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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Two Annandale churches agree to merge

Immanuel United Methodist Church on Heritage Drive
Membership at Immanuel United Methodist Church in Annandale has been slowly declining for a number of a years so, after exploring several options, the church agreed to merge with the much larger Annandale United Methodist Church (UMC).

Only about 30 to 50 people come to services regularly at Immanuel. Many members are in their 70s and 80s, and once you lose a critical mass, it’s no longer sustainable, says longtime member Bill Sinclair, who points to changing demographics in the area as a key factor.

UMC, at 6935 Columbia Pike, has nearly 1,600 members while its services usually draw about 500 on a typical Sunday.

The merger will take place July 1, after it is officially approved by the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church at its annual meeting in June, but that is just a formality, says UMC Pastor Clarence Brown.

UMC agreed to continue worship at the Immanuel facility, at 7901 Heritage Drive, for at least a year “to see if it’s viable to continue to worship there,” Brown says. Administration, finance, and other functions will be consolidated, and “the properties of Immanuel will be redeeded to reflect the establishment of the new entity.”

Immanuel will serve as a satellite campus of UMC, and UMC’s preaching staff will conduct 10:30 a.m. Sunday services, and handle pastoral care there on a rotating basis, Brown says.

Annandale United Methodist Church
Immanuel’s pastor, Rev. Deborah Austin, plans to leave the pastorate and become a mediator specializing in restorative justice and will focus on her role as a pastor’s wife. Her husband, Jeffrey Mickle, is senior pastor at St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church in Burke.

The Annandale Neighborhood Food Program, which distributes free produce and other items at Immanuel to lower-income community residents, will continue, and the other congregations that rent space there will continue to do so, although UMC will review those agreements.

The vote to merge was unanimous at Immanuel and supported by about two-thirds of the UMC membership. Those who voted against the merger were concerned about UMC’s financial obligations or had other objections.

“There comes a time in a congregation’s life cycle when there’s an imperceptible point of decline,” Brown says about the situation at Immanuel. “You don’t notice until it hits a critical point. If you don’t intervene at the right time, it becomes too difficult to pull a congregation back.” He hopes the new arrangement will “bring fresh energy in the way they connect to their community.” And, he says, “It’s another way for us to reach the larger community.”

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