If a multitude of announcements are an indication of a healthy congregation, Sutton Federated Church qualifies.
There’s the upcoming tai chi class — which Pastor Mary Scott suggested would be a good salve to heal the wounds of the Nebraska Cornhuskers’ football loss in the season opener the day before; a take-out taco supper to pay for a new musical play area, dubbed “Joyful Noise,” at the city park across the street; and introduction of a visitor from the Great Plains Conference, doing a story on “churches like us, with two different groups under one roof.”
“It’s been longer than I’ve been alive, and many of you,” the 60-something Scott said to the congregation of about 70 at the central Nebraska church, a combination of United Methodist and United Congregational Church.
Sutton is one of 21 churches in the Great Plains Conference where United Methodists are combined with another denomination. Six churches, including Sutton, are known as “Federated” in their names. Another five are “Union” and 10 are “Yoked.”
“This has been a really great way for some of our congregations to continue to do viable and sustainable ministries in their communities,” Scott Brewer, treasurer and director of administrative services for the Great Plains Conference, said. “They all tend to be in smaller communities where this has been a way to have the kind of pastoral leadership that they’re looking for.”
When Donna Bauer moved to Sutton in 1947, she and the other new teachers at the school were told by the superintendent’s wife that they had to go to church, Bauer recalled.
Raised as a Methodist, it was logical which church she’d attend. But by 1949, the Congregational Church (whose roots in Sutton dated back to 1871) and the Methodist Church (which began in town in 1876) joined together, albeit in separate buildings.
“They were using both churches,” Bauer recalled. “Come every six months, all the hymnals and the choir robes would go to the Congregational Church, and then six months later they’d come back. They were definite about changing denominations. They were definitely getting along well.”
The Congregational Church merged into the United Church of Christ in 1957.
The current church was built in 1964. It’s the second largest membership of the eight churches in and near Sutton.
Pastors would alternate between Methodist and UCC. Church members and those around town didn’t classify Federated Church members as one congregation or the other.
“Pretty soon it got so that they didn’t know which one they were,” Bauer said. “They’d say, ‘Where do you go to church?’ and we said ‘Federated.’”
Audrey Peterworth, small-groups coordinator at the church, said that is still the case. She grew up in the Sutton church and returned as an adult.
“I grew up asking what that (Federated) meant,” she said. “I had to ask the pastor at the time. Just like our kids do now. You definitely have to explain yourself, even in Sutton.”
While the Methodist side of Sutton Federated is part of the two-state Great Plains Conference, the UCC side is a in a three-state conference encompassing Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota.
While the Methodists and UCC pastors alternated through the years, Scott, who has served Sutton since 2015, is the third United Methodist pastor in a row that’s served the Sutton church.
Although Methodist hymnals fill the pews, Scott said, the Nicene Creed is inserted inside of them. And “there’s still a lot of UCC language still used here, like ‘Youth League.’”
Scott said she and her congregation don’t often worry about the denomination to which the church belongs.
“It’s about the people worshipping together. It’s not about the labels we put on it,” she said. “I’m not sure if people are worried about the denomination but the people they’re worshipping with.”
While United Methodists are at least 11 months away from discussing the denomination’s future regarding human sexuality, Scott said her church is keeping its focus on its community.
“We can’t afford to cause division again,” she said. “They have enough struggles and heartaches in their own personal lives. They don’t need to be a part of more. When we focus on that, we stop focusing on missions.”
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