New United Methodist Community Sprouting in Ruston

Mark Lambert
July 10, 2023

What, exactly, does “church” mean when you feel forced to leave because you wanted to stay?

The irony is not lost on the Ruston Remnants, a group of United Methodists whose former congregations, Grace and Trinity churches in Ruston, voted to disaffiliate. Even the name the group chose for itself evokes disparate emotions of humor and sadness, but that’s more a statement of reality than self-pity.

This group of United Methodists is practical; they want to start a new, local United Methodist Church because their local churches left them. They are looking forward instead of analyzing the fairness of having to leave the brick-and-mortar anchors of their spiritual lives.

“As hurtful as it was, my husband and I made our decision,” said Alice Higginbotham, who, with her husband, was a member of Grace for 28 years. “As we were going through the discernment process, we were voting our conscience. At some point, you have to take a stand, and I wanted to be on the right side of history.”

Alice attended the 2023 Louisiana Annual Conference in Baton Rouge and heard Bishop Delores J. Williamston relate the story of Jesus healing the paralyzed man on a mat to the plight of grieving United Methodists in the wake of disaffiliation.

“She was inspiring,” Alice said. “I realized we’re not paralyzed anymore.”

Alice and her friend Connie Cline, who worshiped at Grace for 30 years, were ready to take up their mat and move forward, yet they understood that others in this north Louisiana college town felt kicked to the curb and might be ready to give up. So, they started with people they knew in that situation. The first meeting they organized at Alice’s house drew 16 people.

“I didn’t want anybody to feel left out,” Connie explained. “I knew there would be others. We needed to figure out a way to find them.”

With no real plan other than satisfying a desire to worship together with other United Methodists, Alice and Connie started their word-of-mouth campaign, amplified through GroupMe, a communications app.

They began meeting as a group of United Methodists on Sunday mornings at the First Presbyterian Church in Ruston until they could figure out what to do next.

“We felt it was important for us to be in one place,” Alice explained. “Other Methodists heard what we were doing, and we started to build a list of names, addresses, and emails. We got the word out that, on Sundays, we’re going to the Presbyterian Church. That’s how it got started.”

The Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church asked Fred Wideman, a retired United Methodist pastor, to “shepherd” the group with spiritual and practical guidance. Wideman, a native of Homer who spent 13 years as pastor at Trinity, was a natural choice.

“My home church, Homer First United Methodist Church, where I was baptized, where I was confirmed, the church that recommended me for ministry, where I met my wife, where I was married, baptized my first daughter, buried my parents, and donated my family home to the church; they disaffiliated,” Wideman said. “They really are being led by a Southern Baptist.”

Wideman met with Alice and Connie and worked through the logistics of seeding a new church and the process of tending to and respecting the range of emotions members of the Ruston Remnants were experiencing.

“My hope is we will be able to tend to our hearts and souls because there’s a lot of pain,” Wideman said. “The ones from Grace Methodist are more organized and ready to move. The ones from Trinity, to be honest, have a lot more pain.”
Connie said the experience of leaving Grace was “very hurtful, but it’s like any other kind of grief; there are stages of it. Right now, we’re feeling more positive than negative.”

One positive step occurred on Sunday, June 25, when the group met with Wideman and District Superintendent Rev. Dr. Tom Dolph at the Wesley Foundation building on the Louisiana Tech campus. They had planned a lunch to be followed by a group discussion of where the movement was leading.

“We didn’t know what to expect, or who would show up,” Alice said. “We invited about 25 people to lunch, and from there the word kind of spread.”

More than 50 people showed up that day to break bread, meet new United Methodist friends, and discuss their dreams and goals. They came from Grace and Trinity, the two disaffiliated churches in Ruston, but they also came from small towns like Farmerville and Downsville. Some retired United Methodist pastors also showed up to lend support.

“It felt very good, we had a good turnout,” Connie said. “Mostly, it was people who are interested in finding a church for themselves.”

Everyone agrees the goal is to start a new church in Ruston. Besides finding a physical location for a new church, the group must follow some organizational stages to become chartered as a United Methodist Church, according to Rev. Dolph.

“The simple steps are to have a convening charge conference, a gathering of the chartering members of the church, so the church can be chartered,” he said. “Leading up to that conference, usually a pastor will have community events to develop a core of people.”

The Ruston situation “is a little different because there’s already a core of folks who know each other and have been in ministry together,” he said. “We know we’re starting a new church, but the exact timeline is unknown.”

Rev. Dolph acknowledged the Ruston group has many people who are still hurt from the disaffiliation process, “but we will not wait until everybody is healed because they never will be, totally. You have to let go of what was in order to form what will be.”

Beginning in August, Wideman will help the group organize bible studies and other events to build a solid base of people upon which to ultimately seed a new church.

“That’s what our goal is. That’s what our mission is,” Alice said. “It might take a year or more, but we’re trying to keep that momentum. The big thing is to keep us together.”

“A United Methodist church is definitely our goal,” Connie added. “I don’t know that we’ve gotten that far in the discussion yet, but in my mind, it’s ‘Show up.’ You start by showing up.”

So, exactly what does “church” mean for the Ruston Remnants?

They have already started something that transcends land, buildings, and furnishings. With help from the Louisiana Conference, they are nurturing a Christ-centered community that convenes wherever and however it can, in a living room, the back corner of a Presbyterian church, on a college campus, and constantly humming on a smartphone app.

“I know that some people need to see a physical sign and a pastor to get involved,” Connie said. “The people we have now are people who are willing to reach out in faith for something they can’t see. With this many showing up at the beginning, it gives me a lot of hope.”
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