The Grace and Grief of A New Church Community

By Naomi Meints ’25 from an interview with Pastor Sara McSwords

In a recent interview, Pastor Sara McSwords of Beloved United Methodist Church in Marysville, Ohio, told her story of leading a new church. This United Methodist church has been established recently (late 2022, early 2023)  to create a loving space for all who are healing. Pastor Sara told me all about the ups and downs in the experience of bringing this church to life from the ground up. What does it mean to create a new community? What does it mean to focus a community around love and acceptance, even through hard times? We examined what that looks like in the Beloved community, and where the Nourishing Vocation Project has helped the church find this sense of new vocation. 

Beloved United Methodist was born from a need to create an inviting, accepting, and loving community in the area. Pastor Sara discussed the different reasons why people were drawn to this church, and how Beloved UMC can provide people with a place to heal from the grief that may come with choosing to leave your former church. In an effort to create a more inclusive United Methodist church, many in the community chose to leave the other existing Methodist church in town – which disaffiliated from the UMC.  The West Ohio UMC conference has helped provide for the new Beloved UMC and the new church has been led by laity members who wanted to remain with the UMC and also been led and attended by  members of a variety of faith backgrounds who were curious. This included Catholics, Lutherans, ex-Evangelicals, and all those exploring for a safe faith community. Pastor Sara described it as “this marvelous group of misfits that is the Beloved congregation, there’s a community, a greater scene”.

Pastor Sara highlighted how the Nourishing Vocation Project resources have helped people process these complex emotions and connect with others in their faith. She described how the conversations that stemmed from the Nourishing Vocation Project have helped establish openness and a sense of hope in the young church. Specifically, they helped the congregation establish their leadership team and develop their own style of leadership. Through these exercises, people were able to uplift each other and discern their callings in the church. The Vocare practices have helped many last summer discern their values, and focus on spiritual renewal. These conversations were credited with encouraging compassionate curiosity, which helps bond the community together. Something Pastor Sara spoke a lot about is the idea of spiritual longing. She said, “What are we longing for? How does that impact our vision? Where does longing intersect with the idea of mission? Where is the longing? Where is that connection with the grief we’ve been through, or that we are continuing to go through? Where is longing in relation to the ongoing grace that we experience and that we wanna share in the Beloved UMC community, that we believe God is partnering with us to create?”.

There are many struggles that come with establishing a new church. These are both spiritual, emotional, and logistical. One of the struggles that Beloved United Methodist Church encountered in its early days is the simple problem of, where can we worship? Pastor Sara told me the story of their first worship space. When this congregation first began gathering, they could only secure a rather strange place to worship, the local National Guard armory gym. Pastor Sara commented on the irony of this, a place of military training becoming a place of peaceful worship every now and then. And so, more and more people began to gather in this gym and grow together into a young congregation.

Something that stuck out to me particularly is the story of their first Christmas as a church. This was a fascinating series of events that lead to their first Christmas service, so I’ve decided to let you read the story from Pastor Sara herself:

“That Christmas Eve rolled around, and we had no idea what to expect. And there was a level 3 snow emergency. In Ohio, if it’s a level 3 snow emergency, everything shuts down. No one’s allowed to go anywhere. And then it opened up to a level 2, and a lot of churches in this town were still closed. And so I went to the hallway of this National Guard gym and Y.M.C.A. with my husband and I sat down in this dirty hallway that hadn’t been cleaned in days because of this massive snowstorm. I had a family member that even had Covid that time, and I just kind of sat in the hallway. Kinda we’d be thinking, this is bananas! Who does this? Who’s gonna show up? On Christmas Eve, I spoke with the director of a new beginnings from the West Ohio Conference. He said, Well, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. If you want to cancel, and you feel like you need permission, you know. I’ll give you that. And then I talked to a few other people, and they’re like, well, we’ll come. Do you need me to bring a shovel or does the road seem okay? And this and that. So I said,  – If nothing else, we’ll have something to record online, and people will know that something’s starting. 

Well, that night, at the 7 o’clock service in that National Guard armory gym, 120 people showed up for worship, with their candles and their hymns and their families, and their grandparents and their kids. We talked about how Jesus was told there was no room in the inn, to the Incarnation, the story, the whole thing. So what does it mean to make more room? What does it mean to create space for our questions, space for differences? What does it mean to create a church that really is welcoming to all people? And so that was the beginning. And it was scary and miraculous, and just crazy.”

And so, they had a successful Christmas service, and it only continued to grow from there. The church continues to adapt and evolve into becoming the Beloved UMC that they believe God is calling them to be.  Pastor Sara told me about how this was followed by a successful Easter service, and the continual building of the leadership team. In diving headfirst into this project, she described how often they had to simply rely on faith that things would work out and adapt to different challenges. When they began, there was no leadership team, and Pastor Sara told me how she prayed to have enough people to fill 12 roles. Fortunately, she then saw exactly 12 applications come in! As they celebrated the growth of the church, the focus could shift to more community outreach. One outreach program we highlighted was the church’s work with an organization called Christian Lifeline Mission to celebrate their one year launch anniversary.  On the Sunday after Easter, the congregation worked together to pack 7,000 meals for people throughout the world   –  they packed meals of veggies and rice that will go out to some local entities that feed people, but also to the Ukraine and Guatemala. 

No matter what stage of life a church is in, the most important part is the values it stands by. I discussed values of vocation, community, and renewal with Pastor Sara, and what that means to the Beloved UMC Congregation. She said that there is a bit of spiritual renewal every time people come together to worship. In these worship services, there is invocation, conviction, and comfort. This spiritual wellness does not just exist within the church building, but is an ongoing part of community life together. Vocation is another important part of understanding the church community here. On vocation, Pastor Sara said: “we know that we are uniquely gifted, in order to grow and be who God is calling us to become as the Church. That the Church has a vocation. I have a vocation as a faith leader, and everyone individually has their own role and opportunity to live out their calling in the work that we do, whether it’s setting up chairs or leading music or helping with the kids’ activity tables. Whatever the case may be, vocation is just part of how we are the body of Christ together”. Pastor Sara also highlighted a few verses that were particularly influential for shaping the Beloved United Methodist Church, including Matthew 22, John 1, and Micah 6:8. These were all significant passages Pastor Sara used in early preaching that resonated with the congregation. 

In balancing these successes, Pastor Sara commented on the duality of holding both grief and grace in everything they do as this young congregation. The feeling of hope in the unknown, and relying on God’s guidance, underlies everything this community does. Pastor Sara says this on the future of Beloved United Methodist: “I think the ongoing awareness for us is that I’m so grateful for all that God has done. And yet I’m so sensitive to the fact that we’re not a success story. Not yet, and I don’t even know what that would mean. We are still in formation. We are still really fragile. And yet, God is greater than anything we’ve gone through, and in the beginning I would find myself so kind of insecure at times, just with all the dynamics. And again. I never intended it. I never intended to be a church planter, not even remotely. And so I would always keep saying, whatever we are has to be enough for today”. 

I really enjoyed hearing the story of Pastor Sara and Beloved United Methodist Church as they’ve grown and experienced the ups and downs of a new congregation. I am very happy to hear about how congregants have balanced grief, healing, and hope, and that this community is providing people with a safe place to express their faith! If you’re curious about hearing more about this church and other diverse congregations, sign up for the 2024 Conference for Worship, Theology, and the Arts: Nourishing Vocation happening at St. Olaf College July 29-31!