Members of Wesley United Methodist Church in La Crosse came to a bridge, and they’ll cross it Sunday — emerging on the other side as Bridges United Methodist Church, as they plan to refocus their mission to connect more people to faith.
Church members will mark the occasion with a special service at 9:30 a.m., followed by a potluck — both events open to the public as a celebration of the new name and mission.
The rebranding, which members approved unanimously two weeks ago, is an effort to reverse the historic downtown church’s plunging membership, said the Rev. Anna-Lisa Hunter, who has been half-time pastor for nearly two years.
“I knew when I came here it was struggling,” having dropped from a top membership of 450 souls to 72 now, Hunter said.
In the late 1990s, attendance at Sunday services ranged from 150 to 180. It now averages 38, she said, adding, “It’s not an uncommon story for a lot of churches, and a lot have decided to close.”
Wesley members eschewed a suggestion to shut down the church and instead decided to resurrect it — what has become known as the “Lazarus Plan” in church circles, Hunter said.
“This church has a history of changing” during the 131 years since its beginning as First Methodist, the pastor said.
One of Wesley United Methodist’s niche ministries in recent years has been serving homeless people. That took on added urgency during the brutal winter of 2014, when Wesley opened its lower level as an overnight shelter when the La Crosse Warming Center and The Salvation Army were overwhelmed.
The congregation also allowed homeless people to camp in a courtyard area on the church grounds until it ran afoul of city ordinances over insurance and other issues in 2015 and 2016 and had to have the homeless pull up stakes.
Those dramas occurred before the creation of the La Crosse Collaborative to End Homelessness, which has made inroads in finding housing for dozens of homeless and families.
Wesley United also had to close its Sacred Grounds Coffee Sanctuary, which had been open several mornings a week as a gathering place for the homeless, Hunter said.
Security was part of the problem: “This is a big building, and we don’t have the resources” to monitor every nook and cranny, she said. Members occasionally found heroin and used needles in the building.
Now congregation members are working to simplify and define Bridges’ mission, she said.
The name has an ironic inspiration. The idea was planted when Hunter was at a training session to help pastors overcome their churches’ challenges, she said. The trainer told participants to take a 20-minute walk to see what kind of vision God might inspire, she said.
“I’m a cynical Gen-Xer,” she said with a laugh, “and I thought, ‘God doesn’t give visions on demand.’ But before I got out the door, I thought of bridges. I had been here only a couple of months, and I didn’t realize the importance of bridges in La Crosse.”
Later, during a meeting about the congregation’s future, a member asked whether it should have a new name, and Hunter explained her bridge experience.
“We are one of the closest churches in town to the (Cass Street) bridge,” she said, and the idea meshed with the congregation’s “main focus to connect the people with God. The mission is to make disciples for God.”
Means to accomplish that goal include returning to weekly Communion services, a practice that began disappearing from many Methodist churches as far back as the Revolutionary War, Hunter said. Many pastors returned to England, leaving a shortage of ministers.
“Because of the shortage, many congregations only got Communion when the circuit rider came around,” and even today, many Methodist congregations offer Communion monthly or quarterly, said Hunter, whose husband, Martin, is pastor of Onalaska United Methodist Church.
Bridges also will offer small group opportunities such as Bible studies, she said.
Congregation members are considering mission endeavors, perhaps including efforts to ensure that people have clean water and to address the increasing problem of pollution from one-use plastic items, Hunter said.
“A lot of people need clean water,” she said, and the United Methodist Church’s Global Ministries strives to meet those needs through initiatives in Nicaragua, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Plastic pollution has gained traction recently with news and photos of vast amounts of plastic bottles and other plastic debris floating on the ocean, she said.
“With plastics, everybody can be involved,” Hunter said. “It’s a social justice issue because low-income people usually end up being those most affected.”
As far as Bridges’ finances, “we have been blessed with a couple of bequests that we will use to pass from one generation to the next,” Hunter said. “It won’t be used for daily expenses but as a grace period to invest for the next generation and hopefully grow.”
Members scratched the idea of closing up shop and moving to rented quarters, Hunter said.
“This is a huge building with tremendous historical importance — a special sacred space,” she said.
The building is acknowledged as such, having been declared a La Crosse historical landmark in 1988. The Wisconsin Historical Society describes it as “one of the four most architecturally significant 19th century structures in La Crosse.”
“We want to give it one last try,” Hunter said.