Retreat focuses on challenges, successes of small churches

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Retreat focuses on challenges, successes of small churches

Sept. 30, 2008  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0920}

An e-Review Feature
By Sarah Alsgaard**

FRUITLAND PARK — “Our church was down to what one would call the stump, like when there’s been pruning; a stump,” the Rev. Deborah Nelson said.

(Left to right) Altamease Douglas, Nancy Rusk and the Revs. Deborah Nelson and Corky Calhoun shared the success and challenges their churches have experienced. Photo by Sarah Alsgaard. Photo #08-1012. For longer description see photo gallery.

Nelson was telling her congregation’s story during the Small Church Advocacy Team retreat Sept. 12-13 at the Florida Conference Life Enrichment Center.

Nelson said that when she first arrived at Ridge Manor Community United Methodist Church in June 2001 as its pastor, average Sunday worship attendance was seven people.

And then things got worse. In 2001, a flood hit the Ridge Manor area, causing damage but not enough to garner assistance from FEMA. The Florida Conference Disaster Recovery Ministry gave the congregation funds to distribute flood buckets, pump septic tanks and do whatever was needed to help people in the community who were affected.

Then, Nelson said, new life began to form. “It didn’t take long before little green shoots appeared on the stump,” she said.

The outreach to help people recover from the floods was the impetus the church needed to branch out more and help its community, she said, and the church grew in the process.

The church undertook other outreach programs, such as operating a pumpkin patch. Church members sold the pumpkins to raise funds, but they also taught neighborhood children about pumpkins and gave them a place to have fun during the festive fall season.

“We became known as the pumpkin church,” Nelson said. “Children would ask their parents to come back to us because we were the pumpkin church.”

Today, the church averages 130 in worship each Sunday.

Meeting the challenges

Nelson’s story and others shared during the retreat gave approximately 65 people attending from churches across the conference the opportunity to learn from one another, share stories of success and failure, and come together in fellowship and worship.

The Small Church Advocacy Team’s vision is to assist small membership churches in becoming and remaining healthy and effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, according to the group’s report to the 2006 Florida Annual Conference.

In the Florida Conference, a small membership church is one with an average worship attendance of 125 people or less. Nearly one in three churches in the conference falls in that category.

The Rev. Corky Calhoun, pastor of Georgianna United Methodist Church in Merritt Island, told participants congregations should not emphasize quantity in a congregation over quality.

“Growth is not about how big the vessel is. It’s how much water you part,” he said.

One problem he said his church faced is typical of many congregations: 20 percent of the people were doing 80 percent of the work. To solve this, Calhoun asked members what they thought were the 12 greatest needs of the church. He then created the 12 Tribes of Georgianna, which vary from the Prayer Tribe to the Event Set-Up Tribe. Every member of the congregation had to join one.

“You may get called up once or twice in the year to help, but when you do, your only response is yes,” he said. “That’s your tribe.”

After that, the 20-80 problem disappeared, he said. 

Calhoun stressed the importance of being a team, rather than having an “us and them” attitude.

“A lot of congregations think (the pastor is) just there until something ‘better’ comes along, like a bigger paycheck,” he said. “So I told my church, ‘I hope I’m here 100 years.’ And I treat them like I’m going to be there until I die, which I hope I am because we’re doing some great ministry.”

Altamease Douglas, a member of Greater Bell United Methodist Church in Booker for more than 50 years, talked about another problem often experienced in churches that grow and become “successful” over the years.

“The more prosperous we became it seems the more into ourselves we became,” she said. “But I am proud to say that we are back on track.”

Thanks to her pastor, the Rev. Gloria Brown, Douglas said her church has seen growth both in numbers and spiritually. “Revival needs to start in us first before we can go and tell the world,” she said. “Greater Bell has seen a revival.”  

Building the church of tomorrow today

Three youth members of Greater Bell attended the retreat and spoke about their experiences in the church.

“Our pastor challenged us to preach,” Tyreis Sheppard said. “So Andrew (Banks) preached on Father’s Day.”

Featured speakers and guests answer questions from retreat participants during a panel discussion. Photo by Sarah Alsgaard. Photo #08-1013. For longer description see photo gallery.

The church also has a youth choir every Sunday and a Sunday school with “great role models as teachers,” Banks said.

“Let us not be intimidated because we have small numbers,” Douglas said. “God has a purpose for us.”

Fellowship United Methodist Church in Palm Bay has also seen an increase in the number of youth attending.

“We started with three kids,” said Nancy Rusk, the church’s youth director. “The first thing we did was to think about the needs they needed to have met. They need to have identity, and they need to have importance.”

Rusk gave the children a wall in their youth center on which to paint graffiti and a window to paint with watercolors, like stained glass.

“Being in a small church can give kids a sense of community,” she said. “In a small church you can know their name. They’re not the kid in the third row. They have a name.”

Rusk also helped the youth get involved in outreach programs sponsored by the church, and members of the congregation became mentors for the youth. 

“People who are 60 years and older are the church’s best resource,” said the Rev. Shirley Groom, Fellowship’s pastor. “They are people who have time and resources. When you engage them with our youth, you have the complete package.”

Having youth involved with the church now is important, Rusk said. Nelson agreed.

“If you say they are a church of tomorrow then they feel like they have no place until they’re older,” Nelson said. “They are a part of the church of today.”

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Alsgaard is a freelance writer based in Lakeland.

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