Hillside Community Church, 4750 South St., in Gagetown, was home to Gagetown United Methodist Church since the late 1800s. The Detroit Annual Conference of the United Method Church has filed a lawsuit in Tuscola County, claiming they own the property. (Photo by John Cook)

Stripped of Methodist ‘franchise,’ hit with lawsuit, Gagetown church digs in

Hillside Community Church, 4750 South St., in Gagetown, was home to Gagetown United Methodist Church since the late 1800s. The Detroit Annual Conference of the United Method Church has filed a lawsuit in Tuscola County, claiming they own the property. (Photo by John Cook)

Christmas 2016 at Gagetown United Methodist Church brought people together just as it had for more than 100 years, with one thing in the back of everyone’s mind – it would be the last.
Check that: it would be the last Christmas at the church under the name Gagetown United Methodist Church.
The reason?
Effective Jan. 1, 2017, the Detroit Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church – the local governing body for United Methodist Church – stripped the church of its affiliation with the United Methodist Church, says Doug Laurie, former council chair of Gagetown United Methodist. He equates the move to a fast-food restaurant pulling a franchise from a franchisee.
Detroit Annual Conference of the United Method Church (DACUMC) wanted its hymnals back, anything with the United Methodist Church logo, and other stuff – specifically, the keys and deed to the church at 4750 South St., in Gagetown, population 379.
They got their hymnals back, along with the other logo-bearing items.
But a small group of worshippers is keeping the keys and the building. They’re digging in and moving forward as the new Hillside Community Church, a non-denominational group of worshippers already seeing an increase in attendance, says Laurie, now a council member at Hillside.
“This is a time in the world – and I’m not pushing anyone in any direction of any particular faith – when we ought to be opening churches instead of closing them down,” Laurie said. “I think if we were really about what we were supposed to be doing, we’d be helping each other out instead of circling the wagons to protect our nest egg.”
“There’s still a lot of people in Gagetown who need to be ministered to,” he added.
The DACUMC filed a lawsuit on March 1, demanding title to the church on South Street and parsonage (the official residence of a church) on Cleaver Street in Gagetown.
Undeterred, the following was posted one day later to the new church’s Facebook page:
“Hillside Community Church will be having a brunch this Sunday, March 5th from 10:30-1:00 for a free will offering. Come join us for some delicious food and Christian fellowship.”
The Advertiser requested an interview with a representative of the DACUMC. A short written response was provided by Mark Doyal, director of communications, DACUMC.
“Representatives of the Detroit Annual Conference Cabinet continue to be in dialog with the members of Gagetown United Methodist Church to seek a solution that best serves the church and community,” Doyal wrote. “We continue to pray for the people of Gagetown and for a satisfactory outcome that will allow the church to continue to serve in ministry.”
According to its website, the Detroit Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church aims “to create and nurture dynamic and fruitful congregations who make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
In 2012, the organization took on a five-year strategic plan, creating three “Vision Pathways and seven measurable benchmarks to better fulfill its vision.”
The three “Vision Pathways” are:
• Creating new spaces for new faces
• Developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world
• Engaging mission partnerships and transforming communities
Under “mission” the organization says “Part of how we live out this mission is by proclaiming the Gospel and loving God and our neighbor. This is our response to God’s incredible grace and love.”
However, the lawsuit filed in Tuscola County Circuit Court has a different tone.
The suit lays out that DACUMC is the governing body of the United Methodist Church area that includes Gagetown and, as such, “is subject to the rules established by the church published as “The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church”.
“’The Discipline’ provides that all property owned by a local United Method Church is held in trust for the entire denomination of the United Methodist Church and cannot be transferred without the written approval of the District Superintendent of the Detroit Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church pursuant to ‘The Discipline’,” the complaint reads.
Further, it refutes Laurie’s claims that the United Methodist Church has essentially “pulled its franchise,” and says “the defendant is leaving the United Method Church and renouncing its affiliation.” 
“However, despite demands by The Detroit Annual Conference, the Defendant church has refused to turn over title to the Church Property and the Parsonage to the Detroit Annual Conference,” the suit reads.
