As Yadkin congregation leaves United Methodist Church, members hope for a brighter future

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 30, 2013

SPENCER — In 1930, a group of United Methodist members formed Yadkin Church.

Numbering as few as 13 members at one point, according to a 1976 church history, the flock moved from meeting in a cafeteria on the grounds of the N.C. Finishing Company.

The mill built the red-brick church overlooking the grounds and the Yadkin River beyond, at a cost of $2,700.

The company also donated the church bell.

Eighty-three years later, the mill has been torn down and lies in ruins outside the church doors.

The houses and families that used to populate the “mill hill” are also gone.

And plans to revitalize the site in recent years, including a proposed race track, have fallen through. The twin water towers of the mill stand over twisted wreckage.

Still, the church has remained.

And the bell still rang out Sunday morning over the rain-soaked wasteland, and out over the river.

But the slow wearing-away of its congregation over time has led the Yadkin congregation to a turning point.

With only a few active members left, and not enough money to pay even a one-quarter-time pastor, the United Methodist Church decided this year to remove the Yadkin UMC congregation from the denomination.

It’s a rare move, said Pastor Kelly Ottinger, who preached his last sermon at Yadkin on Sunday morning.

“The Methodist church will help other (struggling) churches if there’s a community, but there’s no community left,” Ottinger said.

“There is no mill, there is no houses … Out there, it looks like a war zone. It’s a really sad situation,” Ottinger said.

But, in this case, the denomination does not own the church building or land.

The deed to the church property includes a reversion clause.

Ottinger said N.C. Finishing Co. donated the property “with the understanding that if they ever stopped using it as a church, the property would revert back to whoever owned the mill property at that time.”

And the members of the Yadkin congregation do not want to close their doors.

They plan to continue on under a new name, Yadkin United Church, as a non-denominational Christian church.

“I think that the church will bloom again, that it’s going to come back to life,” said Sherrell Dennis Hedrick, who will be one of the lay leaders of the church in its new beginning.

“Even though outside is devastation, I don’t think God is finished with this little church,” Hedrick said.

The rain was pouring Sunday at 9:30 as members gathered at Yadkin Church for the final service as a United Methodist congregation.

In a phone interview Saturday, Ottinger said the average Sunday worship attendance over the last year was nine, Ottinger said.

That number included himself, as well as his wife and daughter when they attend.

“The majority of those who are attending are elderly, are retired and on a fixed income,” Ottinger said. “They basically have been living off the money that has been in the bank from years past.”

Hedrick said she doesn’t have an accurate count of how many members are on the official roll.

There were 21 people present Sunday, including Ottinger and family.

During the portion of the service where he would typically ask for prayer requests, Ottinger asked members to share their memories of the church.

Katherine Clark, 88, was 5 years old when the church was built. After others shared their memories, she spoke up.

“I remember back further than that, when we had a potbelly stove back there,” Clark said from her pew. The stovepipe hole’s outline is still barely visible up in the ceiling plaster.

“We didn’t have a furnace, we didn’t have a bathroom,” Clark said.

Glenda Weddington Pritchard, who now lives in Mayodan, remembered her first holy communion.

“You had to be ready, it was a serious deal,” Pritchard said.

After joining the church, she remembered, she had come forward to get the communion wafer. It stuck to the roof of her mouth, and there was an awkward moment as she tried to dislodge it.

There were smiles, as well as tears, as those memories were shared.

“I believe those memories will continue on,” Ottinger told the congregation. “… I believe that there are good times to be had still.”

In his prayer, Ottinger asked God to preserve “this church on a hill” that had stood there for over eight decades, and asked that it could survive to be “a lighthouse, a beacon” to generations to come.

And he read familiar words from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven … a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…”

“Yadkin right now is in that season of change,” Ottinger said in his sermon, “but God is going to use this season of change that you are in to bring a new life to this church.”

“(God) is not through with it yet. Eighty-three years is not long enough,” Ottinger said.

As Ottinger concluded his sermon, Hedrick rose to speak.

“As of the 31st, we will still be a church,” she said, her voice full of emotion. “We will be Yadkin United Church.

She said the word “united” was being kept to reflect the fact that they are still united as a congregation, “and still united with God.”

All that remained was a simple rite, usually used when a Methodist congregation is disbanded altogether.

Ottinger said that he and his district superintendent, Sam Moore, had adapted that ritual to this occasion.

Addressing God in prayer, Ottinger said that the church “has provided refuge and comfort for God’s people … As generations have prayed their prayers here, and sung their praises, your spirit has blessed countless worshipers.”

“As we go out of the United Methodist Church into a further journey of faith, we give you thanks,” Ottinger said, as members of the congregation wept openly.

The service closed with the hymn, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” a final prayer and a sung benediction.

No one left right away. Some stayed to talk with Ottinger and family, who left soon to join worshippers at the other church in his charge, Bethel United Methodist Church on Long Ferry Road.

Some stayed to take photos in the sanctuary, which is still decorated for Christmas.

