After holding services in its Main Road sanctuary for 220 years, Southold United Methodist Church will close for good by month’s end as part of a plan to consolidate the Southold and Cutchogue congregations.
Its retiring pastor conducted his last service this past Sunday at the church, where about 50 people met for morning worship. Many of them left in tears.
During the service, the Rev. Jin Kim acknowledged that many members were saddened by the decision to shutter the historic building. But he described the church’s direction as “the new reality.”
“This church is going through a transition; I thank God for the last three years in Southold,” he said, urging members to “see a new vision … as individuals and as a church collectively.
“That is my message to you,” he said.
Starting Sunday, June 22, the two congregations will worship together for the first time in Cutchogue as part of the newly formed North Fork United Methodist Church. They’ll gather again June 29 at the Southold church for its final worship service.
“Demographics is definitely a factor for declining membership,” the Rev. Jin told the newspaper. “Society is changing. There is a generation gap and the facilities don’t meet the needs of people with young families. Worship style needs to change and we need a comprehensive service to target the younger generation.”
The Southold church, built in 1794, is already on the market. Members of its congregation will worship at the existing Cutchogue church building, which was built in 1852, until that is sold as well.
The plan is to use the money generated by sale of both properties to purchase or build a smaller, more modern church facility that can better accommodate young families and eliminate costly maintenance and repairs associated with the aging buildings, the pastor said.
The merger of the two local congregations — which the Rev. Jin said each had about 30 regular Sunday parishioners when the consolidation was approved by the regional church district in March — reflects a larger trend facing United Methodist churches across the country.
Membership nationwide continues to decline — and according to a spokesperson from the national chapter of the United Methodist Church, an average of 368 Methodist churches has been merged annually in the past five years.
This past Sunday was also the last time the Rev. Paul Smith of the Cutchogue congregation led a service on the North Fork. He is now continuing his work for the church in Queens.
The combined North Fork United Methodist Church will have a new pastor, the Rev. Tom MacLeod, who will lead his first service in Cutchogue on July 5. In the meantime, services in Southold and Cutchogue will be led by guest preachers.
The Rev. Jin described the new hire as a blessing and called the Rev. MacLeod the “perfect person” to rejuvenate the congregation, since he has experience in successfully leading other Methodist congregations facing similar challenges elsewhere on the East End.
“There is something about getting smaller in order to get bigger,” said the incoming pastor, who currently serves at Sag Harbor Methodist Church.
He became the pastor in Sag Harbor in 2002.
“At the time, the church was down to 12 people who worshipped on a Sunday in a building that was over 10,000 square feet, which was becoming harder and harder for the group to maintain,” he said. “In that situation you wind up spending more of your attention on the building than you do on the mission of the church.”