When the Rev. Ted Hartley was assigned to Bethany United Methodist Church in Bethany, Illinois, it was to oversee its death.

Rev. Hartley said the church had about 20 people still attending and at 57, he was the youngest person there. But Hartley was not a hospice pastor. He wanted to see the church grow and he wanted to be the leader to make that happen.

Betahny UMC
Bethany UMC’s block party with food, music, and games was a big event for the whole town.

When he was cleaning out a church closet, a copy of Autopsy of a Dead Church fell out. In it, author Lou Mancari offered creative and challenging insights to help readers and their churches tips to avoid spiritual obituaries. Hundreds of Bible verses are used as a sharp scalpel to expose potential killers of the contemporary church.

Hartley read it, then asked all the church members to read it too. He told them to pass it around among themselves. No one was exempted. Hartley said after they read it, they all said, “Goodness! That’s us!”

Hartley and the church members decided they wanted the church to not just not die, but to live. To thrive!

Hartley insisted the church have a dinner and meeting after services one Sunday. He told them this wasn’t going to be a pot luck. It was to be catered. He wanted every church member to be in the meeting after lunch, not cleaning up in the kitchen.

They worked on a mission statement. They decided on Living By Faith – Known By Love – Being A Voice of Hope. They put it on the wall so it would be visible to everyone every time they were in the church.

People began to get excited. They wanted to change.

They determined they needed four teams: Worship, Outreach/Evangelism, Families and Church Growth.

Bethany UMC
Music was a big part of Bethany UMC’s Block Party.

Hartley made some changes in the worship style, nothing too drastic. He added a drum set to the worship music. They moved a desk out of the entry and made the space a real reception area.

These changes rejuvenated the people. They began to talk to friends and family about the church and invited them to come. The church began to grow. The annual conference took notice and honored Bethany with the One Matters Award. With the $1,000 honorium that came with the award, they had a block party with food, fun, games and music and invited everyone in the town of 1,400 people! It was a big success!

Now the church has about 50 regular attenders and 10 children.

Hartley said Bethany is starting a small group ministry this season. They have a small youth group.

Hartley has been at Bethany for five years and has seen the church come from “almost closing” to thriving and growing.

He said he thinks pastors need to get more training on how to minister in small, struggling churches. He believes most churches that close don’t have to. If the pastor gets enthused and encourages the congregation to start looking outward, they don’t have to close.

Hartley likes to think he is carrying on a family tradition of church growth. His three-times-great uncle, Braxton Parrish, was a circuit pastor in southern Illinois and a friend of Abe Lincoln’s.

Hartley said he is intentional on making the worship times come alive at Bethany. He said he uses a lot of humor and laughter to reach people. He encourages people to invite others.