COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. -- Several metro area churches have opened their doors in an act of compassion — for another church.

“All the churches are saying we can come and worship with them,” said Cheryl Gackstetter, a member of the Cottage Grove branch of the Grove United Methodist Church. She and other members were recently stunned by a request to stay out of their building for two years — to make room for a new group of worshipers.

The Methodist church’s plan to save its Cottage Grove location might actually kill it, said Jim Baker, who co-founded the original church on the same site. “We weren’t dying,” he said. “We had to be killed.”

Other churches — including a Methodist church — now have become good Samaritans to the troubled parishioners.

A Lutheran church invited them in for grief counseling. More than 10 churches called or emailed to offer support. Someone from a Baptist church poked a hand-made sign into the snow saying, “Our seniors support your seniors.”

But it might be too late, said church member Gackstetter. Some of the 25 members are already drifting away.

“If that’s what they call being a Christian, then I don’t want to be a Christian,” she said. “I will be a follower of God.”

National attention

The plight of the congregation became national news in January when the Pioneer Press reported it. The Associated Press distributed the story, and outlets including CNN, the Washington Post and Slate magazine wrote their own versions.

Spokeswoman Christa Meland said in January that the Grove is a single church with locations in Woodbury and Cottage Grove. The Grove is not discriminating against anyone, Meland said, only asking members at one location to switch to the other one for two years.

That will allow time for a new congregation, with an emphasis on younger families, to be established in the vacated building.

Meland said all decisions were made after consulting church members, including those at Cottage Grove.

The Grove said it would close the building in June, and reopen it in November. The Grove asked members to stay away for 15 to 18 months after that and consult with the new pastor before returning.

The request touched a nerve in the congregation because most of them are senior citizens.

They have a “median age of 70,” according to one church official quoted in Slate.

Baker co-founded the Peaceful Grove Methodist Church 30 years ago, and it merged with the Grove church in Woodbury 12 years ago.

Why, asked Gackstetter, can’t the Grove allow them to attend their church and invite the younger families — at the same time?

“They do not want us back. They want a younger crowd,” she said.

Security guard at service

The internal friction continued on Jan. 26, when a security guard appeared at the 9:30 a.m. service in Cottage Grove. There was no explanation and no advance notice, said ex-pastor Baker.

“He was very polite, policing the situation outside, moving around the building,” said Baker.

Methodist Church officials did not respond to emails and phone messages left Jan. 31 and Feb. 3.

To help the displaced congregation, All Saints Lutheran Church in Cottage Grove is hosting them for Sundays in February for 45-minute get-together sessions. It has invited the Methodists to grief-support meetings.

Baker said he was gratified to see the sign in the snow from the nearby Lighthouse Baptist Church.

Church member Gackstetter said prayers and support have come from churches in St. Paul, Newport, Rosemount and Hastings. They have come from another Methodist church, responding to the plight of fellow Methodists.

“They are welcome here. We welcome anyone,” said Ella Wilsey of Mounds Park United Methodist Church in St. Paul. “If that happened to me, I would never want to see that church again. This church is struggling, too, but never in a million years would we do anything like that.”

In other news media accounts, Grove officials have said their method of church restarting is common, and that the Grove is welcoming to all.

At that, Baker laughed bitterly. “That denies the reality on the ground,” he said.

Said Gackstetter: “People are giving up being Methodists because they are being lied to. (Grove officials) go on TV, and they say that everyone is welcome.”

Meanwhile, the gathering in Cottage Grove is getting smaller.

“This last Sunday was so sad. So many people were crying,” said Gackstetter, referring to the Jan. 26 service. “They just want to stick together.”