Church Started by Lay Couple Celebrates 10th Anniversary
*By Dr. Larry R. Hygh, Jr., director of communications
OAKHURST, Calif.—"Ultimately people don't start churches, it's the spirit that starts churches," said Ken Gudger. Gudger and his wife, Debbie, began what is now New Community United Methodist Church (UMC) ten years ago. Debbie Gudger says, "Other than having children, it was the most important thing we have ever done in our life."
The lay couple approached retired Bishop Beverly J. Shamana in 2001 about the lack of a United Methodist presence in their Oakhurst community after hearing her preach at an event. For two years, they led a group and gathered support to bring a Methodist church to their area. They were told they needed 120 people to hold a first service.
In nine months, they gathered a list of 400 interested persons in the community and the first official worship service was held on April 20, 2003, Easter Sunday.
In the community, there was a non-denominational church, Community Church of Oakhurst that was beginning the process of ceasing to exist as a local church. They voted to deed their church facility to the United Methodist Church. Ken Gudger says, "The building is not the church." He said, "Yes, the building was a great relief, but the building did not cause the new church…People who wanted to see God in their life are the church."
The Gudgers cite three reasons for the church's success ten years later: diversity in music (led by well-known local musicians, Kirk and Monika Moulin); being a reconciling congregation from its formation; and, radical hospitality. Debbie Gudger says, "Radical hospitality isn't about increasing our numbers, radical hospitality is about the potential for transforming lives."
The Rev. Helen Mansfield, pastor of New Community UMC says, "It's usually clergy we send…these were a pair of laypeople who got the ball rolling on this church."
New Community UMC, a church nestled in the foothills near Yosemite, celebrated its tenth anniversary in a community park with a worship service followed by a barbeque. The Rev. Mansfield says, "I see it as a possible means of worshipping in the park on a more regular basis…there were folks who were just coming through the park and ended up sitting down."
The church's ministries include a free weekly community meal on Wednesday evening, shelter for the homeless during winter months, backpacks filled with items for children who have been removed from their homes, clothing for prisoners about to be released, and a thrift store. (Read a blog from Rev. Mansfield about the church's ministry here.)
The Rev. Mariellen Yoshino, district superintendent for the Central Valley District says, "New Community UMC is truly a witness of the continuous movement of the Holy Spirit…calling, moving, challenging faithful founders and members." Yoshino is excited the church continues to grow and change as it serves its Oakhurst community. "What a joyful, faith-filled, community of disciples."
In the beginning, New Community UMC did receive some annual conference funding as a new church start. Currently, the church has a membership of approximately 124 people, and about 85 persons in worship each week. The 2010 census has Oakhurst with a population of 2,829.
The Rev. Dr. Bener Agtarap, California-Nevada Conference superintendent for congregational vitality, says, "I believe gifted, called, laypeople will effectively lead new congregations." He added, "Methodism grew in the early 1800s in the United States as a laypeople movement."
Agtarap says the plan for the California-Nevada Conference is to partner with Path 1 (the denomination's initiative to start new churches) Lay Missionary Planting Network. "I have no doubt that the greater efforts we put in to find, equip, and deploy lay people to start new faith communities in partnership with our clergy, the more likely the church is to be vital and multiplying its impact," he said. "Let's not forget, Jesus was a layperson!"
*Hygh is director of communications for the denomination's California-Nevada Annual Conference which is comprised of 360 local churches with 80,000 United Methodists in Northern California and Northern Nevada.