BRADENTON – When Sandy Shean walked into the sanctuary of Christ UMC, she felt like she had never left the church she attended in her native Rhode Island.
“When we walked in, we were warmly welcomed,” recalled Shean, who moved to Bradenton with her husband in 2002 after the couple retired. “It was much like our church in Rhode Island. It had the same wooden ceiling,” she said. “The more we went there, the more we felt we were at home.”
|About 160 people, including approximately 75 members who have been meeting as the new Harvest Bayshore worship community, help launch a new opportunity for making disciples in Bradenton. Photos by Jonathan Fleece.|
Shean happily threw herself into ministries at Christ, including serving on the leadership committee. Over the years, though, as the congregation aged and few young people joined its ranks, Shean found herself taking on more and more responsibilities.
Recruiting volunteers wasn’t the only problem. Eventually, it became hard for the membership to pay the bills.
“Financially, we were not able to maintain the upkeep that all the buildings needed,” Shean said, noting the campus included a fellowship hall and former preschool facilities.
The church leadership faced the sad prospect of shuttering its sanctuary and disbanding the congregation.
Enter Harvest UMC, Lakewood Ranch. Under the leadership of co-pastors Steve and Catherine Fluck Price, the church in a bedroom community of Bradenton has been growing steadily and last year posted an average weekly worship attendance of more than 700.
With the encouragement of the Florida Conference and the Gulf Central District, leaders of the two churches agreed to join forces as one congregation with two campuses. Harvest Bayshore, which eventually will move into a renovated home on the former Christ campus just west of Lake Bayshore Drive, officially launched Oct. 11, at nearby Lee Middle School.
It’s a revitalization model that’s worked well in a number of settings across the conference, said Rev. Dan Jackson, New Church Development director for the Florida Conference. The basic formula? Tap into the expertise and energy of a thriving church that’s willing to build a new ministry at a satellite location, while securing the agreement of a congregation that’s struggling to grow.
It’s not always an easy choice for two congregations to make, he noted, and the ministry that results from a merger does not always look the same.
Some church campuses taken under the wing of a bustling congregation will focus more on outreach missions than weekly worship services, for example, he said.
Recent examples that are working well or show promise include satellite campuses of Grace Church in Southwest Florida; The Portico of Hyde Park UMC, Tampa; The Foundry of First UMC, St. Petersburg; and South Street Ministries, affiliated with First UMC, Winter Park. Other churches nurture fledgling worship communities off the main campus, though not necessarily in a former church building. Those include New Covenant UMC, The Villages, developing the Lake Deaton community, and First UMC, DeLand, affiliated with the come-as-you-are Collective.
In the case of churches on the brink of closure, the decision to merge with a healthier congregation may mean the property remains in God’s service, but the identity of the worship community must change to meet the times. Jackson said Florida Conference and district leaders are sensitive to the sentiments of United Methodists who invested time and energy into those churches.
Celebration of new life
About 160 people attended the official launch of Harvest Bayshore on Oct. 11. Jackson was there and said he was impressed with the energy in the room. He’s hoping people whose church homes are repurposed will see that new life can result from a merger and draw strength from Bible stories of death and resurrection.
“Christ Church, as most people have known it, had to die so something could be resurrected,” Jackson noted. “But Christ Church is going to continue and live because of what is going on there.”
Shean has no doubts. A member of the Harvest Bayshore launch team, she takes comfort that the “soft launch” in September took place almost a year to the day from the closing service at Christ. She was impressed that the Prices, Harvest Bayshore pastor Jennifer Potter and district officials attended the final worship before Christ UMC ceased to be.
“It was kind of like, ‘Wow, this is a God thing,’” Shean said. Meeting at the middle school near the former Christ UMC has made it convenient for those members to attend, she said, and Harvest Bayshore has made volunteering at the school a primary outreach mission.
Shean said worship typically blends prayer and comments from Potter with a video showing of the Sunday sermon from Harvest’s Lakewood Ranch site. She is grateful for the young pastor’s passion and energy.
|Rev. Jennifer Potter will lead the the new Harvest Bayshore campus. Photo from Harvest UMC, Lakewood Ranch.|
Potter, 28, a graduate of North Carolina's Duke Divinity School and Atlanta's Emory University, grew up in Tampa and has been serving on staff at Harvest. She believes the use of the middle school facility, while not ideal, has its advantages.
"One of the most exciting things for us is that the fastest growing demographic in our new church community has been children ages 7 to 17, and we hope that the middle school setting might be less intimidating for our younger members," she said.
The effort also got a boost from a grant through United Methodist Communications’ Rethink Church campaign that provided funds for direct mail and digital advertising, said Potter, who did not know the exact amount of the grant.
“It’s a great gift to us because there’s no way we’d be able to afford that level of advertising ourselves,” she said.
Potter believes today’s churchgoers, regardless of age, look for the same thing in a church.
"People are looking for an authentic community, to be loved for who they are, and to give love to others in return."
Architects are evaluating the Bayshore campus and are expected to provide some options and cost estimates to the Harvest congregation soon. In the meantime, Harvest Bayshore members hold community outreach events at the former church.
“We keep doing things on our property so people will know we haven’t left it,” Shean said. “It’s not abandoned.”
Jonathan Fleece, another Harvest Bayshore launch team member, said he looks forward to Harvest serving as one church with two locations.
“God is calling us to be a focused church in the Bayshore community, serving the special needs of our friends and neighbors and becoming a local place for spiritual worship," Fleece said. “We need to be there for God’s mission – not our own – with the reward of knowing we are placing God before all else.”
Added Shean, “This is a new church. This is a new beginning. Those of us rebuilding it are very excited about what we’re going to be doing as a community of believers.”
– Susan Green is the Florida Conference managing editor. Raymond Joseph, a freelance writer based in Bradenton, contributed to this report.