by Ellen Frankman
“I’m describing this as a marriage. You bring your assets to the table, your spouse brings his or her assets to the table, you do your dreaming and your visioning and you decide what you are going to do in life together.”
That’s the way Pastor Joanne Utley is choosing to view the merger between her church, the Bridgehampton United Methodist Church, and the Southampton United Methodist Church. Monday, July 1 marked the first official merging of the two churches, which will now become known collectively as the Hamptons UMC at the current location of the Southampton UMC.
The primary cause for the merger was dwindling attendance at the Bridgehampton UMC, a church that has served parishioners in the area since 1815. Prior to the merger, the Bridgehampton UMC had 46 people listed officially as members with just six to 10 members worshipping regularly. Alongside the national trend of declining church attendance, the Bridgehampton UMC also watched as many members moved away and others passed away.
The official decision came down through the United Methodist Church’s district superintendent, Adrienne Brewington, in April. Though the possibility of a merger had been discussed for some years, this transition is marked by significant changes.
“We have a new board of trustees with members from both churches, and there will be a new finance committee,” said Rev. Utley. “We need to move forward because this is a new entity.”
The merger raises hopes for the Bridgehampton congregation that they will be able to expand their mission work, a common goal shared by Southampton, and one which will make the two congregations “a good fit,” according to Utley.
Southampton Pastor Leslie Duroseau will continue to lead the united congregation, as Rev. Utley travels to the Catskills where she has been appointed to a church by the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Both pastors held mass jointly on Sunday, July 30 in Southampton, marking the first service with both congregations present.
“There is a fervor and excitement that is taking place among the parishioners,” said Rev. Duroseau. “It’s a new birth, a new opportunity to grow.”
Rev. Duroseau explained that many congregants are looking forward to having additional resources, which will allow for greater opportunities to meet the needs of the community. Plans include extended work with organizations like Maureen’s Haven and local soup kitchens. The Bridgehampton church will not be sold, and instead will continue to serve Faro a Las Naciones, a Latino congregation that has used the space for nearly 15 years.
“As time moves forward some decisions will be made about how it can be used for ministry,” said Utley, who explained an interest in offering the church for use as a parsonage. The Hamptons UMC also plans to expand its youth outreach programs, and the space could potentially be used to bring in a youth minister and his family.
Though many of the parishioners share the optimistic outlook of both Utley and Duroseau, it has been a painful goodbye to the space they have worshipped in for years.
“It’s a bittersweet merger,” said Joanne Alster, her voice cracking with the onset of tears. Alster and her husband have attended the Bridgehampton UMC for 15 years, relative “late comers” as she puts it. “The church has been there for so long. We did a lot of prayer and a lot of soul searching and we decided it was time to move on.”
Before Monday, Alster and a few other congregants gathered together to collect some of their more treasured belongings from the old white and blue church on the corner of Montauk Highway and Halsey Lane. They took some pretty tables, their communion alter, and other things that were in memory of former worshippers who have passed. Alster said they plan to bring these items over to Southampton so Bridgehampton members can have a few pieces of their own in the new space.
Alster attended Sunday’s first combined mass in Southampton and said she immediately felt welcomed and comfortable.
“We had a wonderful reception in the new church,” said Alster. “We shouldn’t even say the new church — our church!”
Bert Hedges of Bridgehampton is also adjusting to the idea that he will no longer attend mass at the church he has worshipped in for so many years.
“It’s a change, that’s for sure,” said Hedges. “I’ve been going there for over 50 years and now I’m not going to be going there, it’s different.”
Hedges grew up attending mass at the Bridgehampton UMC. It was there he was christened, had his first communion and can recall countless family gatherings. Hedges also attended Sunday’s joint mass, and though it felt different he believes he will get used to it.
A Hamptons UMC float in the Fourth of July parade will further tie the two communities, a sort of send off celebration of the new opportunities that in lay in wait for the united churches.
“Now we will be stronger because we will be with younger people, with more people,” said Alster. “After all, you are always stronger in numbers.”