By Stan Friedman
RICHFIELD, MN (July 24, 2013) – The decision by the Bethany Covenant Church congregation to close after 109 years of ministry was actually a sign that it was healthy, says Pastor Greg Ellis.
The congregation will hold its final worship service Sunday.
“It’s one of those things where we’re ending strong,” says Ellis. More people have been attending small groups and the level of participation in church life also has increased, he adds.
“However, as our members aged and some moved away and the neighborhood changed, we became less able to relate to the culture around us,” he wrote in a letter to the community. “Ministry that used to be effective and touch lives now had decreased impact. As membership and attendance declined, giving followed suit. Even with a building we own and a small staff, budgets became tighter and tighter.”
The church of roughly 50 regular attenders voted May 12 to close. “The decision was hard, but I think we’ve grown into it,” says Ellis. “No one likes the idea of closing and there still is a lot of grieving, but we’ve chosen to look at this through the lens of redemption.”
The church voted to be a Living Legacy congregation so that the sale of the building will be used to start several congregations in the Northwest Conference.
Ellis, who was called to serve the church four years ago, faced a challenging situation from his first day in the role. “My first charge was to get a vote to stay or continue,” he says.
At the time, the church voted to continue and began a deliberate process of considering its future. “We did a lot of investigating work to see what it would mean to be a healthy missional church,” Ellis explains. Ultimately, however, the decision was made to close Bethany’s doors.
Ellis says he is grateful for the support he has received through the denomination and the coaching it provides for pastors and churches going through the difficult process of closing. Covenant ministers Stan Hagemeyer and Bea Radakovitch, each of whom have served churches while they closed, served as Ellis’s coaches, talking with him by phone at least once a week.
Bethany Covenant Church was planted in 1904 when 73 people signed their names to a charter document formally signaling the beginning of the Swedish Evangelical Bethany Congregation. It already had begun informally when, in the fall of 1883, a small group of Swedish immigrants began meeting regularly. In 1884 a Sunday school was started and soon regular weekly services were being held.
In January 1911, Bethany held its annual meeting in a newly built church in Minneapolis. But even as the church celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1954, membership already had begun to decline as families moved away. Three years later, the church joined with several families in the Richfield area and moved to the community.
Now, five decades later, Ellis believes the members of Bethany Covenant are finishing this chapter of ministry with grace and integrity. In his letter to the church, he wrote: “As pastor of Bethany in its last days, I am proud of the selfless, courageous Christ-followers that God has raised up who are willing to die to self, willing to take up our cross and follow Jesus in such a way that others, too, will come to know him as Lord and Savior.”