One of my regular columns for the Tampa Tribune gives me a chance to talk with pastors and other spiritual leaders over in Plant City. Those stories - plus scores in Brandon, dozens in West Tampa, and several in Temple Terrace and South Tampa - have added up to well over 300 in-depth interviews with ministers over the past few years.
One story I've been following involves the death and resurrection of a struggling faith community that had been unable to maintain a viable ministry in a changing neighborhood. Eventually, after many years of decline, the Methodist Conference decided it was time to close the doors at "Sunset Heights UMC".
That's where my friend Rev. Gary Brady stepped in. Gary is the pastor of the nearby Trinity UMC. His congregation had been praying about outreach opportunities and a plan was hatched to turn Sunset Heights into an extension campus for Trinity. However, instead of propping up a dying church, this venture is designed to specifically address the needs of the changing community.
So, last week, "Sunset Heights Worship & Ministry Center" opened as a campus of Trinity UMC. The ribbon cutting included an "A-list" of movers and shakers from the community. Folk such as the city manager, the state representative, several school district dignitaries, and the district superintendent for the United Methodist Church.
The school district is partnering with the church to provide ESOL( English As a Second Language) classes, adult GED classes, literacy programs and other community-specific needs. The church parish nurse is setting up a clinic, music lessons are being offered - tapping the skills of older residents to share with the younger, and the future looks to involve recreation programs, a clothes closet and other creative ideas.
Additionally, Sunday morning worship will be offered. But it's not the "same-old same-old", nor is it simply an alternate location for Trinity's parishioners. Instead it's being designed to address the cultural tone of the neighborhood. The sanctuary will also be used to offer special programs at times other than Sunday mornings.
What "floats my boat" about this effort is the idea that the church witnessed itself fading away and chose to do something about it. They believe the Gospel never becomes irrelevant and consequently made a HUGE effort at course correction. They have stopped running away from the neighborhood simply because it threatened the congregational status quo - that's what had been happening for years: instead, the church is changing (emerging) and asking what they can do to serve.
The whole "separation of church and state" mumbo-jumbo takes a back seat when all the church wants to do is to serve... and all the local school district want to do is serve... when it's not about politics but about simply being the presence of Christ in a given situation.
Kudos to Trinity for reaching out; kudos to Sunset Heights for dying with dignity; kudos to the school district for putting people first; kudos for all the local dignitaries for supporting this vision...
Words of encouragement - from me to you - DEREK