A New Day for United Methodism in Wichita Falls

Floral Heights UMC

Floral Heights UMC held their final worship on April 28, 2024. 

Floral Heights UMC votes to merge with First UMC Wichita Falls and University UMC

Sunday, April 28 marked a new day for United Methodism in Wichita Falls. In an unprecedented move, Floral Heights UMC voted to merge with two other United Methodist churches in the community rather than become a legacy congregation. In this way, they are extending and maximizing their impact as members of Floral Heights UMC now bring their passion, gifts and commitment to making disciples to other United Methodist churches nearby. 

Floral Heights UMC, University UMC and First UMC Wichita Falls each held a special called church conference in April to approve the merger after more than  a year of discussion and planning. Four lay members and the senior pastor from each church participated as part of the merger team that mapped out this new arrangement. Floral Heights held their final worship on April 28 and members were then welcomed into both neighboring churches with a reception and tour. 

Effective July 1, First UMC and University UMC will assume a shared responsibility for Floral Heights’ remaining assets. The churches’ respective Boards of Trustees will oversee basic upkeep until the properties sell.

Following the pandemic and disaffiliation season, Floral Heights UMC struggled with dwindling membership and reduced giving. Rev. Brian Bosworth, senior pastor of Floral Heights, and lay leadership of the church began to assess what next steps for the church might be.

“We could look into the future and know we just were not sustainable long term,” Bosworth said. “God was in the midst. This was courageous for the laity to see ahead and to listen to us and not the dissenters, to say ‘God does new things even from sadness. We can strengthen United Methodism in Wichita Falls and be a powerful witness to the theological understanding of grace. We’re willing to do what we are called to do to show that God can do new things.’ God is always faithful, we just find God in this and celebrate.”

FUMCWF greets new members from Floral Heights

First UMC Wichita Falls welcomes new members from Floral Heights UMC. 

Floral Heights UMC Lay Leader Linda Parks described this process as building a bridge as they crossed it. No church they had heard of had merged with two other churches before. 

Parks recalls how they arrived at this decision. “Two years ago we did a ministry assessment our finances, building, membership and more. It became clear we were in a pretty steep decline. We wanted to be part of the decision about what was going to happen in our future. Rev. Todd Harris, our District Superintendent, worked with us and the Annual Conference hired a consultant, Dirk Elliot, who worked with us on the process. Through that process, we did a unique thing – merging with two churches versus one church, as we realized some members wanted to go to First UMC and some to University UMC. That way people could go where they chose and where they had the most affinity, where they felt the most comfortable and where they could really worship God.”

Starting in January 2023, Harris led the congregation through listening sessions, focus groups and town hall meetings, to ensure the church had a voice in its future. 

Rev. Zack Landis, senior pastor of University UMC, was excited to begin conversations about merging with Floral Heights.

“I really admire the fact that they chose this before they actually got to the point where they would be forced to close,” Landis said. “They wanted to bring the vitality that they had, and they wanted to infuse that into the churches around them. It was all about making United Methodism stronger in Wichita Falls, and I think that is admirable.”

Bosworth, Landis and McLArty

Rev. Brian Bosworth (Floral Heights UMC), Rev. Zack Landis (University UMC) and Rev. Dr. John McLarty (First UMC Wichita Falls).

For Parks and other longtime members of Floral Heights, the legacy they leave is also rooted in their faith in what God is doing in their midst.  

“We knew we needed to step back and let God be God instead of trying to be in charge ourselves,” Parks said. “The scripture that has guided me personally through this whole thing is in Isaiah where God says, ‘See I am doing a new thing.’ That is extremely exciting to be part of something new that God is doing. It’s inspiring, it’s energizing, it’s uplifting. I’ve been able to see God doing something new. Merging with two churches, nobody has seen that done before. We’ve been able to navigate that and do it well and do it with grace and that’s God’s hand guiding us.”

Rev. Dr. John McLarty, senior pastor of First UMC Wichita Falls, is gratified by Floral Heights’ faith and courage. 

