Members shocked as historic Wilmington church set to close after more than 170 years

Fifth Avenue United Methodist Church is closing after over 170 years, the NC Conference of UMC announced on Monday, March 27.
Published: Mar. 28, 2023 at 6:17 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - A historic church that has welcomed the Wilmington community since the mid-19th century will soon close its doors. The North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church has announced the closure of Fifth Avenue United Methodist Church.

The conference says it will be closing the church because of a decline in membership.

“While we do not regularly send out messages about closed churches,” a spokesperson said. “Due to the divisive climate in The United Methodist Church right now, we wanted to be as transparent as possible about this changing missional opportunity.”

Nearly 250 United Methodist Churches in North Carolina voted to disaffiliate from the denomination last year over its LGBTQ guidelines.

Members of the Congregation at Fifth Avenue United Methodist Church say the church council had also recently started the disaffiliation process, but had not held a full vote yet. They say a meeting was called Sunday where members were told the church would be closing and the final service would be on Easter Sunday.

Susan Long’s family is one of many who have been attending the church for generations.

“I went to the youth group here, of course, joined the church at around 12 years old, and really, just have been here,” said Long. “In my particular case, I’ve been here forever.”

Long says she and other members were shocked when they heard the conference had decided to close the church.

“It was a complete surprise. I’m really amazed we didn’t have heart attacks,” said Long. “We thought we were coming for an informational meeting about the vote for disaffiliation, which is coming up. However, it really was just to announce the closure of our church.”

The conference says it plans to maintain ownership of the building in downtown Wilmington’s historic district and repurpose it as a way to serve the community.

“We believe this will be a rebirth where the location and church space can meet basic needs for unsheltered people, become a gathering space for senior adults and persons with disabilities, provide shelter and assistance following major storms, and be a welcoming space for worship and study for one or more new United Methodist faith communities,” the conference said in a press release.

While plans for the future of the building have not been made official, Long wishes things did not have to change. Now, she and the other members are left to wonder what will happen next.

“It’s truly just a big, blank, open space because I don’t know what I’ll do,” said Long. “To me, this is where God lives.”

Members of the congregation say they will not be able to hold a vote on the disaffiliation decision because the conference has decided to shut down the church.

The conference says it does not plan to sell the property and will take over operations through a trust clause.

“We are grateful for the leadership and church members who have faithfully served over the years. We look forward to starting a new chapter focusing on outreach, service, and community engagement,” said Rev. Tara Lain, Harbor District Superintendent with the North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Lain says no one from the conference would be available for an on-camera interview by publication time Tuesday.