Historic decision first of its kind among Methodist churches in South Carolina; expanded congregation now includes two campuses
GREENVILLE—On April 2, the membership of Buncombe Street United Methodist Church formally voted overwhelmingly in favor of adopting Trinity UMC, Greenville.
This decision was officially confirmed by the South Carolina Conference of the UMC at Annual Conference 2017. The adoption marks a first in the history of the UMC in South Carolina.
A journey in faith
Earlier this year, the leadership and congregation of Trinity faced a difficult decision: their pastor was set to retire in June 2017. As the church contemplated its next steps, it acknowledged that its congregation had dwindled over the years and that they could no longer sustain the type of ministry they wanted for their church and community.
“Trinity has always been a warm and welcoming congregation, but we were aging and we knew it,” said longtime Trinity member Dr. Carol Wilson. “The church just didn’t have the human resources to sustain programs without more support. After a five-month viability study, we realized that we should find ways to shape the church’s change before circumstances mandated drastic measures.”
Ultimately, Trinity’s members chose to put their church up for “adoption” by another church.
Greenville District Dr. George Howle praised the congregation of Trinity and their approach to this decision.
“My view of Trinity is that they are a wonderful group of people who love their church so much that they’re willing to let it go so that there will be a strong place to worship in their community in the generations to come,” Howle said. “They remember a time when the church was healthy and strong, and they truly believe that it could be again.”
Dr. Bob Howell, senior pastor at Buncombe Street since June 2016, likens Buncombe Street’s adoption of Trinity to the Apostle Paul’s Macedonian call: “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him, and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’” (Acts 16:9).
Howell feels Buncombe Street was chosen for its history of missional outreach, and a little bit more.
“I believe we were chosen because of the type-A personality of Buncombe Street. This is a get-it-done place,” Howell said. “We voted, and 83 percent of the people here said, ‘Let’s do this,’ because that’s who we are. That’s the nature of this church. Let’s help. That is Buncombe Street. I’ve never known a more caring church in my life.”
Two campuses, one family
Upon receiving approval from both congregations and the Methodist leadership in South Carolina, Buncombe Street and Trinity have begun the real work of uniting the two churches under the name of Buncombe Street UMC.
A Transition Team with representatives from both congregations has been tasked with blazing a new path, blending the church families into one, and diversifying and expanding Buncombe Street across two campuses: Downtown Campus and Trinity Campus. More details on the shared ministry between the two campuses will take shape and be further defined over the coming months.
The Rev. Benjamin Burt has been appointed an associate pastor at Buncombe Street and will lead the congregation at the Trinity Campus, effective June 28. Burt comes to Buncombe Street from Epworth UMC, Charleston, his first appointment after finishing seminary in 2012.
“The congregation is going to love Ben,” Howell said. “They’re going to fall in love with him, his personality and charisma, and his preaching. I’m betting everything on Ben, because Ben is a leader of people.”
“I feel hopeful about Ben,” Wilson said, “and am seeing the potential and possibilities of his joining the Ministry Leadership Team.”
The significance of the path less traveled
The impact of a successful Buncombe Street /Trinity adoption may extend well beyond the borders of the Greenville District.
“It’s going to become the model for the conference,” Howle said. “This is one of the most inexpensive ways to revitalize congregations and to start congregations, to revitalize
communities and to revitalize our churches in decline. It costs less and carries much greater prospects for success than new church planting, and helps save and grow churches rather than shutting them down. This is a way to do a revitalization with great results. You’ve got the facilities and the right location, and with those combinations of Trinity, Buncombe Street and Ben, I believe that this is going to be impressive, and it’s going to be an example.”
“Our hope is that our success in this endeavor will produce a ripple effect among other larger, stronger congregations in the state,” Howell said. “Our example will give them the vision and confidence to say, ‘We can do that, too.’ It’s the multiplying effect. Buncombe Street will not turn Methodism around by adopting Trinity. But if 100 strong churches—roughly 10 percent of the congregations in South Carolina—followed this model, and instead of 100 strong churches we had 200 strong churches in 10 years, we would collectively change the shape of Methodism in South Carolina. We would change the shape of our witness and our work and our spiritual influence in the state. And that matters.”
“The Trinity and Buncombe Street congregations are so committed to being the hands and feet of God in the community,” Wilson said. “We’re includers, and we want to be a part of a church that includes. We have a strong commitment to education and outreach and believe that Trinity’s joining Buncombe Street will allow us our best opportunities to continue our mission in this community.”
Founded in 1834, Buncombe Street is one of the largest congregations of United Methodists in South Carolina, serving more than 2,700 members across two campuses, in accordance with its mission “to be and to make disciples of Christ.”