‘It breaks my heart’: Buckhead’s Paces Ferry UMC closes after 147 years

One of Buckhead’s oldest churches has closed permanently.

Paces Ferry United Methodist Church, which is located at 3612 Paces Ferry Road and was founded in 1877, held its last service on March 24. Its board of directors decided to close the church about a month before its final service after analyzing its revenue, said Hank Koppelman, the board’s chair.

“I think the simplest answer is we ran out of people,” he said when asked why the church decided to close. “Declining attendance, declining membership, and as a result of that, declining revenue. It brought us to the point where there really was no choice but to close.”

Finances cited as reason for closure

Koppelman, who had been a member since 2009 or 2010, said the church had nearly 25 members when it closed, about 10 less than a year earlier. Some of its biggest donors had moved away, heavily impacting its revenue.

In October 2018, the church was going to close after its lay minister, Steve Unti, announced he would retire at year’s end after spending 18 years in that role. As a result, the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church, the church’s parent organization, chose to close it instead of hiring a new minister to take Unti’s place.

But after members objected to that decision and the local media reported on the closure, the North Georgia Conference changed its mind and allowed the church to stay open by having the minister of a nearby church, Collins Memorial UMC, also serve as its minister.

At that time, the church was financially stable, members said, so they were able to convince the North Georgia Conference to keep it open. Back then the church had about 30 members and about 30 “friends,” residents living nearby who supported the church financially and by helping with duties such as landscaping or maintenance.

But this time around, the church’s financial situation forced it to close. Jeannette McCain, 85, a lifelong member of the church, said after Unti retired, it lost some members who are his friends. Also, she added, some of its young members left, seeking larger churches with big music programs and bands.

“But there was a lot of love in that church, a lot of love,” McCain said.

Paces Ferry UMC’s history

The church’s building was completed in 1896 and the Pleasant Hill Cemetery next to it on the church property predates it, bearing the church’s original name, Pleasant Hill Methodist. The cemetery includes the graves of Civil War soldiers who died in a nearby battle. It also holds the grave of William Brown, who donated the land for the church, according to a historic marker outside the church’s doors erected by the Thomas Johnson chapter of the National Society of Colonial Dames XVIII Century.

The church also housed a school, Pleasant Hill Private Academy, which was led by Ida Williams, the woman for whom the Buckhead Library was named.

Days after the church closed, a “For Sale” sign was posted in front of it. But only the portion of the property containing the church and fellowship hall is for sale, for $500,000. The cemetery will remain as a separate parcel, and an organization, the Pleasant Hill Cemetery Association at Paces Ferry Inc., was established to maintain it. Also, Methuselah, the property’s post oak tree that dates back to circa 1730 and stands in front of the church, will continue to be cared for by master arborist Chris Hastings.

David Mitchell, executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center, a nonprofit that aims to protect and promote the city’s historic properties, said he had not heard about the church’s closure.

“You can create active infill and do something thoughtful to the neighborhood,” he said of possible future uses for the church property. “Obviously, we would want to be proactive and see the historic fabric preserved. But we want to make sure the church building is preserved.”

‘It breaks my heart’

Marie Macadam, a member since 2010, said she hopes the association can one day add a map to the cemetery to identify where each person’s plot is located.

“It’s sad,” she said of the church’s closure. “The good thing is … the money that people had donated specifically for the capital account used to improve the church versus operations, those people can rest assured that those funds have been transferred to maintain the cemetery and not [to] the general United Methodist Church.”

Koppelman said the church’s funds in its operating account will go back to the North Georgia Conference as part of its closure process.

Harriet Adams, a member since 2017, said “it breaks my heart” to see the church close.

“It is a historical jewel box in our Paces neighborhood,” she said in an email. “It is the only place I know that has one of the oldest churches in Buckhead (1877), a historic cemetery (1876) with 12 veterans from the Civil War to Vietnam and the oldest oak tree in the Atlanta area (1730).

“Having this capsule of time in our backyard is a reminder of who we are and where we came from and ALL the sacrifices made by so many for today’s freedoms. Having a place like Paces Ferry United Methodist Church in our neighborhood is a reminder to future generations of past battles fought and Atlanta pioneers with namesakes that we are familiar with today. It anchors us to our past which builds patriotism and pride in our country.”

What comes next?

Because the city of Atlanta has zoned the church property as R-1 (single-family residential), which requires any new home to be built on at least two acres of land, it would likely require a variance to house a structure other than a church there. According to several real estate websites, the church property is 0.69 acres, not large enough for a new home to be developed.

Sybil Davidson, a spokeswoman for the North Georgia Conference, did not immediately have an answer to Buckhead.com’s question about whether or not the organization would encourage other church congregations to buy Paces Ferry UMC’s building, but she did provide general information on church closures.

“A church closing is always painful,” she said. “In circumstances where there is declining membership and available funds don’t allow for a church to be sustained, our denomination has guidelines in place to direct the congregation and conference leadership through the process of closing the property and moving the membership to another United Methodist Church.”

In general, a closed church’s property would be assessed, including its facilities and “its surrounding community,” to determine if it could be potentially used in the future for ministry, Davidson said. She added that if the property is sold, the funds would “go toward starting new ministries to reach new people or toward innovative mission and ministry in existing churches.”

“Such funds have been deployed to new churches, digital ministry, food banks and feeding ministries and community engagement, just to name a few areas,” Davidson said.

Koppelman, whose family “fell in love with the church” after driving by it many times, and McCain said they hope another church can take Paces Ferry UMC’s place.

“I would love to see another church come in there and continue using the building for what it was built to provide,” Koppelman said.

McCain added, “She’ll rise again. At one time my mother and I were the only ones going to that church, and it rose again then.”

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