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A Matney church congregation is in a dispute with the Western North Carolina Conference of United Methodist Churches over the closure of a 121-year-old church building. Photo by Anna Oakes

Originally published: 2013-04-23 18:18:51
Last modified: 2013-04-23 18:18:49

Matney church in dispute over building

Members of a 121-year-old church in Matney are fighting to remain in their building after the Western North Carolina Conference of United Methodist Churches closed the church on Easter Sunday.

Church members issued a statement April 16 asserting the church's small congregation was locked out by a pastor from Banner Elk Methodist Church following Easter Sunday worship and that the building -- located on N.C. 194 -- "is to be turned into a youth hostel for skiers and snowboarders."

Congregation members said the 1892 deed for the church states that the land was donated for a cemetery and church only.

"Some of the (descendants) of the trustees of that original deed still attend the church and raise serious objections," the statement said.

Lory Beth Huffman, superintendent for the Appalachian District of the Western North Carolina Conference, said the church's average attendance has been between four and six people for the past five years and that the church has struggled to pay its bills.

"We regret and grieve when a church reaches the point when it no longer can function as a viable congregation engaged in God's mission in the community and the world," she said.

Huffman said no decision has been reached about a new use for the property.

"In the United Methodist Church, all property and buildings are held in trust on behalf of the denomination, which then assumes responsibility for the property when a church closes," she said. "No decisions have been made whatsoever on what will happen to this property other than the cemetery will remain in the care of the Liberty Cemetery Committee. "

"If the building can be repurposed into another mission or ministry of the United Methodist Church, that will be pursued after discussions with a number of groups and committees," Huffman said.

Since Easter Sunday, congregation members have met on the lawn of the church to hold services and have changed their name to Matney Liberty Church, stating they are nondenominational.

Bob Hughes, who serves as chairman of the board of trustees for the newly named Matney Liberty Church, said the hostel idea was one of two options presented by Huffman when she informed the congregation of the conference's decision on Palm Sunday.

"She mentioned two possible uses for the church. One was a youth hostel, and the other one was an administrative conference center," Hughes said.

The congregation is prepared to go to court to contest the conference's claim to the property.

"The property deeds clearly state that the land was donated for the use for a church and a cemetery," Hughes said. "We believe that the Methodist Conference has the right to say to Liberty, 'You can no longer be a Methodist church; you no longer have a membership; you have no affiliation.' We are not contesting that. We are forming a Matney Liberty nondenominational church that will continue to have worship in that church, as it was built by the community."

Huffman said the former district superintendent, the Rev. Philip Cole, met with the church in February 2012 to give the church a gift of $1,000 and one more year to "get themselves out of crisis."

Hughes says a conference action in 2007 contributed to the church's drop in attendance numbers. When the conference appointed the pastor at Banner Elk United Methodist to replace the church's pastor, he moved the Sunday worship service to 8:30 a.m.

"Attendance dropped off, donations dropped off and we couldn't pay the apportionment," Hughes said.