Wichita congregations merge to build new life

Rev. Junius Dotson, Sr. Pastor of St. Mark's UMC, stands in front of the former Epworth UMC building.

Rev. Junius Dotson, Sr. Pastor of St. Mark UMC, stands in front of the former Epworth UMC building.

WICHITA, Kansas – The Epworth United Methodist Church in Wichita, KS was struggling. Where once the congregation had been a large, thriving congregation with over 1,000 members and a large physical plant, the church had been in a state of decline for many years. The church found itself in the middle of a community in transition, attendance was lagging, and the church could no longer afford to pay a full-time pastor. The church finances were dwindling and the church was projected to run out of what money they had in 18 months. The future was bleak for this congregation of around 60 members.

As Gary Brooks, the district superintendent of the Wichita East District of the Kansas West Annual Conference considered the future of this congregation, he wondered if a new approach might offer them a new chance at life. He considered a variety of options with them, but found himself drawn to the example of Elijah and Elisha, in which one leader passed the mantle to a new generation to carry on God’s work in the world. As they thought about this possibility, their thoughts quickly turned to the St. Mark United Methodist Church, and their pastor Junius Dotson.

Junius Dotson was no stranger to helping congregations grow. In 1996 Dotson had been the lead pastor in planting the Genesis United Methodist Church in San Jose, CA, which grew to over 500 members. In 2002 he had moved to Wichita and the St. Mark congregation, where he led this vibrant congregation of over 3,500 members. Dotson is a committed pastor/evangelist, dedicated to reaching people for Jesus Christ, and so when Brooks approached him about taking on the responsibility for another congregation, merging the two into one, Dotson was enthusiastic.

It was not an easy decision for the Epworth congregation. They had a long history, and hated to lose their tradition. At the same time they were clear that they didn’t want all that they had built to simply disappear into nothingness. And so the church voted to become Elijah, handing the mantle of ministry to St. Mark to become the Southeast Campus of the St. Mark United Methodist Church on June 1, 2013. A launch team was formed involving members from both congregations aiming toward an official launching of the “new” St. Mark congregation on October 6, 2013.

Rev. Gary Brooks, Wichita East District Superintendent

Rev. Gary Brooks, Wichita East District Superintendent

“I was proud of the people at Epworth,” said Rev. Brooks. “They could have chosen to die. Instead they chose to live.”

“We felt that we could reach a new community through the Southeast Campus,” said Rev. Dotson. “We did not want to see another United Methodist Church abandon its mission field. We saw that the Epworth church had assets that would allow us to re-launch a new ministry at this location with excellence. We also think this represents a trend for the future – with our institutions growing both larger and smaller at the same time, blending the strength that size offers with the comfort and convenience of smaller, closer venues . . . being a part of the larger ministries of St. Mark but having the ability to experience worship in a smaller sanctuary.”

The St. Mark/ Epworth launch team quickly got to work helping the church connect with the surrounding community. Over 200 people were involved in a prayer walk and visiting neighbors to invite them to the new church. The church hosted a neighborhood block party, and plans are being made for a “gas buy down” event. Pastor Dotson said that they are hoping to hire a community developer to help expand the ministry of the church in the Southeast area.


Launch Sunday at the new St. Mark Southeast Campus

Unlike some large “satellite” congregations, the St. Mark team has no plans to deliver sermons via video from the “main” campus. “Junius is the pastor,” said Rev. Brooks. “He will be driving between the campuses to preach in person on Sunday mornings.” Dotson shared that he will continue to do much of the preaching at both campuses, however other staff members will share in the preaching on occasion.

On Sunday, October the 6, the official launch worship service was held in the former Epworth UMC building, now St. Mark Southeast. Over 400 people arrived  to be introduced to vibrant worship, practical teaching, various small group opportunities, and the brand new Café St. Mark, a gathering place within the church to connect with one another and the surrounding community.

“I was so proud what we’ve been able to accomplish,” said Rev. Brooks. “As a D.S., I actually lost a church in my district [in the merger of two into one], but we gained all sorts of people for the work of Christ’s mission in the world through this transition. Elisha is doing great things through the passing of the mantle from Elijah.”

“Our vision is that St. Mark in all its forms continues to grow and reach people who don’t know Jesus,” said Rev. Dotson. “We are known as a place of possibilities and transformation. We are a church that is active in every aspect of our community. We have a unique vision for the Southeast campus, and we believe that it can become one of the most diverse congregational settings in the nation.”

To learn more about the ministries of the St. Mark United Methodist church, visit www.saintmarkumc.com.

Jay Voorhees, Former Executive Editor

The Rev. Jay Voorhees is the Executive Editor of The United Methodist Reporter and the Chief Creative Officer for CircuitWriter Media LLC which operates this site and MethoBlog.com. Jay is an ordained elder in the Tennessee Annual Conference. Jay has written on life and the practice of faith in The United Methodist Church at Only Wonder Understands since 2003.

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