Editor's note: This is the final installment in a series on churches in the Great Plains that survived close disaffiliation votes.
PRATT, Kansas – Opinions on the present state of Pratt United Methodist Church after a close disaffiliation vote and the state of the congregation’s future all depend on whom you ask.
Some in the church say they’re more energized than ever after the March 5 vote, and others believe the future of the Pratt UMC is in jeopardy.
Leaders in the church said they were warned that a 50/50 vote to disaffiliate — where two-thirds of the votes to leave were necessary — would be the worst thing that could happen. The results in Pratt: 53% to 47% to stay UMC.
“You could tell before it happened that there was going to be a split down the middle,” church member Faye Kuhn said.
Dozens of church members stayed following a recent Sunday contemporary service to talk about the vote and its aftermath.
“It’s not a surprise to the people in this room,” church member Wakon Fowler said. “Maybe to the ones who left it was a surprise. Maybe they wouldn’t have had us do it.”
“Our country’s going through a split right now, 50/50, 60/40” politically,” Steve LaPrad said. “We’re just like everybody else.”
“We are trying to go forward and piece that together, and that will be very difficult — and will continue to be very difficult,” Fowler said.
For Kuhn, the struggles can be seen on the back page of the weekly bulletin, with lines for offerings from the previous week and the year so far. The weekly offering is 7% of what’s needed, she points out, and the year-to-date offering is about one-third of what’s needed for the budget.
“Let’s cut to the quick,” she said. “The statistics are telling us something.”
Kent Moore, chair of the finance committee, said one of the first actions taken was to suspend the church’s apportionment payments to the conference.
“With our budget outlook, we flat won’t have the money,” he said.
Ben Jones, who was hired in January as director of discipleship, said the church has been conscious about cutting expenditures and “getting by with what we have and don’t have.”
The Rev. Nicole Schwartz-Eck, pastor of the church since 2020, said attendance for both of the Sunday services averaged 100-110 during the spring, and was about 140 before the vote.
Among those leaving were the chairs of the administrative board, board of trustees, finance committee and Pastor Parish Relations Committee.
“The four top positions that ran the business of the church are gone. We’ve had people step up and take those positions, but it’s been pretty discouraging to me,” church member Gary Barker said.
Fowler said some of the remaining church members have become more involved.
“A lot of people stepped up to the plate in this church and have been more active on committees and more active doing things. I anticipate we’ll have more people doing that with group studies coming into the fall,” he said. “There’s excitement for the spiritual growth of the church, the spiritual outreach we can make to the local community.
“That’s where maybe we need to re-find our footing as a missional church to the community,” he continued. “If we do that, we can find people to join the church or people can be drawn to the church. Are we going to be around here this time next year if we don’t change some things?”
Marie Hanson, a member of the PPRC, said she felt revitalized.
“I personally feel like I got a kick in the pants,” she said. “I realized I was pretty complacent. I didn’t invest a lot in this church. I attended, I’m on committees always. I myself feel I’m reinvigorated. I’m working more to be a part of what’s going to happen in the future and help make that happen too.”
“That’s at least a positive thing,” Kuhn said. “People who weren’t very active are taking another role in another way. That’s accomplished something.”
Most of those who left the church after the March 5 vote immediately began their own church services as a non-denominational congregation the following weekend.
In Pratt, a central Kansas community of 6,500, those who attend the United Methodist Church said their friendships with those who left haven’t waned.
“They’re good friends. We just have a little disagreement,” LaPrad said.
“I wish those people good will. I don’t have hard feelings,” Hanson said. “I’m sorry the process was there, frankly, that we could have that vote. I feel like if they weren’t happy here, God bless them, and I hope they find a place where they are happy. I’m sorry we were put in a position to pit people against people, which is happening all over. I harbor no ill feelings toward those people at all. I want them to find Jesus in any way they can.”
Jones, who came from the Sterling UMC, said the Pratt church’s hospitality, welcoming and intentionality have gone to a higher level -- and that every visitor to the church in the past few months has returned..
“The intentionality I’ve seen, and the welcoming has made a big shift in a positive way,” he said. “There’s people who want to think about starting to come here.”
The church’s payroll includes a paid business manager and a paid custodian.
“Maybe they’re a luxury for other churches, but it’s been standard procedure here for the health and wellbeing of our church. I don’t know how we cut the equilibrium budget-wise,” Moore said. “We’ve always been a church where our trustees had the capability of having funds to take care of our facility needs, and we’ve been blessed by that. That’s tougher and tougher to do, because the trustees funds are depending on how their investments do.
“We’re in a pickle, plain and simple, we’re in a pickle moneywise,” he added. “It gets real tough real quick to find places you can cut spending back that will make a difference. I don’t know that I know the answer.”
In her sermon that morning, Schwartz-Eck said the church — both locally, the denomination and the church in general — was in “not necessarily the easiest season,” but encouraged those in the congregation to keep their faith and hope.
“God is responsible for the saving,” she said. “We’re here to do the proclaiming.”
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