Council of Bishops president visits new worship community in Northern Kentucky

May 21, 2023
By Alan Wild

ERLANGER, Ky. – It’s not every day a church so new it still lacks an official name gets well-wishes and a pep talk from the president of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church. But connections that reach all the way back to college can go a long way in a connectional denomination.

Thomas Bickerton, bishop of the New York Conference as well as the current bishops’ president, visited a group of displaced United Methodists informally known as “The Gathering” who have been worshiping since Palm Sunday at the Reception Events Center in Erlanger.  

It takes “courage and strength” to do what this group is doing, Bickerton said in brief remarks to about 60 gathered for worship Sunday, May 21. He thanked them for their initiative and added, “We are looking your way.”

Bickerton said he recognizes the trauma and grief surrounding church disaffiliations. “My prayers are with you.”

“God is not through with us yet, amen?” he said, drawing a hearty response of “Amen!” from the worshipers. Among them were about half a dozen children who sang as part of the service before leaving for children’s church.

In a season of disaffiliations, the Northern Kentucky area of the Kentucky Annual Conference has been especially hard hit, with several of the larger churches planning to formally leave at Annual Conference in June. That’s largely what sparked The Gathering, a group that has sprung up organically from members of several area churches, including Immanuel and Florence.

The Gathering is made up of people who opposed their churches’ decision to disaffiliate and who plan to remain United Methodist. The Revs. Ken Easley, a retired deacon, and David Oliver, a retired elder, have been temporarily leading the group. The Rev. Caleb Wheat, an elder currently serving at St. James UMC in Bowling Green, has been appointed pastor; his first Sunday in Erlanger will be June 25.

Bickerton’s presence Sunday was a harmonic convergence of geographic convenience and a friendship that stretches back decades. He and Rich Ingraham, a departing member of Immanuel, were roommates at West Virginia Wesleyan University. They graduated in 1980 and have kept in touch ever since.

Bickerton was aware of the new church, and since he was in Dayton, Ohio – an hour’s drive north of Erlanger – to speak at United Seminary’s commencement, he was able to be at church Sunday.

In an interview afterward, Bickerton said that groups like The Gathering and other expressions of those choosing to remain United Methodist make it “an exciting day for the church” as it attempts to reclaim, revive, and renew in the wake of widespread disaffiliations.

He was interviewed outside the Reception Events Center and paused to greet people as they were leaving. Many of them had stayed after for a short meeting to discuss a permanent name for the church.

The bishop and Ingraham, standing nearby, traded a few good-natured jibes as old friends do, and Ingraham said that despite the years and the miles, whenever they get together, he and Bickerton pick up where they had left off.

The smiles as people left were wide. The energy was palpable. After just a couple of months of worshiping together, the people from different churches are already becoming a community.

“This is real. These people astound me,” Easley said, adding that he has been in ministry for 53 years and has never seen anything like this. Many of those present have been involved in key leadership positions at their former churches, which has been immensely helpful, he said.

Before the service, George Hill, formerly at Florence, was greeting people at the door with a big smile and a hearty welcome. He’s excited about the possibilities of The Gathering.

“We saw this as an opportunity to remain United Methodist,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to start a new church in Northern Kentucky.”

Asked how he was doing given all that’s been going on, he acknowledged that people need time to heal. But he also said that friends whom we disagree with on some things can remain friends.

Hill said he and his wife, Barbara, were members at Florence for nine years after moving from the Dayton, Ohio, area, and church was an important part of their lives as they raised their three children, the youngest of whom is now 40. Hill said his mother-in-law only had one thing she insisted on: that the children be raised in a church.

“I think this is really a good group,” he said, adding that two of the key challenges will be to attract young people and to prioritize mission work. He is confident that they will be able to “build a really spiritual and healthy community.”

Sharyn Oliver, David Oliver’s wife, was making sure people signed in as they arrived for worship. “It’s exciting. God is really moving to put all the pieces together. It’s a strong group,” she said.

“It was very spontaneous” the way The Gathering came together less than a month after the disaffiliation vote at Florence, she said, echoing others in noting the energy and enthusiasm.

The Rev. Shannon Boaz, superintendent of the Northern Kentucky District, has worshipped with them some weeks and was there Sunday with her husband, David, and their children, Natalie, 16, and Thomas, 14.

She said that even before the disaffiliation votes, Bishop Leonard Fairley, the KY Annual Conference Appointive Cabinet and the Conference NCD team knew they would need a new faith community in Northern Kentucky, and she is grateful that Easley and Oliver were willing to help form it. The week before Palm Sunday, the district held a gathering at Vine & Branches, the Wesley Foundation at Northern Kentucky University, to plan logistics. The next week, they met for worship and drew 72 people.

“It was not going to wait till July,” Boaz said.

Bickerton made a similar point after the service: “This is not a remnant. This is a flower that’s been planted. This is new life, new possibilities.”