Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. – Ecclesiastes 4:9-10
The 50-mile stretch of U.S. 17 from Fort Ogden to Fort Meade runs through Florida’s agricultural heart, where neighbors often help neighbors deal with the challenges of living in a rural area. Taking a similar cue, nine United Methodist churches in the area recently banded together for fellowship and education in the first-ever 17 Corridor Summit.
Held April 25 at First UMC, Wauchula, the summit attracted 200 people from several congregations in Polk, Hardee and DeSoto counties to talk about struggles that are common to their small congregations and to get to know one another as neighbors.
“The idea of the summit came to me about two years ago when I was praying for discernment about what to do with struggling churches in that corridor,” said Dr. Rinaldo “Rini” Hernandez, superintendent of the South West District, in an email to FLUMC.org.
Hernandez had received a conference report about seven churches in the South West District that were recording declining worship attendance, decreased giving, non-engagement with transient communities and no professions of faith. Five of those churches were located on the U.S. 17 corridor.
“The summit was a way to bring them together to talk about their challenges and maybe learn new ways to minister in their communities … and how to become more fruitful and viable faith communities,” Hernandez said.
He took the idea to one of the first clergy peer groups to be organized in the South West District. Led by Rev. Danielle Upton, pastor of First UMC, Wauchula, the peer group was charged with organizing a meaningful event for the area’s churches and leaders.
“Our focus initially was fellowship. We wanted a barbecue cookout where we could talk about cows and groves, hunting and fishing,” Upton said. “We wanted people to sit down and have a conversation about what they were doing … about their struggles, their heartaches and joys.”
The South West Vitality Team encouraged the peer group to add an educational component to the fellowship. The team invited Dr. Ron Crandall, professor emeritus of evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, to speak about his ABIDE project, which works with Spiritual Leadership Inc. (SLI) to target struggling small churches in rural America.
“People really loved Ron’s inspiring message about turning around rural churches,” said Lynn Ball, who serves as the South West District’s congregational vitality specialist and was on the planning committee for the 17 Corridor Summit.
Following the summit, Ball reported that three of the churches asked for “First Fruits,” a Bible study and group reflection course from SLI that can help churches see where they stand in regard to fruitfulness.
“We hope they will think creatively and focus on what they can do, not on what they can’t do,” Ball added. “The key was to give them an opportunity to hear someone who has dealt with these same struggles. If they band together, they can do more than they can on their own.”
Summit organizers hope to see the churches build deeper connections with one another, and the event was the first step toward this goal.
“The outcome was awesome,” Hernandez said. “The whole idea of meeting with each other, realizing that they all have common challenges and can learn from each other … is proving to be a mobilizing factor.”
“Our expectation [was] that the summit would generate a movement among Highway 17 churches to look for more learning opportunities to become more fruitful in making disciples of Jesus Christ,” he said.
Upton, whose congregation hosted the summit, believes participants drew hope from seeing a church campus bustling with people and knowing they are not alone in their efforts to grow spiritually.
“If we work together, we can be alive and be disciples for Jesus Christ,” she said. “I can also see us getting together for fellowship and worship every six months or so.”
Although another full-scale summit is not in the works for the U.S. 17 churches, Upton said the clergy peer group is talking about their churches working together on service projects and pastoral mission trips.
In the meantime, the South West District Vitality Team is discussing similar summits in other areas.
“What I’d really like to do is now to move forward and have a Highway 27 summit with churches that are in another challenging area of our district,” said Hernandez, “and try to generate a movement among them also.”
Mary Ann DeSantis is a freelance writer from Lady Lake.