Six years ago, Dr. Gus Wetzel was sitting in church and looking around, noticed that all the people around him were his contemporaries. “I’m an old man, and it was an old man’s …
Six years ago, Dr. Gus Wetzel was sitting in church and looking around, noticed that all the people around him were his contemporaries.
“I’m an old man, and it was an old man’s church,” he said. “I wanted it to be a place for young people.”
For a mainstream Protestant church, Clinton United Methodist has a healthy number of families with children — more families join each month — and a dozen or more youngsters come down to the front for Children’s Time each Sunday.
But the rest of the service was the same as when Dr. Wetzel started attending the church 65 years ago with his family. So he decided to do something about it. After his epiphany, he rounded up 12 different families to brain-storm options, and the idea of offering an alternative-style ministry was born.
Today, construction crews are putting the finishing touches on an addition to the church building. Known as the Back Room — it’s on the southwest corner of the building — it is the centerpiece of a $1.9 million upgrade at Clinton United Methodist Church (CUMC). The Back Room will be used for an alternative to traditional Sunday services.
“Our younger people are just as passionate about their spirituality as we are,” Dr. Wetzel said. “They just take different paths.”
Dress is casual, and music will be a combination of traditional and modern pieces, said Pastor Monty Stratton. But the style of music is not as important as the atmosphere.
“We want relaxed, informal,” he said. “That’s our vision.”
Dr. Wetzel envisioned a separate building for the alternative service, but the addition, which shares a wall with the church gymn, made more sense. The entry door is off an access lane along the west side of the building, in a space formerly used for parking and storage. It faces the backyards of houses on 3rd Street, so Stratton thinks the name is appropriate.
Three years ago, a planning committee was formed and surveys sent out to the congregation.
“They voted significantly to do this, and away they went,” Dr. Wetzel said.
To date, the congregation has raised ⅞ of the total $1.9 million capital campaign, according to the weekly report in the church newsletter.
The Back Room, which can be used by the community, holds 150 when set up with chairs, according to Dave Garnett, head of the building committee. The room was designed to be flexible: some of the microphones are wireless, and the stage components can be rearranged or removed for more space, he said. The room can also be set up with round tables and chairs, as it was for Lenten lunches this spring, Stratton said.
A few tables will remain up where people can sit and drink coffee during Sunday services. Casual is the byword.
“Wear jeans,” Stratton said.
The general contractor, Westport Construction, had a person on site by mid-March of 2020, when the Covid crisis hit, delaying work. Estimated at one year, construction has passed the two-year mark, but is winding up. Last December, the room was used for a Christmas Eve service, with two musicians playing guitars, plus Stratton on guitar and piano.
Stratton said he hopes to have regular Sunday programs started by the beginning of the school year. But first, he has to find someone to lead them, as he already leads three traditional services on Sunday morning.
With the retirement of music director Sam Lucas, Stratton is also looking for one or more people to fill Lucas’ roles as organist and music director. Lucas also directs the choir and is the chancel orchestra conductor. Stratton will take any combination of people, full or part-time, to fill those spots, plus someone to lead the Back Room alternative service and play or organize music for it.
Like the support that arose for the capital campaign, there is no question that the congregation will cover the costs.
“The money will be provided as long as we stay true to our vision,” Stratton said. “We believe in it.”
The project also included a make-over of the church parlor, known as the Green Room. The flooring — tile, carpets and hardwood —came from Hobson’s Interiors. Kevin Kelgard was the electrician. Lumberyards in town provided materials, Garnett said, and “gallons and gallons and gallons” of White Duck paint from the Sherwin-Williams store downtown were used for the Back Room interior.
“A subgroup chose the colors, and kept it neutral,” Garnett said. “It is calming to promote a reflective mood. The lights can be adjusted to provide a splash of color and tailor the mood.”
The remodel has resulted in the upper part of the church — the sanctuary and upper hall which used to house the church library—staying traditional. The lower part — what was the Green Room — is now an open, modern space dotted with tall chairs, small tables, a sofa and a counter with a Keurig coffee machine. Separated by window walls, the remodeled space connects the sanctuary visually with the lower part, where new church offices, an updated kitchen and the Back Room are located.
Another connection was Stratton’s idea for small children: An enclosed tube slide from the hall outside the nursery, on the level with the sanctuary, allows young children to slide down to the lower space. A hall with two large handicapped-accessible restrooms plus a family restroom connects the refurbished space to the Back Room, which is adjacent to the updated kitchen.
“They’ve knocked it out of the park,” said Kevin Sullivan of Clinton, who plays pickleball in the gym on Wednesdays.
The Back Room has already hosted the high school baccalaureate service, at which Stratton spoke. He referenced the anticipation children feel at hearing the ice cream truck coming down the street. At the end of the service, the jingle of an ice cream truck was heard, and going outside, the students were treated to ice cream.
The church anticipates using the Back Room for its upcoming Backyard Bash, a vacation Bible school for families, on the third Wednesday of June, July and August. The first one is June 15 at 6 p.m. It includes games, music, food and close-up magic by Stratton, who was a stage magician and cruise director before he was called to the ministry. He has served as CUMC minister for almost a year.
Wetzel said he is one of only three or four people who have personal memories covering the entire history of the church building. In the first stage, the basement was built, he said, where church services were held. Then the sanctuary was built. Two or three years later, a Sunday School wing (not the current wing) was added. That first wing cost $200,000 to $250,000, Wetzel recalled, with the sanctuary about the same.
“My dad was the chairman of the building committee,” he said of his father, who was a local doctor and founder of Wetzel Hospital. Gus Wetzel graduated from medical school and was hired at Golden Valley Medical Center shortly after it opened, and works there now.
It was also in the mid-1970s that CUMC built the Green Room, the gymnasium and a kitchen. In the late 1980s, the sloped front driveway was added, removing the need for steps up to the main door. Along with an interior elevator, it made the building more accessible.
“It’s an evolution,” Garnett said of a church building. “Every generation needs to take responsibility for making changes that are needed.”
Like marks on the pantry door measuring the height of growing children, stones engraved with the date of construction mark the stages of growth of the church building. Lloyd of Legacy Memorial has made the stone for the Back Room, Garnett said, and also engraved the Bible verse for the stone over the door. A dedication of the Back Room will occur in June or July.
The path of moving a church over the threshold into a new century is not an easy one, Stratton said. But not having to blend the old and new in the same space made the decision less difficult, he said.
“We’re in a great position for outreach here,” he said. “We have people with open hearts who are willing to invest in people other than themselves, and in the community.”
For more information about programs at Clinton United Methodist Church, call 660-885-5597. The church is located at 601 S. 4th St., Clinton. Mo. 64735.
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