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Woodland, University churches to merge

Beginning Sunday, Sept. 9, two long-established Duluth churches will begin worshiping together as they head toward a formal merger early next year. The joining of Woodland United Methodist Church and University United Methodist church are the res...

Beginning Sunday, Sept. 9, two long-established Duluth churches will begin worshiping together as they head toward a formal merger early next year. The joining of Woodland United Methodist Church and University United Methodist church are the result of a self-examination undertaken by four Methodist churches on the east side.
Beginning several years ago, a consultant, Antti Lepisto, led the four congregations through a review in which they looked at what they had in common and how they were different.
Chester Park United Methodist and Lester Park United Methodist both decided to continue on their own after the review. However, Woodland and University agreed that what they would gain from a merger would outweigh what they would lose.
The Rev. Elton Brown, from University, said, "Personally, I'm excited and scared. There is a strong sense that we are not merging two older churches, but are creating a new church."
The Rev. Sunny Kang, from Woodland, said, "I've been very encouraged by the amount of trust and friendliness in these (merger) meetings. People have trusted one another and really are trying to work together. People are very, very excited for the future, and people are coming out of the woodwork to serve on committees."
Brown agreed, "I was quite amazed how positive and open the congregation was to this change, which wasn't forced on them."
The cornerstone of the new church will be a youth ministry more active than either church has had in the past. In fact, the new congregation has joined with Chester Park United Methodist to hire a part-time youth minister, the Rev. Lawrence Van Vactor-Lee. The hiring was made possible by the anticipated savings that will come from having to maintain only one church building instead of two.
The new congregation has not yet chosen a name for itself. In the interim, it will go by the name "Woodland-University United Methodist Church." The merged church will worship in what is now the University United Methodist Church building, 301 W. St. Marie St.
Kang said that he is "being realistic" in admitting that not every member of Woodland will join in the merger. "At the same time, I'm hoping new members will join. Any losses we have, we hope we will more than recover in new members."
Church members plan to blanket the Woodland-University area with flyers this week. Woodland has about 150 members and University has just under 200, but both congregations rarely have had 100 people in church on any given Sunday.
Sally Herstad, who has been a member at Woodland since 1972, said, "I hope every Sunday we can have every pew full to overflowing."
At the same time, she has mixed emotions. "I know in my heart this is the right thing to do, but I'm finding that this is an emotional thing as the time draws near."
Herstad said that the self-examination showed that the Woodland congregation was aging, and it was becoming more difficult to attract and keep young families.
Ellen Shelhon, who has belonged to University for 13 years, saw the same thing at University. "If you only have a few families of young children," she said, "the kids don't want to come because there's no one else there who is their age."
With the merger, she thinks young people will find the new congregation more attractive. She also hopes that more interest groups for adults can be organized, so that instead of just three people, maybe six or eight will participate. She said, "I look at it as a new beginning and a chance for rejuvenation."
Brown said, "We are really challenging ourselves to adapt to the needs and style of the younger generations."
Herstad said she hopes the church can have a Christian education program overflowing with students, and that it can hold worship services specifically designed for young people. "I think being part of a church family is a wonderful thing," she said. "I hope we accomplish the merger as smoothly as possible, and we can get on with doing God's work."
To celebrate the merger, the new congregation will host a carnival and open house for the public on Saturday, Sept. 8, from 2 to 5 p.m. The next day, Sept. 9, Sunday school will be at 9 a.m., and the worship service will start at 10 a.m.
Tom West is editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached at 723-1207 or by e-mail at tom.west@duluth.com .

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