Cluster contemplates starting new church

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Cluster contemplates starting new church

Aug. 8, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0714}

An e-Review Feature
By John Michael De Marco**

The Florida Conference’s church cluster concept has been steadily giving birth to new and deeper relationships among congregations.

One cluster is taking that dynamic to another level by potentially starting an entirely new church.

Photo courtesy of the Venetian Bay of New Smyrna Beach Web site. Photo #07-0636.

The proposed congregation would be part of the East Central Florida District and located in or near the new Venetian Bay community west of I-95 near New Smyrna Beach and Port Orange. There are plans to build thousands of homes there, along with a school, golf course, shopping area and businesses. Residents have already moved in, with several houses being completed each day.

A cluster is a group of four to seven churches or ministries within a district that work together to deepen relationships among the churches and discern ways to make their ministries more fruitful. Cluster teams include clergy and lay representatives from each church, with a clergyperson serving as the team leader. Churches began forming clusters in 2004 during the conference’s transition from 14 districts to nine.

While Covenant United Methodist Church in Port Orange would supply the primary “DNA” for the new church, the other United Methodist churches in the cluster — DeLeon Springs, Lake Helen, Trinity in Seville, Pierson and First, New Smyrna Beach — would be well represented in the formation and life of the new church.

The Rev. Dr. Mont Duncan, the Florida Conference’s executive director of New Church Development, said the potential congregation is a strong example of healthy congregations assuming their missional responsibility to reach new people.

“They (the cluster) approached me; I didn’t go to them,” Duncan said. “It is kingdom-driven. That’s happening more and more now. We’ve moved from districts and conferences being the spearhead to healthy congregations reaching new folks through new church development.”

The Rev. Paul Pollock, senior pastor of Covenant United Methodist Church, said the idea for the congregation began as “a gift of encouragement and prayer” between his church and DeLeon Springs United Methodist Church in November 2003. This was before the cluster concept came to fruition, which Pollock said illustrates his cluster’s theological, rather than geographical, foundation.

Pollock said the cluster bases its identity on Isaiah 57:14-15: “Prepare the way of the Lord; remove every obstacle out of the way of my people; even though I am high and exalted I choose to dwell among people who are humble and contrite.”

“Early in the life of our cluster we decided that we didn’t want to ‘have to go to another meeting,’ ” Pollock said. “We didn’t want to have any additional ‘obligations’ above and beyond the numerous meetings that were already required in our local churches and in our districts. Rather, we pictured a ‘river of life’ that God wanted to have flowing into each of the six churches in our cluster and into the gatherings of our monthly meetings.”

The group of churches decided to call itself “The Peculiar Cluster,” grounded in the biblical mandate from 1 Peter 2:9 that God’s followers be a “peculiar people."

“Over the past two and a half years our cluster has continued to meet regularly on the first Sunday of each month, and we have tried to stick to the basics of prayer, worship and encouragement,” Pollock said.

“We have been blessed in extraordinary ways,” he added. “When one of our churches faces difficult times they are not alone. We have learned to stick even closer together during the tough times and to pray even more. We find that there is a renewed sense of vitality in all six congregations, even though each of our churches has faced some real challenges along the way.”   

During the past nine months the congregations began to sense and “dare to believe” God was calling them to give birth to a satellite congregation. The Rev. Don Bremmer, pastor of First United Methodist Church in New Smyrna Beach, felt the Venetian Bay area would soon be “exploding in growth” and that a United Methodist church presence was needed.

“He (Bremmer) brought that up in our cluster meeting. We lifted that up in prayer and continued at least for a year to pray about it,” the Rev. Bill Bebee, pastor of DeLeon Springs United Methodist Church, said. “We’d bring it back up in discussion; it would drop, but come back. The cluster kept feeling a sense that ‘God is working in this’ and that we needed to honor that and respond to it in some way.”

In a strategic effort to test the potential of the new church start, the cluster has begun to cross-pollinate the two churches that would be geographically located closest to the proposed satellite congregation — Covenant United Methodist Church and First United Methodist Church in New Smyrna Beach. Each congregation gathered 15 people every Tuesday for 13 weeks during the fall of 2006, completing the “Experiencing God” study series. An additional four weeks were spent studying “Dreaming a New Dream Together,” a compilation of Terry Teykl’s “Presence-Based Church” ideas and Mike Slaughter’s ideas from Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church near Cincinnati. Pollock said he hopes the laypeople who participated in the studies will be part of a new church start-up team.

Of the six churches in the cluster Covenant is the largest with an average weekly worship attendance in 2005 at 485 and a membership of 374. Three of the churches are located in rural West Volusia County.

“Covenant has been conspicuously blessed with people and staff resources that could be utilized in the creation of the new satellite congregation,” Pollock admitted. “It’s mostly true that the DNA and the resources from Covenant would probably end up being ‘dominant’ in the gene pool for the satellite church. Covenant has the technology to do a satellite uplink of any of our three worship services to another location, either in rented space in a school or in other types of facilities, such as a recreation hall that might be utilized in one of the new facilities at Venetian Bay.”

“The strongest church is the one that’s going to plant its DNA,” Duncan agreed. “You can only transfer one set of DNA,”

Given that likelihood, the cluster has taken measures to ensure the other churches in the cluster are not left out of the process. The Rev. Kathy Boyles, pastor of Lake Helen United Methodist Church, presented the idea that all six churches gather dirt from their properties and mix it with earth from Venetian Bay. The cluster will separate this co-mingled dirt into different pots, into which each church will plant a special tree intended for the property of the new satellite.

“I thought, ‘What a wonderful idea,’ ” Bebee said. “I’m just awed at how God works in all of this stuff.”

Earlier this year the pastors and members of the six congregations participated in a prayer walk throughout Venetian Bay.

“We had just an incredible experience,” Bebee said. “Paul divided up Venetian Bay and gave us all maps — we had designated areas. We broke up into different teams — different people from different churches were working together. There was incredible energy.”

While the Rev. Dr. Wayne Wiatt, superintendent of the East Central District, has given the cluster the go-ahead to pursue the church plant, Pollock said he is seeking clarification from the annual conference.

“If the annual conference is willing to let this new satellite congregation be birthed through our cluster group then we, as a cluster, are ready, willing and able,” he said. “Our cluster, and especially Covenant and First, New Smyrna Beach, would be trusting God as ‘paradigm pioneers.’ We would obviously need the support of the conference and our district at some important points, i.e., the purchase of land some time in the near future, etc.”

“On the other hand,” Pollock added, “if the other churches in our area, such as Coronado United Methodist Church in New Smyrna Beach and Edgewater United Methodist Church, want to strategically plan with the conference, then the new congregation will develop a DNA of its own. If that is the case then we feel that the new congregation needs to be started in a ‘more usual way’ with the conference and district taking the lead."

Bebee says if there’s one message from the cluster’s experience that would be helpful for the conference to hear it’s “large churches and small churches can work together intentionally where there’s a sense of full partnership and full investment from all parties.”

“It takes a person like Paul, who’s sensitive to the small churches and where we are, and those of us who won’t get so defensive to recognize that our sister church, Covenant, has a better ability to take the lead on this and not feel insecure,” he added. “We are equally a part of this process.”


This article relates to New Church Development.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a commissioned minister of the Florida Conference and a freelance writer, speaker and consultant.

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