classes for children ages 11 and up will be held at the Trinity Parish House in Oak Bluffs at 11:30 a.m. every Sunday.
In February, church services Sunday school will be held at Edgartown United Methodist Church, the Whaling Church in Edgartown, and in March, services and Sunday school will be held at Trinity Church in Oak Bluffs.
From April to June there could be a new rotating schedule, or parishioners may choose a single regular church for Sunday worship.