'Reimagine church': Why 4 United Methodist churches in rural NY decided to merge

Neal Simon
Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin

Facing a shortage of qualified pastors and less interest by younger generations in religious institutions, a year-old church with a unique name in Allegany County is attempting to set a new path forward.

Late last year, the United Methodist campuses in Scio, Belmont, Angelica and Alfred dissolved as individual churches and joined together under a new name: the KonXions (pronounced “connections”) United Methodist Church.

Like many religious denominations across the country, the four Allegany County churches are experiencing a stagnation in membership and congregations are skewing much older, according KonXions lead pastor, Rev. Stephen Crowell Sr.

Parishioners of the KonXions (pronounced “connections”) United Methodist Church in Allegany County may attend services in person or watch Rev. Stephen Crowell's videotaped sermons on a large church screen or on YouTube.

The unification was also designed to address a shortage in qualified pastors.

The Upper New York Annual Conference includes 800 to 900 churches but there are only 200 to 300 pastors to work with. This situation is not expected to improve, according to church officials, as retirements are outpacing the number of new pastors in the pipeline.

Crowell: “That is the new norm: how do we fill churches that want to stay open with a person that is qualified to lead them? The Upper New York Annual Conference is looking at (the four church unification) as a potential model for future development.”

Crowell is a former Wesleyan minister who joined the United Methodist Church 15 years ago and became an ordained United Methodist pastor about a decade ago.

“The medical society has basically given us a lifeline because our age has increased. So many of our members are in their 80s and 90s, so that has extended the life of the churches,” Crowell said. “(But) especially in rural areas, second and third generations are not attending, some because they have moved away, some because they have become disenfranchised with organized churches.”

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While Crowell doesn't believe the formation of KonXions will result in hundreds of new parishioners for the church, he does envision making scores of new connections in the Allegany County communities the church serves by sponsoring events, conducting outreach and being active participants in people's lives.

"We can build relationships so when (individuals) are in crisis, when they are in need, they know who they can come to," Crowell said. “It would be nice if they would come to church, but I find I do more good for people outside of these four walls than I do on the inside.”

Lead Pastor Rev. Stephen Crowell stands by the sign for the 1-year-old KonXions United Methodist Church on Nov. 9, 2021 in Belmont, N.Y. KonXions was formed after four United Methodist Churches in Allegany County approved resolutions dissolving individually and reconstituting as one church under the new name on Nov. 5, 2020.

It's an experiment

The four-church consolidation in Allegany County did not take place in a vacuum. In an August 2021, Outreach magazine cited a national study that found that 3% of U.S. churches merged with another congregation in the last 10 years.

For the United Methodist Church, newly united churches are called a “New Faith Community." The designation from the Upper New York Annual Conference allows greater flexibility and excuses the new church of some its apportionment to the Annual Conference for a time.

According to Upper New York Annual Conference, there are about 90 currently active "New Faith Communities"  in New York state.

Rev. Stephen Crowell, lead pastor of the KonXions United Methodist Church, videotapes each week's sermon in a studio at the church office in Belmont, N.Y. Parishioners may watch services on large screen televisions, in person or at home on YouTube.

"It's really an umbrella name for the kinds of ways people have tried to re-imagine church," Crowell said. "Some are in church buildings, some are in people's homes."

Local church-goers don’t have to look far, or even beyond Allegany County's lines, to see a similar effort. In the county’s northern region, three other United Methodist churches unified to form the Northern Konxions United Methodist Church.

"It's an experiment," Crowell said in early November, nearly one year to the day of the new church's first anniversary. “But this is the first group of people who were willing to actually get out of the box and to do something unique and different." I think we are going to be able to reach a lot of people that we were never going to reach before.”

Church merger approved unanimously

Crowell said It took nearly three years for the churches to work through the process and become comfortable with the idea of dissolving individually and coming together.

The churches met many times during this period, individually and jointly, to consider the benefits and challenges of uniting.

Although they were members of separate congregations, the four churches were not strangers to each other.

"Before we joined together, we had often worshiped together, joining on the last Sunday of the month, and worshiping jointly at the Allegany County Fairgrounds during the summer," said Leslie Haggstrom, a church member from Angelica. "We had formed relationships and friendships with one another and become familiar with one another's gifts and contributions."

Resolutions dissolving the four churches and beginning a new religious incorporation with its office in Belmont were both approved unanimously at a Nov. 5, 2020 church conference.

The resolution for closure was approved by the Upper New York Annual Conference, the conference chancellor and a state judge because the church is a religious incorporation.

How the church merger works

All four church campuses have remained open. During the first three Sundays of each month, Crowell alternates where he appears in person. KonXions holds a joint service on the fourth Sunday of the month.

When Crowell is not at a church in person, attendees watch a pre-recorded sermon on a large screen TV. Crowell produces the sermons in front of a green screen in a studio located on the bottom floor of the Belmont church.

The video-taped sermons have the benefit of photos and other material that help explain the subject matter.   

“Physically, I’m as large on Sunday on video as I would be if I were live,” Crowell said.

Crowell acknowledged that there are parishioners who still prefer a live service and Haggstrom said that's true.

"Some had difficulty adjusting to not having the pastor in each campus every Sunday," she said. "Others love the videos, as they can worship from home if they are ill, or if away on vacation. They have also had the opportunity to invite friends and family to tune in and get a taste of our KonXions worship."

What is KonXions mission?

According to Crowell, the church motto is, "Breaking down barriers and building bridges to the Cross.”

“Our idea is we’re going back to the way church was actually founded in the New Testament,” Crowell said. "You didn’t have organized, structural churches. People met in their homes, and they were connected with their community.

"I like the idea of calling ourselves ‘Connections’ because we want to be connected with each other, connected with God, but we also want to be extremely connected with the community we serve."

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One way they do this is with “Bridge Events." These are activities that are  not necessarily religious in nature but they bridge into the community, Crowell said.

The church supported the Angelica Community Angels, a group that distributed 50 to 60 meals a week to people who were home bound as the COVID-19 pandemic raged in 2020.  

A church Blessing Box collects food and hygiene supplies for the needy and KonXions will participate in the local Christmas box program.  

“We are always looking for opportunities to be Christ’s hands in the world,” Haggstrom said.

KonXions’ “Hero Project” has spotlighted teachers and first-responders with gifts and strategically placed signs that read “You’re our hero.”

KonXions’ “Hero Project” spotlights teachers and first-responders with gifts and strategically placed signs that read “You’re our hero.”

“Recently we did the fire department, put signage out in front of the different fire departments and then we collected food items that they could use while going out on a fire call for an ambulance call just to let them know that we really appreciate what they are doing,” Crowell explained.

At just a little over a year old, KonXions remains a "work in progress," Haggstrom noted, with both an excitement about the church's new opportunities and a sober realization that it takes time for everyone to become "comfortable" with change.

She added: "Of course our main mission is to make disciples of all people by demonstrating that we love God and love our neighbors. We must reach out to people in our community to show we care, to help where we can, understanding that some will never attend our worship services."

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