News and Views

Oakland UMC starts ministry anew after painful split

Posted by Melissa Lauber on

By Melissa Lauber & Erik Alsgaard
UMConnection Staff

D.S. Edgardo Rivera (center) prays with Sharon Carrigan and Pastor Rick Shuman
D.S. Edgardo Rivera (center) prays with Sharon Carrigan and Pastor Rick Shuman

Some congregations “do” church well. But “being” church is harder. On July 22, United Methodists from the Frederick District gathered with the people of Oakland UMC who, in the midst of significant turmoil, are striving to “be” the church of Jesus Christ. Their journey has been marked with highs and lows, but it has also been a season of rediscovering the strengths of United Methodism, Oakland’s core leadership team says. Worshipping with one another was one of a continuing series of opportunities to celebrate what Bishop LaTrelle Easterling called in her sermon, “Being a Community of Love.”

The congregation at Oakland UMC in Charles Town, W.Va., is starting their church anew after two-thirds of the congregation left the denomination in May.

The split, led by the previous pastor and his family, who also served on the church’s staff, centered around the issue of homosexuality, interpretations of Scripture, and, some in the church claim, “personal agendas” that were played out in the pulpit and pews. The split has been a painful one.

“I lost my son in this,” said Lay Leader Iwayan Rata, whose son joined those who left the denomination.  “We’re being painted as the ones choosing to stay behind in Sodom and Gomorrah,” said Treasurer Sharon Carrigan.

After several months of unraveling what some in the church see as lies, deception, financial mismanagement, and lost friendships, “you think you’ve worked through it,” said Joe Logan, a trustee at Oakland. But the grief still erupts at unexpected moments. “We are a church that believes in biblical truth,” said Logan. “But we’ve even been told that God is no longer with us, no longer in our building. There is a lot of hurt.”

At the worship celebration, the churches of Frederick District joined with the faithful remnant at Oakland UMC for a time of prayer, praise and a celebration of the connection that unites them as makers of disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

In a time of prayer, Bishop Easterling anointed the church’s core leadership team following a sermon on the love of God.

“Love is what has given us salvation. Love is what binds us together,” she said. “We must remember who and whose we are and reclaim our commitment to Christ every single day.” The church, she said, can’t be all that God calls us to be “if we don’t walk and live and sing and teach and pray and preach and baptize and serve and build and go in love.”

The bishop encouraged the people of Oakland UMC and all those present to abide in God’s love. The term “abide,” she said, “means ‘to remain in, tarry, spend some time.’ Abide evidences a lifestyle, not a transitory, short-lived experience. Abide means to take up residence. This is the commandment that precedes the next: to love one another. Not a superficial love; not a transactional love; not a fleeting love. Rather, it is a love that forms a lasting bond. … In this communal embrace we can create real community.” 

In light of recent events, living in this love has been a challenge for some in the church. On Palm Sunday, March 25, the Rev. Jo Anne Alexander preached a sermon at Oakland UMC calling The United Methodist Church “an apostate church,” said the Rev. Edgardo Rivera, superintendent of the Frederick District.

An apostate church is defined as one that was Christian but has rejected or rebelled against Christianity.  Alexander; her husband, the Rev. Kent Tice, who pastored the church; and Alexander’s son Joshua, who was also on staff, were, “for lack of a better word, ‘bashing’ The United Methodist Church because they did not perceive it as biblical or solid in its orthodoxy,” Rivera said. This dissatisfaction with the denomination had reportedly been cultivated over time.

The Sunday after Easter, the members were scheduled to vote, taking an assessment on remaining within the denomination, Rivera said. So, on Easter, he shared with the congregation a letter from Bishop Easterling, addressing their concerns about the church’s stance on homosexuality.

“There is a way for us to remain united, even as we have differing theological and doctrinal views,” the bishop wrote. “The belief in one Lord, one faith, one baptism and one God binds us together as believers and unites us.”

The bishop stressed that “our core message is Christ, above and before anything else,” and Rivera called on them to move beyond their single focus and to embrace the more-encompassing banner of God’s ministry.

However, on April 7, the Saturday after Easter, the congregation voted 81-16 to leave the denomination.

Both Alexander and Tice have served the church since 1993. She retired in 2014, and he retired Jan. 1, 2018, and was being allowed to serve the church full-time as a retiree.

In mid-May, the couple started a congregation, Oakland Community Church, holding their first service in an area funeral parlor.

But their departure was filled with grief and anger, said Rivera, that has left the 41 people who now attend worship at Oakland UMC with several challenges.

One of the principle ones is financial. “They left no money,” said Rivera.

They left us with nothing in the church’s bank account, said treasurer Carrigan. “We’re looking at healing and a way of going forward, but we want to acknowledge there were issues. It would not have been as difficult as it has been if the pastors had not left us with a negative bank account.”

Bishop LaTrelle Easterling annoints Joe Logan, who serves as a trustee at Oakland UMC, at a worship celebration of unity.
Bishop LaTrelle Easterling annoints Joe Logan, who serves as a trustee at Oakland UMC, at a worship celebration of unity.

The Baltimore-Washington Conference Board of Trustees and the Board of pensions are working with church leaders. Conference staff are also providing training and other assistance for Rick Shuman, who has been appointed to serve as pastor of the church.

Shuman grew up in the area and is a good leader and a good match for the church, Rivera said.

Shuman believes that reclaiming the missional spirit of the church by continuing to serve the community will bring healing.

The church has reopened its preschool and is working to reopen Paul’s, a popular restaurant in the church that serves meals for the community. Based on congregational interests, he is also exploring ministries that address addiction and disaster relief.

Shuman and Rivera are also working to dispel rumors, like the notion that Tice is not receiving a pension from The United Methodist Church. In reality, both Tice and Alexander are vested in the denomination’s pension plan and are receiving their full pensions.

Social media has been a source of misinformation and misunderstanding, Rivera said. He is troubled by the anger and vitriol and finds himself returning thoughts from John 13:35, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” As the church’s interim pastor, the Rev. Ed Grove made efforts to ignite the connectional spirit of United Methodism within the people of Oakland UMC, who had grown isolated in the past several years.

Mount Wesley UMC, where Grove also serves, had a spaghetti dinner to raise funds for Oakland UMC. That gesture deeply touched the Oakland members. “We were like an island,” said Logan. “We were isolated and alone. Now we’re connected.”

Working toward this connection is a holy endeavor, Bishop Easterling said.

“The church must be a unity, holy and universal… The church transcends, it must transcend, human avarice, selfish motivations and fleshly desires, to stand as the universal translation of Christ to the world. … We are created, called, and covenanted to be a community of love.”

“Together,” Rivera said, “united in Christ, Oakland now has the opportunity to do something, built on the gifts of the past but something fresh and new that will provide a new way of hope for the future of ministry in that location. I think that potential is there,” Rivera said. “We’ve taken the rearview mirror down,” said Logan. “It’s time to move forward.”

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