“It has been a painful two years for Floral Heights,” said McLarty. “As it became clear to their leadership that this merger would be their best option, they chose to proactively step into that future, while they still had people and resources to make an impact in our community. I was inspired by their courageous decision to invest in a more collaborative ministry, rather than deplete their resources trying to do their own thing until nothing and no one remained.”

While the process of recognizing the need to suspend ministries at the Floral Heights campus was painful, the leaders found hope and new life in the process of laying groundwork for the merger. 

“People are happier. They're in a healthier, more joyful environment,” Bosworth said. “Now we can turn our energy to the mission field instead of worrying about paying this bill or that bill. Todd has been there all along. John McLarty started watching over me regularly and we’d try to make plans not knowing where the district would guide us. He was a good friend in this.”

The Women’s Table fellowship that now includes members of both Floral Heights and University UMCThe members of Floral Heights have found a warm welcome and integration into the life of both merging churches. On April 28 after their final worship, members integrating into First and University found wonderful places to land. 

“Their hospitality has been incredible,” Parks said. “It was so nice to drive up into the parking lot and see folks smiling and waving at us to welcome us after we’ve gone through such an emotional last service. Both churches had receptions for us and showed us around. Even now, their hospitality continues. They have incorporated us into the church so well and made sure we felt at home. First and University have been so gracious and so loving and so kind. We really do appreciate it and it has meant so much to us.”

The merging churches hope this sets an example for other churches to think creatively about their future collaboration and mission in their contexts. McLarty credits Bosworth and his members for their courage and willingness to explore an innovative solution. 

“Rev. Brian Bosworth should get a ton of credit for his humility and leadership as he shepherded Floral Heights through this painful process,” McLarty said. “He set his ego aside and looked for a solution that would work best for our overall ministry. I'm also very pleased with the way the pastors and congregations at FUMC and University have worked together with compassion, understanding, and vision as we have put the pieces of this unusual merger agreement together. Having strong and trusting relationships in place before this all started has been a major factor in its success and definitely a blueprint for when congregations are trying to be more strategic with its resources in a community served by multiple UMCs.”

Floral Heights’ legacy will continue in many ways, including its feeding ministry which will explore ways to continue post-merger. In its fourth year, the lunch program just marked serving 200,000 free lunches in the Floral Heights neighborhood. 

Bosworth noted that there is good DNA in the culture of the church that will continue in both new locations. “The witness we bear to the community is that Methodists can do hard things, we can make disciples from other addresses, we don’t have to be on 10th Street. The conference has agreed to turn the assets back over to University and First Church so they’re going to be able to do good things. The $1.6 million in the foundation will be a legacy foundation for the making of disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We were focused so much on survival, now we can focus on the mission field.”

The positive cross-pollination of the merger is already bearing fruit. Landis notes: “I already see a renewed sense of mission and ministry here at University. Everyone is really excited about what is happening and what we can do together. Our music ministry has just taken off with the new staff positions and the new choir members. There have been a number of things that have needed to be done that were just in a holding pattern. The merger and the new energy that it has brought has moved a lot of our congregation into wanting to accomplish things that will help make more disciples. It has been really fun to see this as a pastor.”

For Parks, Floral Heights is now able to leave a legacy and maximum impact on the community of Wichita Falls because they have spread. 

“We’re infusing our DNA in First, University and other UMCs in surrounding towns as our members use our hands and feet as Christ’s presence in these other places. We see it as well since we’ve had our deconsecration service and the disbursement of our physical assets. The bulk has gone to the two churches on our merger list but some has gone to other UMCs in our community. We’ll have the sale of land funds to go to our two merging churches as well. Floral Heights has left a legacy and continues to leave a legacy in the community in Wichita Falls for all of United Methodism, and by doing this we’ve made a greater impact than what we would’ve been able to do on our own. That’s a great thing to be able to do. Look at what we’ve been able to accomplish with God’s help!” 

Published: Wednesday, May 29, 2024