Vine connects 4 panhandle churches

David Burke


The Vine opening service

SCOTTSBLUFF, Nebraska – At the foot of the Scotts Bluff National Monument, a Vine is starting to grow. 

The Vine United Methodist Church – a joining of Scottsbluff First, Mitchell, Morrill and Henry Lyman UMCs – sprouted in a July 9 introductory service at the YMCA Trails West Park in an open-air pavilion.

About 200 people attended the introductory service, followed by a barbecue lunch and swimming at the camp pool next door. 

Rev. Craig Collins and Pastor Joe Schumacher welcome the new congregation to The Vine United Methodist Church. Photo by David Burke

The seeds for The Vine were planted more than a year ago by Rev. Craig Collins, pastor of Scottsbluff UMC, and Joseph Schumacher, pastor of the other three Scotts Bluff County churches in the Nebraska panhandle. 

Collins, who has been at Scottsbluff First for eight years, said the idea sprouted from the church’s Staff Parish Relations Committee, which pondered the question of increased church vitality, and discussion began to form about getting an associate pastor. 

“We really need to focus on children and families to grow our church,” Collins said. “But that wasn’t in our budget.” 

Schumacher was approached by Collins about the tentative possibility of being an associate at Scottsbluff First along with his other churches. 

“I thought that would be harmful to my churches just down the road,” said Schumacher, who poised a “crazy idea” about being one church with multiple sites to Collins, who liked it. “We thought it was good. One month into it, we thought we should get some church leadership involved and it slowly grew from there.” 

An exploratory committee of 15-20 people, equally represented by all four churches, was formed. 

“We started talking about what could we be if we started combining our resources,” Collins said. 

Steps were taken last fall, combining the churches’ youth groups for a Wednesday night service, with Schumacher driving a van down the highway to pick up kids from the other churches to bring them to Scottsbluff. 

“It made the people excited, because in my small churches they could be one of 15 kids and the only one in their age group,” he said. “They got to be part of a bigger group and we brought our volunteers over to Scottsbluff. That kind of showed people some of the possibilities. Pretty soon we made the decision.” 

Charge conferences took place at all four churches in March. Collins said he wanted to follow the lead of the votes for disaffiliation – which never happened at any of the churches – tied to a 67% vote.  

“If any church didn’t vote for it, it wouldn’t happen,” Collins said. 

Two churches voted 100%, one 75% and one 72%. 

Following the affirmative votes, a transition team, made up of membership from each churches’ administrative council, began working in the four-month leadup to the opening service. 

About 200 people attended the opening service, at the Trails West YMCA Park in Scottsbluff. Photo by Annie Burke

All three of Schumacher’s churches are along U.S. Highway 26, west of Scottsbluff. Mitchell is nine miles away, another six miles to Morrill and six more miles to Henry, which is less than a mile from the Wyoming border. The Henry and Lyman churches merged 27 years ago, Schumacher said, and some attending still had memories of a smooth transition. 

“The smallest church had a better idea of how this should work,” he said. 

Under the plan for Sunday mornings, church services will be at 9 and 11 a.m. One pastor will take Scottsbluff and Morrill, the other will have Henry and Mitchell, as well as Scottsbluff’s 5 p.m. Saturday service. 

“We both feel like we need to be there on the weekends,” Collins said. 

Collins, a 23-year veteran elder, and Schumacher, a licensed local pastor and U.S. Navy veteran, will work together on sermons but each have “our own style, our own flair,” Collins said.  

“I don’t think of myself as much of a traditionalist, but that’s probably why Craig and I make such a good team,” Schumacher said. “We are different in a lot of ways.” 

Sunday services at Mitchell and Scottsbluff will be livestreamed on The Vine Facebook page

The pastors said all four churches have been asked for grace from their congregations in the first few months of The Vine. 

“We know we’re going to make some mistakes and we’re asking for permission to do that as we learn and grow,” Collins said. “I’m sure there’ll be some fallout from it, there already has been, but we hope to get those folks back – I’d hate to see them leave our church – but change is hard. It’s been difficult for some folks to accept. We’re just offering them grace and love on them and try to connect them to a church.” 

The Vine will be hiring a fulltime director of children and student ministries. 

"We feel it’s crucial. We have a lot of gray hairs in our pews right now,” Collins said, and while The Vine does value its eldest members, “(we need to do) something to change that course.”

