After 37 years, divided congregations in Athens reunite, share resources

Church members: No one remembers for sure what the fuss was about.

ATHENS?Three miles was the distance between the two churches, but that isn’t what separated them.

Thirty-seven years ago members from West Athens Baptist Church parted ways with fellow members because of a difference of opinion over something that today no one really seems to remember?members of the two churches speculate that it involved the direction of the youth ministry.

The parting members formed a new church a few miles down the road called Fellowship Baptist Church. Now, the two churches have rejoined in a remarkable act that church members said can only be explained as God’s divine will.

“We believed it was God’s plan and that it [the merger] was going to be better for us, and if that was his plan he was going to verify it for us,” said Mike Dean, who was the pastor at Fellowship Baptist Church prior to the merger.

Three times the number of people who would normally sit in the pews at West Athens Baptist Church attended on July 1 to worship as Dean, who is co-pastor with Rocky Weatherford, preached the inaugural sermon for the newly formed Fellowship Baptist Church.

Both of the churches prior to the merger were in need of something that the other had. One of the churches was struggling financially and the other was struggling with accommodating its congregation.
“We had the facilities, but were struggling financially and they were in old facilities that were land-locked, making it difficult for them to build,” said Weatherford, who was pastor of West Athens Baptist Church for four years prior to the merger. “We put two churches together that were spiritually growing, that had needs that could mutually be met by each other.”

Weatherford had felt burdened for his congregation. He prayed for God to strengthen his church, he said. Being a “big-picture guy,” Weatherford set his sights on Fellowship Baptist Church after hearing that they needed more facilities because of their growth but had nowhere to build.

“He just called me up out of the blue and we met for coffee,” commented Dean, who has been friends with Weatherford since the early 1990s. “That was when he laid out the idea.”

After an hour of talking, the two men parted, with Weatherford asking Dean to pray about it and call him back if God prompted him.

“Two days later he called me back asking if he and some of his church members could take a tour of our facilities? They loved it,” Weatherford said.

The two churches formed a committee comprised of members from both churches that would examine the proposed merger for 60 days before presenting the report to the congregation. They studied the finances, facilities, legalities and organization, then voted on the matter on June 3.

The congregation overwhelmingly approved the merger.

“By and large they [the congregation] see it as a real healing process. They all are going to participate with merging. And they see it as a complete circle,” Dean said.

Faced with the problem of having to sell their facilities, Fellowship sold their property to another local church a week before the vote passed.

After splitting apart because of what some believed to be a difference in opinion over the direction of the youth ministry, the two churches continued bearing fruit. But the effects of a church split can still be felt today in the community with several area churches in Athens being products of a split.

“I think anytime there is division in church it is devastating to ministry. It is usually selfish. People didn’t get their way,” said Weatherford, who has been a pastor in Henderson County for 13 years. “The society in which we live expects churches to fight and split.”

With the church split a part of the newly formed church’s past, the merger serves as an example of the Lord’s love for the visible church and his capability to mend hearts and relationships.

“For those 37 years there have been two churches that have been doing ministry. And Fellowship Baptist Church has had a strong ministry in the last 15 years. God still used both entities to do his work,” Weatherford said.

To bond the church together, a lifestyle of selflessness and God-centeredness has become the formula for the new era.

“It is not about West Athens or Fellowship?it’s about him [the Lord],” proclaimed Dean from the pulpit. “If we will adopt this motto, the merger will go smoothly.”

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