By Hannah Shepperd
The congregations of Kennydale United Methodist Church and Renton First United Methodist Church have worshiped just three miles apart since the early 20th century. After heartfelt discussion, planning, and shared fellowship, these two churches voted to become one on May 31, 2020.
While the virtual vote took just 15 minutes, the newly established Renton United Methodist Church has a long and rich history.
This vote has been in the works for some time. Rev. Michele Campton-Stehr, lead pastor of the new congregation, notes the time they have spent leading up to the merger: “This has been a 19-month journey!”
Renton First UMC has roots in 1902 when Reverend Rial Benjamin visited the town and helped establish the need for a Methodist Church. With a growing town came an expanding ministry, and the current church building was built in 1957.
North of Renton First lies Kennydale UMC. Founded in 1907, this neighboring congregation began in a modest wooden structure, replaced by stone in 1912, and eventually the modern campus after a 1944 fire.
Kennydale has had a faithful core of about 20 members in Sunday attendance for many years. Rev. Kathryn Morse, who was called out of retirement to serve Kennydale in 2017, reflected on the liveliness of the small congregation: “At the end of the service I would watch some of them dance with each other in the aisles. They loved to sit around tables eating and talking after worship, sometimes for as long as an hour.”
Rev. Morse admired the diversity, acceptance, and helpful nature of her congregants, but was not alone in observing the stagnant attendance on Sundays. Conference leadership began exploring future possibilities. Rev. Morse remembers, “they knew they were not growing as they were, and they were too lively to close.”
Meanwhile, Renton First was growing and poised for transition. The church, under the leadership of Rev. Michele Campton-Stehr, was in the middle of a revitalization plan. It was growing, expanding, and reaching the community in new ways. With this growth came hard work and a busy schedule, leaving the church unable to fully explore merging.
In October of 2018, everything changed. The two churches decided to worship together, with collaboration from the leadership of both congregations. Rev. Morse describes the service as a pivotal time: “The energy in the sanctuary was electric.”
On the heels of such a successful service, the churches began to work on Advent and Christmas joint services. With music and drama from both churches, leadership ended the year with a demand for continued services of this nature.
With such positive feedback from both churches, task forces began to work on the next steps and a vision for merging. By February 2019, there was an initial vote from each church to gauge interest. In May, a similar vote was taken for intent. By June 23, the churches were worshipping together, referring to Kennydale as ‘north campus’ and Renton First as ‘south campus.’
Even a year later, Rev. Campton-Stehr remembers that first service: “In this past year we have found great excitement and synergy as we worked together and began to vision together.”
The ‘campuses’ were ready to merge in July 2019, but Rev. Morse remembers a short moratorium as “the conference asked us to do more work.”
A year later, on May 31, 2020, the group was intent on creating a safe space to vote in the wake of COVID-19 concerns. Through a Zoom charge conference, congregants voted unanimously to officially become Renton United Methodist Church.
“We voted to merge on Pentecost Sunday and it felt like the Holy Spirit breathed on us anew,” shared Rev. Campton-Stehr. “We wish that it had been possible to make this vote in person instead of via Zoom because we wanted to be together and celebrate.”
“It is an honor to serve with the leaders of both our north campus and our south campus,” shared Rev. Laura Baumgartner, newly appointed associate pastor of the congregation. “[They] seek to faithfully and carefully move toward a new future in which we follow where God would have us go and become the church God would have us become.”
As the two churches live into this new season, Rev. Morse remembers the motto for the process — ‘Forward Together.’ She shares her hope that “both congregations have found new life in a new vision for ministry together.”
Renton UMC plans to celebrate their recent success in a major way. “We will celebrate both our merger and our first year anniversary on June 23,” explained Rev. Campton-Stehr. The pastor shared plans to create a socially-distanced parking lot photo booth at the south campus for families to participate in. “We will include these pictures in our online service on June 28.”
“We know there will be a time in future when we can have a more meaningful celebration that will better reflect our joys, our hopes and our dreams as a newly merged congregation,” Rev. Campton-Stehr continued. “In the meantime, we are pleased and excited about being Renton United Methodist Church and we will continue to find ways to enjoy this moment as we continue to reflect on how we will continue to follow Jesus and engage with our neighbors and community.”