But the decision to merge the churches was not made out of necessity, he added. 

“We don’t want to do this just for survival’s sake either,” Collins said. “We think it’s a way to turn the tide and start the life cycle all over again and renew some energy and help fill our church.” 

Collins and Schumacher handed out donuts while church members waited in line before the service to register their attendance and sign up for a combined Vacation Bible School and an outing to see the Western Nebraska Pioneers college-league baseball team play in nearby Gering. 

As small towns began to shrink and businesses left, churches were the saving grace, Schumacher said. 

The Vine attendees joined in a barbecue lunch following the opening service. Photo by David Burke

“Church is the one thing we haven’t given up in these small towns,” he said. “In some cases, church is the only thing in town other than homes.” 

He said the transition team found more similarities than differences in themselves and their churches. 

“We’re the exact same people, we just live six miles apart,” he said. “It was great to see how quickly those small congregations became a family.” 

Several of those attending the opening service were literally family members of Schumacher, including a cousin whose children were being baptized (among seven new members and four baptisms during the service) and Schumacher’s aunt, Elaine Pile, who attends Scottsbluff UMC and heard the plans of her nephew about 18 months earlier. 

“He hadn’t voiced that dream to a lot of people yet. I thought it was great, awesome,” Pile said. “Joseph was so full of excitement and dreams and aspirations that he couldn’t help but be excited about it.” 

Another Scottsbluff UMC member, Paqui Gonzales, attended Mitchell UMC until seven years ago. 

“When I heard we were all going to join and consolidate I was just thrilled,” said Gonzales, a member of the transition team. “We have some of the best people in the community, and to be able to come together and grow in our faith and reach out to our communities who are underserved, it’s really exciting.” 

Gonzales said the biggest concern was how the finances would work. 

“It’s hard to change when you’re used to something all your life being a certain way. That’s a natural thing for people to grumble about or have concerns,” she said. “It’s so important to look at the bigger picture of what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re trying to come together, and that’s the thing Jesus wants us to do is to be one.” 

Pam and Allen Gall, who attend Mitchell UMC, said they were most excited for the collaboration because of the youth programs. 

“At Mitchell we’ve got a few children, but you can’t have a Sunday school class with four kids who are four different ages,” Allen said. “If you don’t get kids, you don’t have a church in a few years.” 

“Combining all the resources and all the people is great and it’ll help out all the churches, not just us smaller churches,” Pam added. 

Schumacher baptizes Edlyn Jo DeWitt, the daughter of one of his cousins.

Averaging 25-30 people in church, “we were all just sustaining, you know?” Allen said, adding the frustration in the United Methodist system for transient pastors. “I said I get one more bad preacher, I’m quitting the church.” 

Schumacher said that, in post-pandemic figures, Scottsbluff had an attendance of about 130, Mitchell 35, Morrill 21 and Henry Lyman 18. 

Kathy Calahan and Peggy Fulk, who attended Morrill UMC, sat together for lunch following the opening service. 

“I think this is a good opportunity to bring all four churches together,” Calahan said. “We have more resources now and I think it will help every one of the four locations grow.” 

Fulk said she was “dubious” when she first heard of the plan. 

“I didn’t want to have to pay Scottsbluff to paint their parsonage or their sanctuary or get new carpet,” said Fulk, whose fears were relieved. “They’re going to help us too.” 

“I’m sure they felt the same way about us,” Calahan added. 

A member of the transition team, Calahan said she was adamant about not having congregations watch a livestreamed or recorded sermon. 

“We wanted to have a live pastor at every service,” she said. “Scottsbluff said everybody had to have that. That calmed all my fears right away.” 

Collins and Schumacher said they consulted books such as “Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work” before discussing the union of the four churches. They both said communication with their congregations was key to making it happen, and other churches considering a similar plan should “give yourself plenty of time to work out the details,” Collins said. 

The Rev. Cindy Karges, Great West District superintendent, who attended the opening service as well as giving the benediction, praised the work that has been done.

"You are an example for our conference and others as a way of giving new hope to ministries," she said.

Schumacher said that while he’s celebrating The Vine, he’s already looking to the future. 

“I think the possibilities are endless,” he said. “I’m a dreamer, and I’m already thinking where we can plant the next site.” 

Contact David Burke, content specialist, at

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