In his second-to-last address as spiritual leader of Western Pennsylvania's 170,000 United Methodists, Bishop Thomas Bickerton offered a best-of-times/worst-of-times portrait of the denomination's status here.
There are "amazing stories of growth" in some churches, with some new ministries being launched. But at the same time, there are a "growing number of churches that are ending their ministry," he said. "These once vital and independently driven churches can no longer sustain a ministry and maintain a building and are closing their doors."
Some, he said, are closing gracefully, looking for a way to pass the torch to other ministries in their community. Others "can only see their immediate future and are unwilling to discuss how God might use them to usher in a new chapter of what it means to be church in that region."
Bishop Bickerton made the comments in his annual state of the church address before the annual meeting of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, taking place this week in Grove City. The denomination has about 800 churches in 23 counties, and it's the largest Protestant body in the seven-county Pittsburgh metropolitan statistical area.
Bishop Bickerton, who was first elected to the position in 2004, is ending his tenure here next year.
He lamented there are cases in some churches of racism and opposition to women clergy, but he took heart that some of them are trying to do better.
He ended with a note of hope, saying he's seen "place after place that, on paper, don't look like they stand a chance. ... Yet they press on, you press on to be the church of Jesus Christ."