Church turns closure into creative social outreach

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Church turns closure into creative social outreach

By Derek Maul | July 26, 2009 {1054}

PLANT CITY, Fla. — After several years of decline, a dying Plant City church
is experiencing resurrection — postmortem.

Janelle Wade and the Rev. Gary Brady hope other churches will be interested in the community outreach model behind Sunset Heights Worship & Ministry Center. Photo by Derek Maul. Photo #09-1264.

Sunset Heights United Methodist Church, organized in 1957, officially closed this year, but on June 2, the Sunset Heights Worship & Ministry Center opened as a campus of nearby Trinity United Methodist Church.

“We’re developing the site as a campus for community outreach,” said the Rev. Gary Brady, pastor at Trinity since 2001. “I’d say 56 to 70 percent of the population around the church is Hispanic today, and the needs of this neighborhood have shifted from those of 1957.”

Foundational to the future is a carefully conceived plan to dedicate the site “24/7” as a hub for public education and community service, eventually incorporating classes, recreation and social services, as well as an emergent worshipping community.

“Too many buildings sit empty during the week,” Brady said. “All this expense to maintain facilities that are not being used. Many churches have become — excuse me — mausoleums.”

“That’s right,” said Janelle Wade, chairwoman of the steering committee responsible for implementing the new vision. “We recently attended a district leadership training seminar in Lakeland, and one of the speakers made the point that today’s church can’t look like it did 25 years ago. He said that the church is God’s franchise and that too many congregations are using the old model. The church needs to look different, depending on your area.

With that mindset, Wade says the two congregations are “trying to take the church to the community.”

“The Holy Spirit flows through you and what you do,” she said. “We should be able to roll our sleeves up and say, ‘Here we are, what would you have us to do?’ ”

“We’ve got these buildings,” Brady said, “but if we could turn them into centers like this and for this purpose, we could see an upsurge in ministry. People will return if the church has the right message. This is what Wesley would have wanted.”

Foundation of prayer

“This didn’t just happen,” Brady said. “It started when I arrived at Trinity. We’ve been praying the Prayer of Jabez — asking God to increase our territory. As years passed the opportunities have extended and God has opened doors — an elementary school partnership, school supplies, assisting teachers, mentoring students, character chats, adopting families, teacher luncheons. Now our prayer has taken on a new dimension.”

Church and community leaders cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony of the worship and ministry center. Pictured (left to right) are Barbara Barden, the center’s parish nurse; Plant City Manager David Sollenberger; the Rev. Gary Brady, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church; Hillsborough County Schools Region Six General Director Barbara Franques; and the Rev Dr. Sharon Austin, superintendent of the South Central District. Photo by Derek Maul. Photo #09-1265.

When churches get involved in what God wants to do, Brady said, God will send key people. Trinity’s vision received a very precise boost when Wade, a former district level school administrator, joined the congregation just last October.

“This is an amazing story in my heart,” she said. “The Lord sent me here because I could be a small part of this plan. It’s absolutely a miracle.”

Along with enthusiasm and dedication, Wade brought the right contacts to translate the dream into a social ministry with real teeth.

Before long Wade had the support of Hillsborough County Schools Region Six General Director Barbara Franques, Migrant Education Programs Supervisor Carmen Sorondo, Tammy Crawford-Morse from Adult Community Education, and Dr. Len Gauhan, director of School Social Work.

“We have some key people in position to be movers and shakers,” Wade said. “The school system is overwhelmingly anxious to cooperate.”

Long-term plans call for expanded adult education, citizenship classes, community recreation and a growing indigenous faith presence.

“Our vision has been to provide a facility for adult high school and where English can be taught as a second language,” Brady said. “Once Janelle Wade came on board our vision turned into warp-speed velocity.

Model for replication

With that energy Wade is also applying the attention to detail that defined her career as an educator.

Long-term plans call for the center to incorporate expanded adult education and citizenship classes, recreation and social services, and an emergent worshipping community. Photo by Derek Maul. Photo #09-1266.

“The first class will be a pilot,” she said. “We’ll keep it small, work out the kinks, and let God do his work. We want to control the initial trajectory — smooth and with finesse.

Wade and Brady are hoping other churches become interested in what’s happening at Trinity.

“We can serve as a model to share our material and information,” Wade said. “I’m keeping up with every letter, every e-mail and every detail. I’m categorizing so we can develop a plan we can share.”

“The Sunset Heights campus is a great location that we can utilize for both worship and the needs of the community,” Brady said. “We anticipate building attendance and reaching more people; addressing the questions the community is asking.”

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Maul is an author and freelance writer based in Valrico, Fla.

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