Two congregations merge, finding new life

By Lindsay Peyton

On Sunday, March 7, members of Fairbanks UMC in north Houston gathered for their last sermon. This church, however, is not saying goodbye. Instead, members are merging with The Foundry, only about 5 miles away. Together, the congregations are discovering an opportunity for new life.

Rev. Heather Sims was appointed to Fairbanks in July 2019. At the time, the church was in conversations with Chapelwood UMC about a possible merger. “They could see the writing on the wall,” the pastor explained.

The church building was simply too expensive for the congregation to maintain. In addition, the neighborhood surrounding it had changed. “We were completely surrounded by industrial buildings,” Sims said.

Her job, from the get go, was to help the congregation discern the next step. “I was brought on to help the process – do we want to shut down, relocate or merge with another church? But at every turn there was a road block,” she said.

Sims was determined to discover a path that made the most sense, despite the obstacles. “I could see something had to happen,” she said. “And this church wasn’t ready to die. It was not going to close down. My hope was to find a way to stay together.”

Often, Sims explained, struggling churches will stay together even if that means the congregation won’t be able to make it. For some churches, challenges lead to disagreements, and members break up. Or congregants remain until they simply can no longer afford the building and then find themselves without a church home or pastor.

Fairbanks UMC wanted to avoid those fates. Then, Sims realized there was another option. “I did not even realize how close The Foundry was to us,” she said.

The Foundry’s Lead Pastor Ray Hughes is a longtime friend of Sims, as well. She asked his assistant to set up a meeting.

“He immediately called me back,” Sims recalled. “I told him that our church needs to make a move. We need to sell this building.”

She proposed renting space from him and then considering a merger down the road, if things went well. He agreed.

“It was like a breath of fresh air,” Sims said. “We finally had an option that made sense.”

The building at Fairbanks UMC went on the market. Then, COVID-19 delayed movement for a while. Members considered the slowdown resulting from the pandemic as a gift of time, to remain together a bit longer.

The uncertainties arising from COVID-19 only reiterated the need to merge and to best make use of limited funds and resources.

By August, Fairbanks UMC was able to resume worship – and they met in a chapel on campus at The Foundry. Sims had been granted an extra year to serve the congregation through the transition.

The Foundry welcomed Fairbanks UMC with open arms. When Fairbanks worried about losing its stained glass windows when their previous building was torn down, The Foundry measured the windows of their chapel.

“It fit exactly,” Sims said. “Ever since we’ve been there, our stained glass has been with us.”

Fairbanks UMC also had a church bell dating back more than 100 years. The Foundry was able to incorporate the bell into their redesigned worship space.

The Foundry has been such a favorable partner with the rent agreement in general, Sims said. When the time came, she reminded the congregation that if they remained independent, they might not be able to afford a full-time pastor. Instead, she hoped, they would consider moving forward with a merger.

“Within a week, we had a proposal,” Sims said. “By Feb. 21, we voted, and it passed.”

On March 21, members of both Fairbanks UMC and The Foundry will host a celebration of the merger together.

“The fit is perfect for a number of reasons,” Sims said. “First, we’re in the same community. This church is also very mission-minded, just like our people are. There’s a lot of intersection between our people and their people. Theologically, we line up with The Foundry as well. This is a great place for us to be.”

Being part of The Foundry will give her congregation more opportunities to get involved with church life, she added. For instance, now there are ministries for youth and children that did not exist before.

In addition, Sims said the merger makes the most of limited resources. “Now our people have this sense of new life coming to us,” she said. “They’re not scattering. This is everybody’s church home – and it’s really great.”

There were several periods of grieving on this journey, Sims explained. “They definitely did the hardest thing, but they did the best thing,” she said. “And I’m just so honored that I got to walk with them through the process.”

Pastor Hughes at The Foundry looks forward to seeing the two congregations join. “I truly believe we can be more fruitful together,” he said. “We can do more good for the Kingdom.”

District Superintendent Rev. Dr. Jeff Olive said that he is grateful to the pastors, church leaders and members at both Fairbanks UMC and The Foundry.

“They asked the hard questions: Could we accomplish more together than separately? Would our community be better served? Could the kingdom of God be further extended by this? In the end, the answers were: ‘Yes, yes, yes,’” Olive said. “Fairbanks determined to pass their spiritual and physical legacy to The Foundry through this adoption merger. I am hopeful more congregations will be inspired to think about what is possible when they hear the story of these two churches becoming one.”