One of Buckhead’s oldest churches is staying open despite plans to close it.
Paces Ferry United Methodist Church, which is located at 3612 Paces Ferry Road and was founded in 1877, was to hold its last service Dec. 30. The church’s lay minister, Steve Unti, decided to retire at the end of 2018 retiring after spending 18 years in that role, and the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church, the church’s parent organization, originally opted to close it instead of hiring a new minister to take Unti’s place.
But after Unti informed members of the closure at the church’s Oct. 21 service and also announced it an email that day to Paces Ferry’s congregation, its members sprang into action with a campaign to save the church.
In December they elected members Marie Macadam, Tom Perdue and Fentress Seagroves as trustees to lead the campaign. The trustees sent a letter to Sue Haupert-Johnson, the conference’s bishop, and Bernice Kirkland, the conference’s district superintendent of the Atlanta College Park district, to inform them they wanted the church to stay open and to find a way to do so (Haupert-Johnson was out of town at a meeting and unavailable for comment).
“We told them we did not consent to closing our church,” Macadam said. “We offered suggestions of how we could continue to serve the congregation. We requested a meeting with the district superintendent and she obliged. In the meeting (the first week of January) we came to the conclusion that our church would be adopted, so to speak, by Collins Memorial United Methodist Church under the leadership of their dynamic minister, the Rev. Theresa Coleman.”
Paces Ferry has about 30 members and about 30 “friends,” residents living nearby who support the church financially and by helping with duties such as landscaping or maintenance. Paces Ferry’s church building was completed in 1896 and the Pleasant Hill Cemetery next to it on the church property predates it, bearing the church’s original name, Pleasant Hill Methodist.
Collins Memorial, located at 2220 Bolton Road in Atlanta’s Bolton community, has about 50 members and is four miles from Paces Ferry. It is the city’s oldest church, dating back to 1821, though its current church structure was built in 1909. Coleman, who has served as senior pastor at Collins Memorial since July, will serve in the same role at Paces Ferry.
Unti remained at Paces Ferry through the Jan. 13 service, a guest minister filled in Jan. 20 and Coleman’s first service there is this Sunday. The Buckhead church is moving its weekly 11 a.m. Sunday service to 9:30 a.m. so Coleman can still lead Collins Memorial’s weekly 11 a.m. Sunday service.
Perdue said the conference’s decision to close Paces Ferry was a misunderstanding between it and the church. The fact that the church’s longtime volunteer manager, Jane Ross, was also retiring at the same time Unti was – Macadam is replacing her – exacerbated the situation.
“There was a lot of miscommunication and they thought there was no one really that had any interest in the church after those people retired, so they, not in a bad way, said if there were no people interested in the church to keep it open, they would close it at the end of the year,” Perdue said. “As soon as (Kirkland) realized there were a lot of people who wanted to keep the church open, (the conference) decided to keep it open. They not only helped us keep it open but also got us a pastor.”
Kirkland said there was a miscommunication "between the congregation and the pastor.”
“We’ve resolved this issue," she said, declining to comment further.
Coleman, whose parents and grandparents lived most of their lives in Atlanta, said she’s “blessed” to serve as Paces Ferry’s minister to help keep it open.
“In the Bible the verse from Ecclesiastes 4:12 talks about how ‘a cord with three strands is not easily broken.’ If we can come together, we can be stronger than the sum of our parts,” she said. “There are things Paces Ferry can bring to the table and there are things Collins Memorial will bring to the table.”
One Collins Memorial initiative Paces Ferry will participate in is its food pantry, which last year served 1.8 million meals to the hungry and food-insecure in Atlanta, Coleman said. Also, Paces Ferry has started a capital campaign to improve the church’s building and grounds.
A campaign website with the possibility for online donations has not been set up yet, so for now they can be made by check to Paces Ferry United Methodist Church, Capital Campaign. 3612 Paces Ferry Road NW, Atlanta, GA 30327.
The trustees interviewed said they are thrilled the church is staying open and thankful to Kirkland and Haupert-Johnson for helping accomplish that goal.
“It feels absolutely wonderful to have a plan in place to keep our church operating,” Macadam said. “We are very appreciative of the work of the past leaders and have a big legacy to carry on. But, we are excited for the future of our little church and hope to reach more people who might be looking for a new church home. We feel like we finally have a voice in the future of our church.”
Perdue said none of the church’s leaders or members envisioned the church closing, adding he thought either the conference would hire a new minster or the church would make arrangements for one. He said the Neighbor’s previous article on the plans for its closure “generated a lot of interest and concern” from nonmembers who come to the church just to “sit on the back steps or the front steps and pray during the week.”
“But it’s nice because we thought we were facing closure and now there’s a big burst of energy,” Perdue said. “… It’s a nice time and everybody is grateful for the opportunity, but in the end, it’s not our church. It’s Christ’s church. We have this church and the grounds here lent to us and it’s up to us to do something with it. To either glorify God or the church will close its doors. Nobody wants the church to close its doors. So you’ve got a lot of active, excited people now. …
“In a sense, the fear of the announcement that the church is going to close is probably the best thing to happen to the church in 50 years. Sometimes you don’t realize what you have until you’re about to lose it. I think a lot of us felt that way.”
Jeannette McCain, who has attended the church for about 70 years and has many relatives buried in the cemetery there, including her mother, who died in September, was also thrilled.
“It feels really good it’s going to stay open. It’s really unique. It’s not like the big churches because the moment you walk in, you feel the love because everybody knows everybody. There’s a lot of hugs that go on there.”
Coleman said she wants Paces Ferry to live on for as long as possible.
“So many of these little churches in the area – rural and urban and suburban – are striving just to survive,” she said. “That’s not really want what God wants us to do. He wants us to thrive. Hopefully the congregations of both of these churches can come together and not just survive but to thrive.”