A Clark County congregation that broke away from a larger United Methodist Church group now is fighting for control of land that’s housed a small church since 1833.
The dispute between the Pitchin Community Church and West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church has involved changed locks on the building, calls to deputies and talks between lawyers for both parties.
Pitchin Community Church voted to cease ties with the United Methodist Church in February, transitioning to a non-denominational Christian church April 1.
Since that time, the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church has “faithfully and respectfully discussed with representatives of the new church … a mutually acceptable agreement for the dispensation of the United Methodist-owned property,” according to statement it released to the Springfield News-Sun on Monday.
Just who owns the property is being hotly disputed.
Pitchin Pastor Jacob Cultice said he believed his congregation left the UMC with the district’s blessing. However, in June he said he received a letter from the district indicating the church signs had been taken down and the building secured.
“I came up here, and all of the doors were already locked,” he said.
Three wooden signs, made 15 years ago by a member, were found broken into pieces in a back trash can. After finding one door unlocked, Cultice said he and members changed the locks to keep district representatives out.
However, on Aug. 21, a neighbor called the Clark County Sheriff’s Office to report a possible burglary after witnesses saw people entering the church and removing items. According to the incident report, a member of the UMC district said that “the church was closing their doors,” which Cultice disputed. A deputy who responded asked both parties to leave and to consult their attorneys after the building was secured.
A large sign was placed on the property last week that said the church would be sold at public auction Sept. 18 at 3:01 p.m. It indicated all items inside, including office equipment, pews and personal property, would be sold.
Many of the items belong to individual members or were donated in memory of past members. A large painting of Jesus and a baptismal fountain were brought by former members of a church in North Hampton while three wooden crosses were made by a patron of the church’s popular Apple Butter Festival. A tapestry and painting of the church were made by other members. Illene Cessna, who’s attended the church in Pitchin since 1978, said the existing building was built by people who’ve long since passed away.
“I knew the people who built this sanctuary, that had worked a long time selling sandwiches and at auctions and out at the fair selling food to raise money for it, and they worked hard,” Cessna said. “If they sell it, they’re going to take the heart of Pitchin away.”
The congregation hired a group of attorneys to represent roughly two dozen members in their battle to keep Pitchin Community Church and continue worshipping there. The majority of their activities this month have been held in the Springfield home of a member’s daughter while they sort out what to do. Neither the congregation nor the UMC district filed a lawsuit. And no formal eviction has been filed in Clark County.
The UMC district officials assert they owners of the church. The plot at 5566 Selma Pike has been home to Christian worship since 1833. The land was officially deeded to the trustees of Concord Methodist Protestant Church of Green Twp. in 1843 in a handwritten document that Cultice still retains.
In a statement, the district stated when the church became part of their denomination in 1939, “they agreed to follow the bylaws of our Book of Discipline, which clearly state all property is held in trust for the denomination to be used in such a way that benefits the continuation of the ministries of The United Methodist Church in that area.”
Barry Reich, partner at Cole Action Harmon Dunn law firm, which is representing the Pitchin congregation, said said his clients are the successors to that deed and therefore own the church. He said their claim supersedes any regulations of the United Methodist Church.
“We think that Ohio law requires the parties to look at Ohio law rather than internal church documents,” he said.
Cultice said he wants the UMC to release the church to the members, adding they would pay a nominal fee if necessary. He does not want to see the building go to auction, and that members could likely not afford to purchase the property back.
The UMC district did not specify its next move. “We know this is a sensitive and difficult situation, and we are continuing the conversation we’ve had for several months and remain hopeful for a successful outcome,” a statement read.
The fate of the small cemetery at the back of the church also remains uncertain. If the property were sold or the church closed, Green Twp. would have to assume possession of the cemetery by Ohio law, a proposition trustee president John Maurer said he hopes to avoid.
“We want to see it stay with the church,” Maurer said.
While the township cannot enter into the legal battle, or offer any financial assistance to Pitchin Community Church, Maurer said trustees are backing the congregation.
“Personally, all three trustees want to see it remain a viable part of the community, and we give them our support, and we want them to stay,” he said.
Member Missie Pinkerman, who has attended the church for 25 years, said the congregation is a family and they don’t intend to give up their house of God.
“It’s heart-breaking, literally heart-breaking. This church and this congregation, all of us worshiping God on Sunday and this means nothing to them,” Pinkerman said of the district’s actions thus far. “We want to be here, and until we have a court order to get out, we will not get out.”