Church fires challenge United Methodists

During the past nine months, fire destroyed or damaged more than a dozen United Methodist church properties across the United States. Arson was the cause of at least five fires. The insured property value ranged from $10,000 to $3.3 million, but several churches lacked adequate insurance to cover full replacement costs. This is the first in a series reporting on the damage from those fires, the response to the affected congregations and what churches can do to protect themselves.

Since this series published, three church fires have been reported. On Feb. 13, the fifth arson-related fire in the Western North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference since December struck Bethany United Methodist Church, Summerfield, N.C. That same day, First United Methodist Church, DeRidder, La., had a fire of accidental origin in the fellowship hall. The fire was contained to a small area, said the Rev. A. Wayne Evans. Frisco City United Methodist Church in the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference suffered damage due to a fire Feb. 24. An upstairs heating unit may have caused the blaze.

It's every congregation's worst nightmare. Fire strikes and the church building that members have loved for decades is suddenly gone or seriously damaged. Three churches in the Arkansas Annual (regional) Conference and congregations in six other states understand that nightmare all too well as they recover from recent fires.

The first fire, ignited by lightning, destroyed the Hickory Plains United Methodist Church on May 30, 2012.

"Our building was a total loss, even though it took nearly three months before the insurance company made its final decision," said the Rev. Deborah D. Harrison. "A quick-moving thunderstorm went through about noon that day, but the fire wasn't discovered until 3:15 p.m."

The congregation is meeting in a former Baptist church. "We are now in the slow process of getting our plans ready and approved by the district committee on location and buildings," she said. "The insurance company (State Auto) is paying $485,000 for the building.

"We had a major fundraiser just a few weeks after the fire. The money from that, plus donations gave us an extra $14,000.If we run out of money, ourplans are to have more fundraisers."

Harrison is grateful for prayers and reminders that people care. "The outpouring of love and support," she said, "has been inspiring. I have especially appreciated all of the people, near and far - many total strangers - who have sent condolences and reminded us that they are praying for us.

"I am in the middle of this experience, but I believe it needs more prayer than money. My very small congregation (47 members) has been forced to work together more closely than ever before, and we are recovering from somefractious meetings and differences of ideas. ... A church is a much more personal belonging than you can imagine. People take it very personally, and trying to step back for a broader view is a challenge to their personal loss."

In September, an arsonist torched Living Waters at Centerton (Ark.) United Methodist Church, and the building was a total loss.

"The fire was caused by someone pouring gasoline all over the altar and igniting it," said the Rev. Blake A. Lasater. "After the first fire was extinguished that night, the arsonist came back with more gasoline and reignited the fire, causing it to travel underneath the flooring and out the back of the church where it wasn't spotted until the next morning. The insurance investigator has turned his findings over to the state fire marshal for further investigation." As of Jan. 24, no one had been arrested.

Community response to the fire was immediate. A Baptist church offered pastoral support and sent its praise band the Sunday after the fire to lead the service. "They also donated sound and music equipment to be used while we are nomadic," Lasater added. A recently closed United Methodist church in Oklahoma donated church furnishings.

'God is still present'

Now meeting in an elementary school, the congregation is looking forward to completion of a new building, under construction on the old site. "The fire ... burned a hole in the middle of the first floor, which is built into the brick walls," Lasater said. There was "no way to replace the floor and to ensure the two-story brick structure would not collapse on itself.

"Insurance (State Farm) only covered half the expenses, deeming that the old building was salvageable," he added. "However, our tests and studies showed that it wasn't.

"There really is no way to assess the dollar value of the building," Lasater said. "It would take $1.5 million to put it back with all the code updates. It was insured for $900,000, but insurance only paid $500,000.

A UMNS Series

"Church fires: Damage, recovery, prevention"

Arsonists torch four neighboring churches (Prt. 2)
Church fire offers 'moments of deep grace' (Part 3)
How do you protect your church property? (Part 4)

"They would only pay the full amount if we actually started remodeling the old church, which we deemed to be a total loss. Architectural and engineering fees, plus city permitting to remodel, would have been substantial, and then we would have discovered the building could not be salvaged. In other words, they wanted us to tear out the floor and if the building caved in, they would have paid the full amount. By then we would have already spent the $400,000 to get to that point, so we decided to cut our losses and start all over with the half-payout."

He reminded other congregations, "Insurance only replaces. It does not rebuild. Make sure you have adequate funds to actually rebuild the church, not just its value. Those two items may seem to be the same, but they are totally different."

God is still present, even in difficult times, Lasater said. "You've still got a mission and a ministry."