“I didn’t realize this was going to be like a memorial service for the church,” Pritchard said. “This was my home. This is where I accepted Christ. I lived in this community.”

Asked what she hoped would happen to the church, “I don’t know, she said tearfully. “I don’t know. I mean, I would love to see it survive, but it’s been so many years that it has struggled.”

That struggle has left the congregation strapped for cash, and struggling to pay their portion of the pastor’s salary and expenses.

There are also apportionments – designated assessments from the United Methodist conference based on the church’s average budget during the past three years. Those funds go to missions and outreach.

“In this case, because the congregation was small, the amount was small,” Ottinger said, but it was still a burden.

Although the church is paid for, the 83-year-old building requires upkeep.

And there are utilities to pay, and insurance bills to pay.

And there are no new families moving into the community surrounding Yadkin Church.

One member said he couldn’t even get his GPS unit to locate the church.

Clark is the only member who still lives in Spencer. Others commute from Lexington or elsewhere.

Sherrell Hedrick, who turned 76 on Saturday, said this church “is really the only place I’ve ever been.” It’s where her grandchildren were baptized.

Likewise, Clark said Yadkin Church is the only church where she’s ever been a member.

Her earliest memories are of Christmastime, Clark said: “The children, everybody got their fruits and nuts and candy in a bag, and Santa Claus would come in.”

Clark has been church treasurer for years, and said she’s weathered the toughest times.

“One Sunday I came, the preacher was here and one other,” Clark said, standing by the pews in the back of the sanctuary. “He preached his sermon to the two of us.”

Clark’s daughter, Bobbie Kluttz of Rockwell, said she was born in the former mill village during the Fieldcrest Cannon years.

She said she hoped there would be some help to revitalize the community, such as the proposed racetrack that would have gone on the mill site.

Along with those plans were plans for new houses and possibly condominiums – and hopes that there might be new families for the church.

“There used to be so many kids in this church,” Clark said.

Asked what she remembered, Kluttz said, “Glenda and I sitting on this back row! Getting in trouble for snickering. And the Bible schools, and the Christmases.”

In winters, people would build bonfires out the hill behind the church, and then sled down the hill.

In summers, Kluttz said, she and other kids would walk the river banks, or cross a pontoon bridge out onto the sandbars.

They even played in the soot piles from the mill. “Mama wouldn’t let me come in the house until she hosed me off,” Kluttz said.

Clark said theirs was “a good old close-knit community.”

“That’s the things you won’t forget, but you won’t dwell on it,” Clark said.

Asked whether she would continue to attend the church, Clark said she didn’t really want to discuss that – that she still needed time.

“I’d like to see it rise again,” Clark said. “I know it takes faith to do it. I just think I’m worn out … When you get as old as I am, change hurts. You get set in your ways, but life goes on.”

The pastor and his former flock have different opinions on the impact of the last few years.

Ottinger said he’s worked to honor members’ desire to keep Yadkin Church open, “even though it was a strain on Bethel.”

After the service, Hedrick, her family and other members said that there has been bitterness and disagreement during the last couple of years. Hedrick herself said she doesn’t feel the local United Methodist leadership worked hard enough to support Yadkin Church.

A call to United Methodist District Superintendent Sam Moore seeking comment on this story was not immediately returned.

At the same time, Hedrick and other members of Yadkin Church declined to discuss specific problems or past disagreements, choosing to focus on the future.

Come Jan. 1, Sherrell Hedrick said, the new Yadkin United Church will be looking for new members, donations and visiting pastors.

Her family has been spearheading the effort to get a new non-profit established so that the church can accept donations.

They’ve set an initial fundraising goal of $30,000 which they say will build up a “nest egg” for future expenses.

Right now, Sherrell Hedrick said, there’s no full-time pianist, no organist and no pastor to pay.

However, they do have bills to pay for insurance, utilities and upkeep.

As a non-denominational Christian church, Hedrick said, they will have no dress code and “open hearts.”

They plan to bring in local pastors and lay speakers to lead services. “We’re open to any young preachers who would like to come in,” Hedrick said.

As for Ottinger, he will continue to pastor a two-church charge.

Grace United Methodist Church on Faith Road has been without a pastor for several months, he said, and he will take over the pulpit there while still serving Bethel UMC.

“It hurts your heart,” Ottinger said of his former flock’s predicament. “They grew up in this community. Their parents, their grandparents worked there.”

When he first came to Yadkin Church, Ottinger said, he’d been shown a photo of the mill village in its heyday.

“I couldn’t believe all the homes that were there, all the huge compound there at the mill,” Ottinger said. “But then you look out there today, and there’s absolutely nothing left from that picture but the church itself.”

But there’s still the church, and still promise for the future — if they can survive long enough to see it.

Rusty Hughes, Hedrick’s son-in-law, said past and present members want their church to stay open for as long as it can.

“We’ve got to try. I mean, you don’t know if it’ll work or not, but you’ve got to try and see how far it goes,” Hughes said.

Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.