COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. — Members of the Grove United Methodist Church in Cottage Grove said they’re being evicted from their place of worship.
Their sin? Being too old.
Cheryl Gackstetter, 63, said she and her husband received a letter in December from the Rev. Dan Wetterstrom, lead pastor at the Woodbury and Cottage Grove branches of the Grove United Methodist Church.
“We're not allowed in the church because they're building a new church and they don't want people to see us," she said.
The letter notified parishioners that the Cottage Grove campus would go dark June 1. It will reopen in the fall with a new focus on young families with children.
In the meantime, current members were encouraged to worship elsewhere, including Woodbury United Methodist Church.
Members can return to the Cottage Grove campus in 15-18 months, the letter said.
Gackstetter said she was angry enough to confront Wetterstrom at a recent Sunday service.
"I looked him right in the face and said 'You are a hypocrite,'" she said.
Wetterstrom said he and their CORE Team did not make the decision lightly and that he empathized with members who are upset.
"It's especially hard on that community," he said. "It's just a real tender time for them."
But he said the reboot is necessary to save the Cottage Grove church from closing altogether.
Most of the members are 60 and older, and not enough young families are joining.
"Something must give,” he said in the letter. “The CG campus is nearing the end of its life cycle."
Last fall, a proposal by the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church was accepted to help reboot the church. The new congregation will be led by the Rev. Jeremy Peters. Peters has experience in church "planting projects," particularly with young families, Wetterstrom said.
The conference has budgeted $250,000 for the project, which will go to pay Peters's salary, promotions, events, hospitality and utilities, among other expenses.
Wetterstrom cited research that said communities generally can support one church for every 1,000 people. With a population of 37,000 and only 13 churches, Cottage Grove has been identified as a "high potential" community.
"One of the challenges we face if we're trying to create a new culture a new expression, a new community, it truly has to be new people for that to work," he said. “It's not about us, it's not about our preferences, it's not about what we want. It's important we put it in a broader context of 'How we can help the church fulfill those spiritual imperatives?'”
The Rev. Ben Ingebretson, Dakotas-Minnesota director of new church development for the United Methodist Church said their goal is to increase church membership from half of a percent to 3% statewide.
“One of the things churches do is they try to plant a new faith community,” he said. “All denominations do it. The United Methodist Church has targeted Cottage Grove as a high-potential community."
He said the church was not trying to exclude anybody.
"That's just not the way we work," he said.
He said he understood how churches with declining memberships can start to feel more protective and insular.
"When they get smaller they function like families," he said. "There can be a sense of offense and grievance."
Jim Baker founded Peaceful Grove United Methodist Church 30 years ago in Armstrong Elementary School. The church moved to a new building and merged with Woodbury United Methodist Church in 2008.