A late-night Oct. 22 lightning strike sparked a fire at Wiggins Memorial United Methodist Church, Fayetteville, Ark. The flames were contained in Heritage Hall, but extensive smoke damage throughout the facility left the congregation temporarily displaced. "We are still waiting to receive the final amounts for building and contents," said the Rev. Nan Nelson, senior pastor. The facility is insured (GuideOne) for $10,000.

Area churches continue to support the congregation. Members are worshipping with Trinity United Methodist Church, Fayetteville, until building rehabilitation is completed. Other congregations are hosting the Cub Scout troop and assisting with cleanup. She praised the power of social media, which enabled friends and colleagues to reach out immediately to her and the congregation.

Despite the passage of time, Nelson said, a strong smoke odor has returned to the premises, thus changing the inventory of damaged contents. "We have added carpet and pew pads in the sanctuary to our list of damaged content. Ozone machines were placed in the church ... to remove the smoke odor."

'People are faithful and strong'

Congregations in Georgia, Indiana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Virginia and Illinois also experienced recent fires.

The Rev. Reggie Williams, pastor of South Columbus United Methodist Church in Georgia, expressed optimism after fire, suspected to be electrical, damaged his church Nov. 23. "We're holding on to Scripture. ... Even in the midst of this, God's hand is upon us, and we will come back stronger."

On Dec. 3, a fire sparked by an Advent candle tore through the sanctuary of the recently renovated Friend (Neb.) United Methodist Church. "The interior of the sanctuary is a total loss," said the Rev. Paixao Baptista, "but the structure is still viable." The congregation is meeting in a funeral home chapel while the sanctuary undergoes repairs. The dollar value of the property insurance (Church Mutual) is $1.8 million, including $1.5 million for the building and $300,000 for contents.

"The community support has been wonderful," Baptista said, offering prayer and financial assistance for uncovered expenses and a necessary upgrade. "It's a hard situation, but people are faithful and strong."

Churches affected

Church & Location

Adams Memorial (Parksley, Va.)
Bethel (Oak Ridge, N.C.)
First (Ada, Ohio)
First (Robinson, Ill.)
Friend (Friend, Neb.)
Gideon Grove (Stokesdale, N.C.)
Hickory Plains (Hickory Plains, Ark.)
Living Waters at Centerton (Centerton, Ark.)
Mount Zion (Stokesdale, N.C.)
St. Timothy (Jamestown, N.C.)
Shiloh (Lynchburg, S.C.)
South Columbus (South Columbus, Ga.)
Taylor Chapel (Fort Wayne, Ind.)
Wiggins Memorial (Fayetteville, Ark.)

Members

155
340
335
337
171
98
47
180
208
156
85
785
262
225

Attendance

45
108
148
125
58
39
25
104
72
72
42
360
191
57

Average membership: 328
Average attendance: 111.5

A Dec. 31 fire destroyed the sanctuary of Taylor Chapel United Methodist Church, Fort Wayne, Ind. The Rev. Steven K. Conner, senior pastor, agreed with the comment of a lay leader: "We're still together as a people. We still have our mission; we still have work to do."

Also picking up the pieces after a lightning strike on Jan. 2 ignited a fire is Shiloh United Methodist Church, Lynchburg, S.C. The inferno destroyed the 182-year-old structure.

Three weeks later, on Jan. 23, fire engulfed the 135-year-old Adams Memorial United Methodist Church in Parksley, Va. The sanctuary appeared a total loss, but firefighters tried to save the adjacent fellowship hall. According to a local news source, early reports suggested the fire was not the result of arson.

In Robinson, Ill., members of First United Methodist Church are dealing with a similar tragedy that struck their congregation on Christmas Day.

A fire of "undetermined" origin consumed the 1899 building, which included the sanctuary and a partial basement. However, the half-century-old education building, which butted up to the sanctuary, received only water and smoke damage.All of the contents were lost.

"We are meeting at Otterbein United Methodist Church here in Robinson," the Rev. Tiffany Black said. "The community has been wonderful. There have been many prayers and acts of love.We have been richly blessed." After the education building is repaired, the congregation will return there to worship in the fellowship hall.

The facilities, valued at $3.3 million, were insured for $3.5 million (Cincinnati Financial Corp.). "They are estimating it to cost $2.5 million to rebuild the structure of the sanctuary," the pastor said, "and then we would need to add pews, organ, pulpit, sound system and so forth.

"We are still early on in the whole process, and I am sure I will learn so much more before all is said and done.As far as rebuilding, we do not know what the future holds at this time." A newly formed study committee will determine the congregation's next steps.

Black refuses to let the situation overwhelm her or her parishioners.

"There is no need to panic," she said. "Everything will get done in due time. The most important thing is to take care of one another and stand strong as a church.Treat it as a funeral and give the people time to share and grieve.While there are memories, it was a building and the people are the church."

*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].


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