Churches Merge for Missional Purpose

May 30, 2013

*By Dr. Larry R. Hygh, Jr., Director of Communications

On Pentecost Sunday, Good Shepherd and El Cerrito United Methodist Churches (UMC) came together for worship in what will become the newly formed Open Door UMC. After a year and a half of discernment, the two churches unanimously voted last December to merge. "From this point on, we move forward together as Open Door United Methodist Church…we join together for our first service today and celebrate the heritage of both of these faith communities that have been in service to this community and to the world," said the Rev. Mariah Furness Tollgaard, pastor of El Cerrito UMC. She will continue as the pastor of the newly merged congregation serving the East Richmond Heights neighborhood.
A few years ago, the El Cerrito congregation sold its building that was in need of maintenance and decided to become "a church without walls." During this process, the Good Shepherd congregation asked them (El Cerrito) to come and share their building. "Over the past year, we've been intertwining our lives…it's a missional merger coming together out of a source of strength and because we feel called to serve the same community, and to serve in mission and ministry in the same way in this community," said Furness Tollgaard. 
Why the new name Open Door for the merged community? Furness Tollgaard says, "This church is open to all…the open door also reminds us that we are sent out in service to the world." She added, "The door opens out to our community, out to the greater church, wherever we are called…we gather here to be sent out as God's disciples." 
The Good Shepherd congregation has a long history of social justice ministry and mission outreach. They have sent Volunteer in Mission (VIM) teams all over the world. The congregation has been involved in feeding the hungry in the Richmond area. The El Cerrito congregation has doubled its worship attendance in the past year. They bring a history of spiritual growth and small group ministry. 
The Rev. Randy Smith, pastor of Good Shepherd UMC, preached the morning's sermon "Flame On!" based on Acts 2:1-21. He challenged those gathered to "Keep the flame burning so that our witness for the Gospel will go forth into all the world." Smith, who will begin as pastor of another congregation in July, says church mergers are not a bad thing. "If they are missionally focused, and if they are used to enhance the mission in a particular area, among particular people, they can be a wonderful and joyful thing that allow for God's work to happen," he said.
During the Pentecost service, both congregations participated in a liturgy celebrating the history of both congregations and the spirit of moving forward together. A longtime member (40 plus years), and a new member (joined within the past year), poured sand into a vase to symbolize the history of the two congregations and the merger. 
The Rev. Renae Extrum-Fernandez, District Superintendent for the Bridges District, said, "I have been inspired by the journey El Cerrito has made from declining congregation to 'intentional interim' appointment to 're-start' and now to 'vital merger' in partnership with the Richmond Good Shepherd congregation." Extrum-Fernandez points to the support of the California-Nevada Annual Conference approving the sale of the El Cerrito property, and allowing the funds to be disbursed and used for a re-start, as vital to the merger process. "That is the kind of support with accountability that we need to encourage to risk together the creative opportunities that the Holy Spirit sets before us," she said.
Extrum-Fernandez says, "Their renewal comes not as a revival of what they have always been, but a surrendering of the congregational lives they have known as 'El Cerrito' and 'Good Shepherd,' in order to become a new congregation, with a new name, and a new life." She added, "We remember that it was Jesus' way to re-name several disciples who had begun a new life in following Him."
*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.