The lawsuit makes no mention of parishioners, or creating and nurturing “dynamic and fruitful congregations who make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” – or any of the other claims associated with its mission statements of “Vision Pathways” as mentioned on its website.
According to stats from DACUMC’s website, Gagetown United Methodist had 34 members at the end of 2014 compared with 33 at the end of 2015.
Though small, church members have continued with tradition: the annual Christmas Tea Time for women held in early December; a roast beef/pork dinner in October.
Laurie says such details won’t be found in the lawsuit because it’s “all about money.”
Data from the DACUMC website states the church, church property, and parsonage have a combined market value of about $425,000. That’s compared with 2010, when the value was estimated at $375,000.
“They wanted us to turn over the keys to the property and we told them we’re not going to do that because we don’t feel they own it,” he says.
Laurie says the “legal mumbo-jumbo” attempt to take title to the church property is consistent with the way Gagetown United Methodist has been treated by DACUMC in recent years.
When the church’s minister died several years ago, and the church needed help to go on, parishioners were left to fend for themselves, Laurie said.
However, when efforts to shutter the church were heating up more recently, DACUMC had no qualms about sending a team of six to Gagetown, Laurie says.
“It’s interesting to see how churches behave in public, in their mantra, and how they behave when they think there’s money involved,” Laurie says. “They did not think we were viable…and we’re not the only ones where this has happened.”
Laurie says the church went through an extensive evaluation process to determine if it should continue as an operation. Though he says it wasn’t a secret to anyone, the biggest problem became clear: a “significant portion” of the church’s budget was being used to pay the DACUMC-appointed minister’s wages and health care benefits, as required.
“They have a very, very lucrative retirement and pension plan and they also have a Cadillac premiere health plan,” says Laurie. “We even offered to shop for our own health plan and they said ‘Oh no.’”
He says that DACUMC was right about the inability of Gagetown United Methodist Church to cover pay for such expensive benefits for the minister.
“We did not want to close, and the church voted unanimously not to close, but their recommendation was that we close anyway,” Laurie says. “And because they didn’t feel we could support the (former) minister, or his health care, they pulled the ministry.”
Officials were informed by DACUMC that the last service for the church as Gagetown United Methodist Church would be Christmas.
“You can just imagine where everyone’s head was at during that last service on Christmas Day,” Laurie said.
Still, they stuck it out.
“We never missed a Sunday,” he said.
One day after officially being out of the United Methodist Church, on Jan. 2, Hillside – named for the church’s location on a hill – arrived.
Laurie says he sees good things ahead for Hillside.
“The churches that are growing, and thriving today…aren’t the old churches, entrenched in their old ways,” he said. “It’s the newer churches that don’t have that affiliation with the Methodists, or Baptists, or even Catholics for that matter.”
The launch of Hillside was marked with a new Facebook page, and announcement:
“Welcome to the Hillside Community Church Facebook page. We meet every Sunday morning at 9:30 in Gagetown. If you are interested in a spiritually uplifting service that will assist you in living each day to its fullest potential, come and join us.”
A woman identified as Joyce Neal responded:
“What an appropriate name? This little country church…is where my high school sweetheart and I were married…60 years ago…now retired and living in Florida, we are thrilled to be able to still worship there when we visit…while the congregation may be small, they have big hearts and love their church…”where few or more are gathered in my name”
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at andrew@tcadvertiser.com

2 thoughts on “Stripped of Methodist ‘franchise,’ hit with lawsuit, Gagetown church digs in

  1. According to the Discipline of the United Methodist Church, which the congregation of the Gagetown UMC signed on to when they were established as a UM congregation, the denomination owns the building, its contents, and any funds the church may hold. Other congregations in such churches have tried this in the past and have had to come to a settlement with the denomination or else vacate the building so the building can be sold. This is necessary because the denomination has invested in its churches and needs the money from deceased churches to open new churches in growing communities.

  2. Good luck..I laugh at the market value..tell gagetown to look at the price the conference is looking to sell the old Argyle UMC now closed due to their process only $22,500

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