By Josh Troy, The Clarksdale Press Register
Two Methodist churches in Clarksdale have been coming together for more activities the past five years. First United Methodist Church on East Second Street and St. Paul's United Methodist Church made the move to have one pastor for the first time with the hiring of John Garrott in 2015. Neville Vanderburg came from Belmont United Methodist Church in Belmont and replaced Garrott as pastor in 2017. The churches took another step in coming together as they agreed to consolidate as of July 1. Most of the services and other major activities will move to First United Methodist Church. Each church voted in favor of consolidation individually on April 21. Then both churches came together to vote for consolidation and it was approved at the Mississippi Methodist church conference in Jackson June 8.
"There was no deliberate plan," Vanderburg said. "It was not that I was coming here to do this. I was sent here to continue the process and see where it led. We began doing more joint things together. We started doing joint worship every quarter, things like that."
Vanderburg said people enjoyed joint worship and pushed the effort for the churches to come together. He acknowledged there are always some people not happy with change, but felt the merger would be a positive move.
"The biggest thing I've tried to explain is this is not the end all be all," Vanderburg said. "This is the first step towards being more vital to our community."
While First UMC has been around since the 1800s and St. Paul's United Methodist Church opened in the 1950s, there are many similarities. Vanderburg said both congregations have older individuals.
"Churches are like people," he said. "They've got their own DNA. They're all unique."
Vanderburg said St. Paul's United Methodist Church is more active in outward reach, but common goals are the same.
"What makes us the same is greater than what makes us different," he said. "I just always felt like it was one big church. From the day I got here, I just started seeing it was one church."
Vanderburg estimated First UMC's membership roll has 400 individuals and 110 of them come to worship on any given Sunday. He said about 250 to 300 people are on the St. Paul's United Methodist Church membership roll and 70 come to worship on a Sunday. He does the service at St. Paul's United Methodist Church at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, while Sunday school is at First UMC. Then, he does the service at First UMC at 11 a.m. Sunday, while Sunday school is at St. Paul's United Methodist Church. The times for services and Sunday school after the merger have not been determined.
"We're still working it out," Vanderburg said. "I mean it's all moving up here. Everything is going to consolidate on this campus. We may do two services. I would like to do maybe even more to try and reach people. The whole goal of this is not just for us. We're trying to think of how we can be more vital for the community."
Vanderburg said evening and weekday worship services could be added.
"They're very similar facilities," he said. "This church is a little bit bigger. We have more classrooms available here than would have been available at St. Paul's campus."
Clarksdale Collegiate Public Charter School is in St. Paul's United Methodist Church. The school's long-term facility plans could impact decisions for how the church will be used. Vanderburg said the school will be at St. Paul's United Methodist Church for at least two more years.
"It's been a blessing," he said. "We've made some relationships and people have seen some good things. We were grateful or blessed to have the facility being unused. The town has shrunk. The membership has shrunk, so we had a big campus that was just sitting mostly unused. So when the charter school approached us, we felt like it was a blessing to be able to offer that and use that facility."
Vanderburg said the church is just a landlord and not connected with the school. The charter school's existence is one of the reasons. First UMC will be the main facility after the merger.
"We're not walking away from west Clarksdale," Vanderburg said. "I would like to probably evaluate services and things that we might still use the sanctuary space. If they reconfigure that with the school, we can still use it for a worship service or for meeting space or something like that."
Vanderburg said it was hard to maintain two separate facilities and using two churches regularly costs a lot of money for infrastructure. However, that was not the only reason for the merger.
"This is not a had to thing," Vanderburg said. "We could have survived as we were for a longer period of time, but it was because we felt like we would be better together than we were apart. I believe some other churches could look and say it might be better to come together and church instead of try to struggle along separately.
"Two heads are better than one. When you're used to the way you do business and have always done it, to come together and say we haven't thought about it that way, let's try it that way, there is a lot of vitality there."
Vanderburg said his goal is to minister and continue being more of a service to the community. He acknowledged the merger could cause other churches to think about coming together.
"If so, I would love to be credited with part of that," Vanderburg said. "That would be alright. First Methodist did it first. If somebody else wants to follow it, that would be a great thing. We're doing it to be a mission to the community. That's the reason we're doing it."
Vanderburg said, in the future, he would like to see the preachers in Clarksdale get together more often to discuss ideas. He noted that occurred more in the past.
One issue Vanderburg said was important was improving race relations. He added the Rev. James Jackson Sr., who is big in Young Life in Clarksdale, was several years ago for that reason.
"He teaches tennis, drives the high school bus," Vanderburg said. "He's really big around here. He's active in our town, so we love having him. I would hope we could get together. If the church can't do it, nobody can do it."
Vanderburg said the recent Jericho Walk came from pastors holding meetings. He noted his churches were not as involved as he would have liked them to be because he was focused on the merger. He did say he would like to hold a community Easter service in the future.
"My dream would be to let another church or two to merge with us and we could keep doing this thing," Vanderburg said. "Actually, in the Methodist system, we can partner up with other denominations. We have a process whereby there's a couple of preachers in Mississippi now who preach at two Methodist churches and a Presbyterian church on a cooperative effort."
Members of both churches are looking forward to the merger. Tim Luster, who will be 66 in September, has been part of First UMC since he was born.
"It's been a part of my life my whole life," he said. "My grandparents went there. We were boy scouts there. Married there. Children christened there. One child was married there. Mother and Daddy were married right down the street at the Episcopal church. It's been a part of my family my whole life."
He married his wife, Deborah, in 1975. His children are Elizabeth and Sparky. Elizabeth was married at the church. His parents are Thomas and Betty Luster. Luster is looking forward to the merger.
"I'm excited," he said. "It's something a group of us from Methodist and St. Paul's have been talking for about 4½ years now. Some of us have been talking about it for 15 years.
Everything just came together," Luster said. "Both groups realized we would be stronger together than separate."
Harvey Fiser has been a part of St. Paul's United Methodist Church since it opened.
"It's meant everything," she said. "I've absolutely loved it. It's been a big, big part of my life, my husband's life and my children's lives."
Fiser's husband, the late Hal, and five boys Greg, John, David, Ross and Harvey have all been part of the church.
"I'm hoping that everything is going to be just great, fine and wonderful and increase the membership and we can do more mission work," Fiser said. "We can do more work at home and in the community."
"Through the years, we've had hundreds of people coming through St. Paul's, people who have stayed a little while and people who have stayed a long while. It has increased our versatility and made us more creative. Spiritually, this has meant a whole lot to a lot of people. We have produced several ministers from our church."
Torry Curtis and Millsaps Dye are the ministers. Bunky Butler has been a part of St. Paul's United Methodist Church since 1969.
"That's the church I picked when I came back to Clarksdale after moving for a year," he said. "I had been off to college and worked away from home for a year. I guess I knew more people in that church at that particular time. They worked real hard for me to join. They had a good evangelism team."
Butler has no regrets.
"It's a real friendly church," he said. "That's where a lot of my friends were. I still have a lot of friends in the other church. I just ended up there."
Butler believes consolidating churches will only improve things.
"I think it's a real good thing, in my opinion," he said. "As one church, we'll able to continue our missions in a more effective way. We'll have more people to do them. I think it will just be more effective this way.
"I'm looking forward to the merger. Everything is going smooth as planned. I think it's going to be a friendly merger from both sides."