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Jesup First UMC and Epworth UMC merge to make Kingdom impact


By Jamie Denty* (Contributions for this article provided by Conference Communications)
When Jesup First United Methodist Church and Epworth United Methodist Church began praying about their future as one congregation, they knew it was more than just sharing a building or a name. For these two church families and one pastoral family, it was about bringing people together to make an even bigger impact for the Kingdom of God in their community.
On Easter Sunday, April 9, 2023, the members of Jesup First UMC and Epworth UMC worshiped together for the first time as one congregation. 
Rev. Rebecca Duke-Barton has served as senior pastor of Jesup First UMC for 5 years, and Rev. Garth Duke-Barton has served as senior pastor of Epworth UMC for 5 years. The two churches will now worship together under the name of Jesup First United Methodist Church, and the clergy couple will now serve as co-pastors of the congregation, which will meet in the Jesup First UMC building.
“In 1956, Jesup First was overflowing. They had more people than they had space,” said. Rev. Rebecca Duke-Barton. “They planted another Methodist church in Jesup, with some of the members from First going over to Epworth, so that they could continue to reach more people. The Baby Boom era is long gone. If we pool our resources and our people, we can better serve this world that God so loves.”
On March 1, with the approval of the South Georgia Conference, the two congregations met for dinner and a called charge conference. In a packed fellowship hall, membership from both churches voted unanimously to merge. 
This is a homecoming for the Epworth UMC that was birthed out of Jesup FUMC in 1956. Now in 2023, 67 years later, that congregation is returning home so that the people called Methodist in Jesup can be even more effective. 
Almost from the time the Duke-Bartons arrived in Jesup in June of 2018, they have led the two churches to cooperate in numerous activities. Initially, the most visible was the merger of the Methodist Youth Fellowship from both congregations for worship and recreation. This joint MYF meets regularly for Sunday and Wednesday evening programs and for other special events. 
Rev. Rebecca Duke-Barton recalls an interesting experience last year.

“We took a group of teens to the River of Life mission week,” she said. “Since we had people from both Jesup First and Epworth going, they started calling us ‘Jepworth’. We thought that was funny and appropriate because the youth groups are already so well blended that we could go under one name.” 
Rev. Rebecca Duke-Barton will serve as the primary preacher and will oversee the planning of the worship services. Rev. Garth Duke-Barton will continue his work with the youth and will also assume more administrative duties. He will also focus on discipleship, Sunday school classes, small groups, and missions. Both pastors will do visitations and provide congregational support. 
Before the Duke-Bartons ever moved to Jesup, they heard talk about merging the two churches. However, upon assuming their assignments, cooperation - not merger - was their goal.
Last year, during the weekly prayer meeting at Epworth UMC, members talked about and prayed about restarting the church. In prayer, they asked for God to lead them. 
“After we had prayed, one member asked if the others heard the Holy Spirit speak,” said Rev. Garth Duke-Barton. Several nodded. “Merger,” they said. “This is where God is leading us.”
Spurred by that testimony, members, pastors, and the conference began to explore the concept.  
“As with virtually everything, churches change, and we have to recognize the impacts and adjust to them,” said Bob Fox, lay leader at Epworth UMC. “It’s easy to simply ignore declining membership, but it’s not what God wants from his church. He wants us to adjust. As we look forward, we see a combined Methodist church that will be much more vibrant, with membership levels that support a variety of programs that reach out to its members and the community to further spread the word of God. The synergies between the churches are incredible, starting with the pastoral team and going throughout the membership, programs, and activities. We look forward to a new and exciting future focused on serving God.”
The Duke-Bartons are also excited about what a future focused on serving God together looks like.
“The District Superintendent told Rebecca and me that it’s a good move to make while we are here,” said Rev. Garth Duke-Barton, who smiles as he adds, “We do work well together.”
Mark McGregor, chairman of Jesup First UMC Administrative Council, acknowledges and appreciates the sacrifice the members of Epworth UMC are making.
“The merger of our churches is a win-win for both churches,” said McGregor. “This move should ensure a vibrant future. We appreciate the sacrifice Epworth is making, but in the end we are all children of God. They will be welcomed and loved.”
According to Madge Sewell in Wayne Windsong, Methodism in Wayne County began with a prayer in a little log store during the last half of the 19th century as railroad companies were laying right-of-way pegs and settlers were moving to the area. A survey crew, during a storm, was offered drinks in a little log store. The drenched foreman, Mike Darvis, looked at the other men and said, “What I need and what y’all need most is for us to get down on our knees and pray.” The men fell to their knees, and Darvis said, “Oh, Lord, we need you here.” 
In 2022, Jesup First United Methodist Church celebrated its 150th anniversary. As the two churches now reunite into one in 2023, members once again repeat that very first prayer: “Oh, Lord, we need you here.”
*Jamie Denty provided an expanded version of this story to The Press Sentinel, and it was published on Thursday, April 13, 2023. 

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