A broken air-conditioner during a relentlessly hot summer helped bring two northwest Oklahoma City congregations together in a one-of-a-kind merger for the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference.
Of course, the reasons for the union of May Avenue United Methodist Church and Ridgecrest United Methodist Church aren't quite so simple, but the Rev. Diana Pruitt said the defective cooling unit at Ridgecrest provided a creative spark that ultimately led to the blending.
The combined congregations now worship as Cornerstone United Methodist Church. The “uniting Sunday” was May 19, and the new church was consecrated May 26.
Pruitt, who was at Ridgecrest, and the Rev. Steve Brant, at May Avenue, serve as co-pastors — a first for the state Methodist conference.
Among early changes to come out of the merger decision was the choice for the new congregation to move forward in the May Avenue United Methodist building, 2604 N May, instead of in a building not tied to either church.
Another decision involved the name.
“This was truly about creating something new. That's why we chose a new name,” Pruitt said.
Since the merger was first discussed in fall 2012, the clergy leaders said the church members have made other choices: Stained-glass windows, new choir robes and a baby grand piano from Ridgeview will be moved to the Cornerstone building.
Cornerstone will operate a thriving child care center that had been at the May Avenue church for years. Fairly new commercial kitchen appliances will be moved from the Ridgeview building, which is for sale, to Cornerstone to continue the long-running Mobile Meals program run by Ridgeview volunteers.
The pastors said one of their lay leaders likened the process to people learning to dance together.
“Neither of us makes a makes a decision without considering the other, so it is truly a dance,” Brant said of his co-pastor.
Pruitt agreed. “Sometimes we step on toes, but you keep trying,” she said.
Pruitt, 53, had been pastor of Ridgecrest, 3629 NW 25, for four years when half of the church's air-conditioning unit shut down in the middle of summer 2012.
She said the church members wanted to be good stewards of their resources. Pruitt said she broached the subject of Ridgecrest joining with May Avenue as a way to save money and to combine the best of what both offer the community.
“We just thought a better use of our money would be combining together instead of spending every dime we had on a building,” she said.
She said each church had about 70 to 80 members. Ridgecrest is more than 100 years old, and May Avenue celebrated its 70th anniversary this year.
Brant, 59, said he was open to the merger idea, particularly because Oklahoma United Methodist leaders had been looking at ways to revitalize churches in the inner city.
He said the conference put out feelers four years ago to four northwest churches, including May Avenue and Ridgecrest, to see if they were interested in a cooperative ministry effort. The idea didn't come to fruition, because all of the targeted churches weren't pleased with the proposed arrangement.
The merger plan was seen as a refreshing idea.
“They have tried some different things in the past, and that's why I think the bishop and the conference were excited about this,” Brant said.
Pruitt and Brant said the merger proposal was met with resistance from some members of both congregations. They said some members were simply resistant to change. Others had concerns about how money would be handled, although neither church was acquiring debt in the joint venture. Another concern was they did not know how long it would take the Ridgeview building to sell.
Pruitt said the United Methodist conference helped considerably when its leaders said the combined congregation could use proceeds from the sale of the Ridgeview building. Brant said Cornerstone plans to use the funds for a major remodeling project to renovate the Cornerstone sanctuary, install the kitchen from Ridgeview, install a new elevator and expand the stage for a larger choir.
They still have to decide which church building's sanctuary seats to use, the pastors said, laughing. The May Avenue building has theater-style seats, and Ridgeview has pews.
The clergy leaders said an outside consultant — a layperson familiar with business mergers — helped the churches draft an initial merger plan. A committee with equal representation from both churches will meet for 18 months to help with the transition process. Another committee has been formed to help decide which traditions from each church will be continued.
As the merger progressed, the congregations held a joint Christmas cantata in December 2012 and a joint Easter cantata during the Easter season.
Meanwhile, Pruitt said several of her church members experienced pain at leaving their church building behind.
“That is the place where they have experienced their greatest joys. It's also where a lot of them said goodbye to their loved ones for the last time, so it was a difficult journey,” she said.
Pruitt reminded them of people in the Bible whom God called away from their homes and places of familiarity. Abraham, she said, was called to leave his country. And when Noah stepped out of the ark, things were drastically different.
“It was a different world — but God was still there.”