Exeter United Methodist Church closes, sites declining attendance

After years of dwindling membership, the church was shut down at the district level of the United Methodist Church

EXETER – After 134 years, Exeter United Methodist Church held their final service, sang their final hymn and promptly shut their doors for the final time.

The Exeter United Methodist Church (UMC)  church has suffered a steady decline in membership over the past few years, even before COVID, and held its last service on Sunday, June 26. Every member of their congregation attended, amounting to only 15 parishioners.

The decision to shut down the church came from the Central Valley District of the United Methodist Church. Due to the decline in membership, the church was unable to maintain the finances for operation. According to church secretary Melanie Morton, they received notice the church would be closing and their pastor was relocated at the beginning of June. The last two services were held without a pastor.

“The district hasn’t called me or anything since our last service,” said Morton. “I don’t know whether I’m supposed to keep coming into work.” The district superintendent, David Niu, declined to comment for this story.

Morton believes the decline in membership is partly due to the appeal of larger churches drawing younger families away. “When you can’t offer four services with rock bands and stuff the kids kind of drift,” she said.

“I think in general church attendance is down,” said Pastor Jim Newman from the Exeter Presbyterian Church. “The competition for young families isn’t with other churches, [it’s] Sunday morning soccer practice.” He said, in general, while older people are still attending church, many younger families simply don’t go to church anymore and that is causing the general decline in church membership.

Pastor David Welch at Rocky Hill Community Church believes people stopped attending church during the COVID pandemic and never really returned. “It’s not that they have left the church per se,” he said, “they’ve just gotten out of the habit.”

Exeter UMC remained an active part of the community despite the decline in membership. They contributed to the Exeter food closet, hosted Girl Scout meetings, participated in Relay for Life and held weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

“We had 15 people here this last Christmas,” said Morton of the church’s community involvement, “and we donated 50 boxes to Operation Christmas Child.” Operation Christmas Child is a program that sends gifts to children in need all over the world.

Exeter UMC has a close-knit community of parishioners, some of whom have been attending church there for decades. Rowena Wirht Sheldon’s mother began attending church at Exeter UMC when the current building was completed in 1912. Wirht Sheldon was present for its last service.

Parishioners who wish to find another place of worship will begin church-shopping. Morton has been invited to attend worship at the Exeter Presbyterian Church, but will consider other churches. “With gas prices these days,” said Morton, “I don’t want to go all the way to the other side of town.”

Some of the church’s parishioners were physically unable to attend church due to age or ailment. Part of Morton’s job as secretary was to mail a copy of each week’s sermon and church bulletin to those who could not attend service. “Unfortunately last week I had to send them a note saying ‘I’m so sorry, but this is the last time I’m sending anything to you,’” said Morton. It’s unlikely those parishioners will be able to find another church to accommodate them.

Exeter UMC was founded in 1888 as the Exeter Methodist Episcopal Church South. The early history occurred as pioneering families established farms in pre-Exeter and pre-Lindsay. The original building burned down sometime between 1899 and 1912.

The church features a unique bell tower roof above the entrance that people say looks like a medieval castle. It actually resembles the gate typical of the early days of Jerusalem, Israel that served to surround the city for protection and security from hostile invaders.

Several costly projects would be required to get the building up to code in order to sell it, but Morton has no idea what the Central Valley District of the UMC plans to do with the building. “We didn’t get any support,” she said. “We were told they would come in and take over after closing, but nobody has shown up.”

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