The 20 members of the congregation at the United Church of Bennington were settled into their pews minutes before the start of a recent 9:30 a.m. Sunday service when a question came up.
“Who rings the bell?”
The bell sits on a metal frame outside the central Kansas church, which has dual denominations of United Methodist and Presbyterian, and signifies the start of worship services.
Once a bell ringer was found, services began with the Rev. Cynthia Smart listing a variety of activities, most importantly a cookout that evening with the nearby Minneapolis UMC, where Smart also serves as pastor.
In her sermon, Smart — whose appointment at the church began in July — talked about the differences between the two denominations, including United Methodists having charge conferences and the Presbyterians having “annual meetings.” She talked about how difficult it was to find enough a slate of officers and leadership teams that would satisfy both denominations.
This is the last of a four-part series called "Under One Roof," about churches in the Great Plains Conference that share United Methodists and other denominations.
“Oftentimes no one wants to step up and volunteer for positions anymore,” Smart told the congregation. “As long as you’ve got blood running through your veins, and you’re breathing, you can do something.”
The United Church of Bennington is one of 21 churches in the Great Plains Conference where churches share dual denominations. Scott Brewer, treasurer and director of administrative services for the conference, said that two of those 21 either have or are in the process of closing. The United Church of Eskridge, a UMC-Presbyterian congregation about 40 miles southwest of Topeka, has closed. And Creighton Faith United, a yoked parish with United Church of Christ in northeast Nebraska, is in the process of closing.
Brewer’s father, the Rev. James Brewer, was pastor of Gibbon Faith United in Nebraska, a combination Methodist-Presbyterian church. Like many of the dual denomination churches, it relied on the UMC for its pastors since there was more of a guarantee to have clergy in the pulpit.
“They knew they could have pastoral leadership, which could sometimes be difficult with denominations that are under the call system,” he said.
Brewer said it’s on the financial and administrative side of church where differences start to show.
“Theologically, these are all mainline denominations that are working together,” he said. “You usually won’t see a difference until the governance question.”
Sometimes, Brewer said, members of the churches aren’t sure of their denominational identity.
“It’s sort of yours, mine and ours — and that’s true of any situation where you have cooperative efforts,” he said. “You have folks there before you came together and after. So, it does get complicated at times — whose members are these?”
Rev. Dr. Jean Hawxhurst, ecumenical staff officer for the United Methodist Council of Bishops, said information on the number of churches that have dual denominations and identify as Federated, United, Yoked and Union are kept at the conference level. In an email, Hawxhurst said she has tried in vain to gather the exact number of two-denomination churches in the United States that include United Methodist but estimates there are fewer than 200 nationwide.
By the time Jim and Karen McClain came to Bennington in the early 1960s, when he started a decades-long career as school superintendent, the Presbyterians and Methodists already had begun having Sunday school together.
The two denominations began worshipping together, six months at each church — “One place had air conditioning and the other was really hot,” member Cynde Cleveland recalled — and were content until Christmas Eve 1974.
That’s when a young pastor named Sam Leonard entered town, assigned by the United Methodists.
“Are you interested in getting all together?” Leonard asked, as McClain recalled.
“We said no, and he corrected us,” McClain said with a laugh. “Within six weeks, the bigwigs in both (denominations) approved and in February ’75 we voted.”
Karen McClain, Jim’s wife, said the church is proud of its independence.
“The biggest misunderstanding by others, I’ll put it, is that we’re not Presbyterian, we’re not Methodist, we’re both. We truly members of both communities,” she said. “I even heard this morning, ‘the Methodists and the Presbyterians.’ We are a United church. Other churches, I think, keep their identity, but we’re just a melting pot.
“We realized early on if we were both separated it wouldn’t be too long before we were gone,” she added. “It just worked out — providence.”
Decades ago, the town of now 800 had Presbyterian, Methodist and Episcopal churches. The United Church is the only congregation left in the town, with a large Bible church located north of Bennington. The United Church meets in the former Presbyterian sanctuary, and the former Methodist church a block and a half north has been converted into a senior center. After the recent death of a church member, the funeral service was in the United Church and the reception was in the Methodist church-turned-senior center. The former Episcopal church, across the street, is now the town library.
With a congregation getting smaller thanks to COVID precautions, members say they still make themselves known in Bennington.
“Part of it is our involvement in the community,” Karen McClain said. “We see the need to be involved, and that’s what keeps us going. We see what the community needs and how we can serve them.”
They do so through trick-or-treating for the local food pantry, a Memorial Day dinner at the school, serving funnel cakes at the local rodeo, and a community garden that got its boost from the church’s pastor from 2004 to 2011, the Rev. Warren Cico.
“I think everybody in town knows us and knows our church,” member Susie Stenfors said. “The garden’s touched a lot of people and made them aware of our church.”
Cico is currently serving another dual-denomination church, Prairie West in Potter in the panhandle of Nebraska — a combination UMC and Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.
“I didn’t notice it too much when I was in Bennington, but sometimes here there’s a conflict sometimes between the two denominations,” Cico said. “They’re more (Methodists) in number so they’re more controlling, and sometimes the Lutherans feel like they’re let out of things.”
Cico said there are some differences in the church service — “trespass” vs. “debts” in the Lord’s Prayer, grape juice vs. wine for communion (it becomes the individual’s choice) — but the two generally get along.
Contributions differ as well, he said.
“We’re really minimum in what we give to the Lutheran church,” Cico said. “They don’t send out reports like the Methodists do.”
Rev. Cynthia Smart, who asks her parishioners to call her “Pastor C,” added Bennington to her charge at Minneapolis this summer and wasn’t given much information aside from the church had dual denominations.
“Not having any real experience with the Presbyterian Church, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect,” she said.
Smart had an informative meeting with the general presbyter of the Salina-based Presbytery of Northern Kansas, similar to a district superintendent, who acclimated her to the denomination.
“As far as structure there’s a little difference. They have elders, but their elders aren’t ordained, they’re laity,” she said. “They don’t have a bishop, the way they’re structured. They have what they call a moderator — not sure what a moderator does.”
While the Bennington church began alternating between Methodist and Presbyterian pastors, it has stayed with a Methodist pastor since Cico’s arrival in February 2004.
“They would have to go through a call process and interview people” as Presbyterian, she said. “It’s very involved to hire a pastor. That’s a different thing. I guess those churches that were Presbyterian and Methodist under one roof have found it’s a little easier. That way they know they’ll have a pastor and don’t have to go through the process.”
Smart said her church members are proud of their identity.
“I haven’t had a lot of deep interaction with folks because they haven’t been coming back after COVID,” she said. “But the ones that I’m around, especially the ones in leadership, don’t really mention either Presbyterian or Methodist. I think they’ve been together so long they see themselves as a community church.”
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