The Rev. Charley Reeb says the membership numbers at his church are impressive. He also says they tell only part of the story.
Reeb is senior pastor at Pasadena Community Church, a United Methodist congregation in St. Petersburg with more than 1,600 members and an average weekly worship attendance of about 940.
He says members are more concerned with reaching the masses of people surrounding their church than adding more names to its roster.
When he was appointed there two and a half years ago, Reeb said he was excited to see the variety of ways the church was ministering to people in the community. That intentional outreach included a food bank that feeds 300 to 400 families a month, a wheelchair ramp ministry and a mentoring program with a nearby elementary school.
Those ministries, Reeb said, are a contributing factor to the church’s growth. What he calls “good old-fashioned” marketing is also key. He said the church mails 15,000 postcards to area residents three times during the year to notify them of upcoming sermon series related to Easter, the back-to-school time frame and Christmas.
Reeb says he would let residents know about all sermons if he could because they are all equally important to him.
“I feel effective preaching is the engine that drives the train,” Reeb said. “It’s like lighting a match. If the pulpit is on fire, someone is going to catch a spark. You really have to get people to want to live out their faith.”
Reeb says the church’s wheelchair ministry is an example of that. The idea came from a member who had heard about someone in the community who needed a ramp to leave the house. A group of five to 10 men has built a total of 105 ramps since the ministry’s inception — 32 alone in 2010.
And team members don’t have to search for people who could benefit from their services. Referrals come from either an individual or a local agency. A member of the team then does a house visit to assess the situation, and the ministry provides whatever labor and materials are needed to build the ramp.
Don Graham, a member and retired contractor who leads the ministry, said the team will build a ramp for anyone in the area who demonstrates a need for the service.
“I have seen people who have been trapped inside their homes for years with no way to get out,” Graham said. “There is just such a need for this.”
Graham remembers building a ramp for a 2-year-old girl who used a wheelchair for mobility after being stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He also recalled a Korean War veteran who said he couldn’t wait to get on a bus for wheelchair bound riders and ride without any regard to the destination.
“You remember things like that,” Graham said. “He said he just wanted to go and not care where.”
Jon Wittorff couldn’t help but care once he heard education-related statistics from a cousin living in Indianapolis: if a student isn’t literate by the fourth grade, that student’s chances of becoming a high school drop-out or turning to a life of crime is 98 percent higher than that of his counterparts who succeed inside the classroom.
Four and a half years ago, Wittorff’s cousin connected with a group of businessmen and designed a mentoring program to partner with schools and children in an effort to make an impact on those numbers.
Wittorff was intrigued by the idea and interested in the church starting its own program. In September, the mentoring program with Gulfport Elementary School was born.
“I just thought it would be a great thing for Pasadena to do,” Wittorff said. “The first time Pastor Reeb talked about it, we had 40 or 50 people come down front (of the sanctuary) to be a part of it.”
Wittorff says the idea of changing the trajectory of a young person’s life is thrilling. “I really think we can pull this off,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll have a big impact.”
Reeb said church members spend 30 minutes to an hour each week with an assigned student, either reading with them or helping them with homework.
“This is something the whole church can get their heads and arms around,” Reeb said. “We can show love. I was just there in the school office and saw other church members signing in on their way to spend time with their students.”
And it’s something any church can do, Reeb says. “If every church did this, there would be an amazing ripple effect,” he said. “It’s really mind-boggling to think about what local churches could do to help these kids all over who are in need.”
Volunteers received a background check, and school representatives visited the church to train them on how to work with children.
Reeb said volunteers don’t have to possess any special skill in order to volunteer, but they do need to demonstrate love to the children and share how special they are.
“One of my favorite quotes is ‘Preach Jesus in any way you can and use words only when you have to,’ ” Reeb said.
The church is preaching Jesus, and the community is witnessing it and wanting to be involved.
In 2009, the church was among those in the Florida Conference experiencing the greatest increases in professions of faith and average weekly worship attendance, which increased from 855 in 2008 to 940 in 2009 — a difference of 85 people or 10 percent.
Because of that growth, the church was one of three recognized in 2010 by the Florida Conference Congregational Excellence ministry for its efforts to transform itself and its community.
Reeb said the church also has a strong emphasis on children’s ministries and boasts one of the best preschools in the area. Members hope to implement an after-school program this year so parents know their children have a safe place to go to do homework or have adult supervision.
“It’s exciting to be part of what’s going on here,” Reeb said. “It’s thrilling to see people wanting to live out the Gospel.”
News media contact: Gretchen Hastings, 800-282-8011, firstname.lastname@example.org, Lakeland
*Hastings is executive editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a freelance writer based in Seffner, Fla.