On one recent Sunday at Clifton United Methodist Church, the Rev. Dave Meredith baptized an infant who was the child of two gay men.
One parent donated the sperm for the baby, Meredith said, and his partner’s sister donated the egg. A cousin of the first parent acted as the surrogate mother.
Such behavior would be condemned as immoral in most evangelical churches. But Clifton United Methodist isn’t like other churches.
In 1997, Clifton UMC became what’s known in the United Methodist Church as a reconciling congregation, one in which, as the church website puts it, “people of all gender identities and sexual orientations are fully included participants in the life of the community.”
The church is a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network of the United Methodist Church, one of 718 such congregations nationwide and, according to the network’s website, one of only two in Cincinnati, the other being The Journey Group at Forest Chapel UMC.
Clifton UMC earned another distinction in 2012 when Meredith, formerly a UMC pastor in Columbus, was appointed pastor here, making him the church’s first openly gay pastor. Meredith plans to marry his companion of 28 years, West Side native Jim Schlachter, in the spring.
In many churches, hiring an openly gay pastor would prompt a mass exodus. But the opposite has happened at Clifton UMC.
When Meredith took over, the church had about 70 attendees on Sunday worship, seven of them at least 90 years old. There were only eight children and two teens in the congregation. Most mainline Christian churches peaked in the ’50s or ’60s and began a slow decline, and Meredith believes that was the case with Clifton, which was founded in 1892.
Now, however, attendance has doubled, with an average of about 135 and up to 170 some days.
“We are approaching an historic high in attendance, I think,” Meredith said. He bases that belief on the size of the sanctuary, which holds only 180-190. The church plans to add a second Sunday service next year.
The congregation now has a diverse mix of old and young he said, with 60 children in Sunday school and about a dozen in the youth group. About 20 regular attendees are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, Meredith said.
Meredith attributes the growth to a number of factors:
He took a page from the megachurch playbook and created a hospitality team, responsible for greeting visitors and making sure they had a good experience. It was all about changing the mindset among current members, who attended on Sunday to see the people they already knew, rather than the people they didn’t know, he said.
He had the church hire childcare staff for Sunday mornings, and also had the church add a part-time minister to students in 2013 and a part-time Christian education director last spring. The church now does a Montessori-style Sunday school, in which kids discover the stories of the Bible, which has proved very popular with kids and parents. “We tried to back up our children’s ministry with a commitment of dollars,” he said.
He had the church update its website, which, when he arrived, warned visitors that their computers would get infected by a virus if they accessed the site. The church removed the virus threat and updated the site to make it user-friendly. Many people learn of the church by searching for “Clifton” and “churches” on the Web, Meredith said.
The church began a semi-annual event, “Church Beyond the Walls,” during which instead of sitting in the pews, the congregation goes into the community to do good works – cleaning gutters for the elderly, working in a local food pantry, taking care packages to University of Cincinnati students, playing hand bells on Clifton Plaza, and giving food and drinks to panhandlers. Wherever they go, the participants carry a sign with the church’s phone number and Web address.
- He preaches a consistently progressive message about God still being at work in the world and people not knowing everything there is to know about him. “I believe faith was intended to be put into action,” he said. “It’s great to feel the warm embrace of a community of people on Sunday morning, but that’s not all. It’s about the good you can do … I preach that over and over … It resonated with people.
When he arrived, he said, the congregation was tired and didn’t think it could do any more than it was doing. Now, he said, there are enough new members and new energy to accomplish much more.
“We’re not trying to be anything other than the broken people we are,” he said.