From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Once-embattled Maryland congregation closes church

From NewsDesk <NewsDesk@UMCOM.ORG>
Date Tue, 4 Jun 2002 15:01:16 -0500

June 4, 2002 News media contact: Tim Tanton7(615)742-54707Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: Head-and-shoulders photographs of Bishop Felton May and the Rev.
Rodney Smothers are available at

By the Rev. Dean Snyder*

A United Methodist congregation that was once one of the fastest growing in
the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference is closing because its leaders
have decided that paying more than the property's value to bondholders would
be poor stewardship.

For Gibbons-Resurrection United Methodist Church in Brandywine, Md., the
decision marks the end of seven years of struggle and controversy. 

After the congregation's offer of $2.75 million to settle its debt was
turned down by Colonial Trust Co., the church's trustees decided to dissolve
the congregation and surrender its buildings and land to the bondholders
represented by Colonial. 

"We offered the bondholders more than the real value of the building," said
the Rev. Rodney Smothers, the church's pastor. "We are disappointed they
turned down our offer, but we believe it would be poor stewardship to take
on a debt that would drain our resources and thwart vital ministry for
decades to come.

"We have asked the annual conference for help and received it again and
again, but enough is enough," he said. "We will not ask the conference to
support a larger loan than this."  

Bishop Felton Edwin May, leader of the denomination's Washington Area,
called the church's willingness to let go of its property and close its
doors "Christ-like."

May said he was saddened that the congregation was unable to reach an
agreement with bondholders. "There is probably no church in the nation that
has received more support from its denomination than Gibbons-Resurrection,"
he said. "The conference has tried to help since 1995; however, I appreciate
the congregation's decision not to ask for help it considers to be beyond
the bounds of good stewardship."

The Baltimore-Washington Conference will respond to the congregation's
decision to dissolve by strengthening efforts to minister to the region, the
bishop said. 

"In spite of the death of this church, we will not abandon the people in the
community," he said. "I am convinced that God will do something new in this
area, both for those former members of Gibbons-Resurrection interested in
being part of something new and others in the surrounding communities."

The Rev. Edwin DeLong, associate council director for congregational
development, said the Board of Congregational Life was already planning to
begin a new church in the area. A location within 10 miles of Brandywine was
identified in 1999 as the possible location of a new multiethnic church
plant, he said. "There is a growing multicultural population in the region,
and the time for us to begin a new congregation is right now."   

Smothers said Gibbons-Resurrection decided to close because it was unwilling
to become involved in a bidding war with other potential buyers. "Our fair
and reasonable efforts to resolve this issue have met resistance at every
turn," he said. "We are a community and not a commodity, and we have
collectively discerned that it is time for us to relinquish efforts to
rescue this property." 

"This has been an unusual and perplexing situation from the very beginning,"
said the Rev. Jim Knowles-Tuell, conference treasurer. "We have made every
effort to find a solution to Gibbons' financial difficulties, which date
back to at least 1995 when the church took on a massive building project and
ran into one financial hurdle after another."

The church's saga of struggle included: 
7	 A never-completed building project, begun in 1995, during which the
first construction manager was fired, a lawsuit followed and total
construction ended up costing more than twice the building's appraised
7	Conference and denominational loans and grants of $1.2 million
between 1997 and 1999 to help the church, which was repeatedly unable to
meet bond payments and pay contractors, avoid insolvency. 
7	The abrupt departure from the denomination in 1999 of the pastor who
had initiated the project, along with the majority of the church's members,
leaving a remnant congregation of about 300 members with a debt of $6
7	 Decisions by the conference loan board, finance council and
denominational agencies after 1999 to invest additional funds, including
nearly half-a-million dollars raised by a conferencewide appeal, in an
effort to rescue the situation and save the congregation and its property.

"There is no question this has been a difficult moment in United Methodism's
history," said Smothers, a nationally known expert in rescuing troubled
churches, recruited in 2001 by May to help save Gibbons-Resurrection. 

"But we must not forget this: Neither the congregation, nor the conference,
has anything to be ashamed about here," Smothers said. "During the past two
and a half years, beginning with the leadership of Bishop (Forrest C.) Stith
(interim pastor from 2000 to 2001), this congregation has done dynamic
ministry under extremely adverse circumstances. It has paid its
apportionments, contributed to special offerings, served its community and
members and even managed to grow."

Gibbons United Methodist Church, later renamed Resurrection Prayer Worship
Center of the United Methodist Church (which is still its legal incorporated
name), became one of the fastest-growing congregations in the denomination
after the Rev. C. Anthony Muse became its pastor in 1984. Under his
leadership, it grew from about 120 members to 4,000, though conference
leaders say the figures were inflated.

In 1995, and again in 1998, the church sold bonds to finance a
multimillion-dollar building project. The project was soon mired in
financial crisis, due in part, according to a 1999 statement by Muse, to the
alleged mismanagement of church funds by the project's initial construction

The Baltimore-Washington Conference made loans and grants to Resurrection
Prayer Worship Center in response to Muse's personal pleas for help,
according to Knowles-Tuell. United Methodist entities provided Resurrection
Prayer Worship Center with $1.2 million, including a $600,000 loan from the
churchwide Board of Global Ministries, to help with construction costs and
debt service between 1997 and 1999, he said.

In September 1999, Muse announced in a letter mailed to conference clergy
that he and the congregation had decided to withdraw from the United
Methodist Church because of a lack of adequate support by the denomination
for the building project and because of theological differences. 

May responded to Muse's letter by expressing his amazement that more than $1
million would be viewed as inadequate support. "I categorically deny that
the Baltimore-Washington Conference, the General Board of Global Ministries
or any other denominational entity or official has been anything less than
fully supportive of Resurrection Prayer Worship Center's efforts to finance
the construction of its new facility," he wrote in a letter to conference

Muse formally withdrew from the United Methodist Church in November 1999,
taking most of the congregation's members with him. 

With the help of a conferencewide appeal, while Stith served as interim
pastor, the remaining congregation of about 300 members made the full
payments owed to bondholders in 2000, and paid off other creditors. During
that period, the congregation changed its name to Gibbons-Resurrection
United Methodist Church.

In 2001, after May invited Smothers to transfer from Georgia to become the
Brandywine congregation's pastor, the church began negotiations with
Colonial Trust to reduce its debt. Though the church had paid the debt to
bondholders down to $4.5 million, church leaders told Colonial Trust they
were unable to continue to pay off a debt of such magnitude and unwilling to
ask others for more help when the property was worth less than the
bondholders wanted. Colonial rejected the church's final offer of $2.75

"The cumulative burden of excessive debt, the uncertainty about the
congregation's future and the lingering legacy of abandonment by the
previous congregation have left a stigma that will last for years to come,"
Smothers said. "Thanks be to God that God grants us the ability to move
beyond the past and walk into new opportunities." 

The congregation is expected to hold its final service on the last Sunday of
June. May said Smothers will continue to serve in the Baltimore-Washington
# # #
*Snyder is the director of communications for the Baltimore-Washington
Annual Conference.

United Methodist News Service
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