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Merger transforms congregations, brings hope for new life

Merger transforms congregations, brings hope for new life

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Merger transforms congregations, brings hope for new life

Aug. 17, 2006  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0532}

An e-Review Feature
By John M. De Marco**

“I have been a member of First United Methodist Church for over 20 years,” Gail Johnson says, “and in that time I have witnessed a beautiful, God-created flower being transformed.”

That’s how Johnson describes the transformation that has occurred at First United Methodist Church of Pompano Beach and its merger with Christ Church United Methodist in Fort Lauderdale.

Johnson is chair of the Pompano Beach church’s Staff Parish Relations (SPR) committee and a member of the merger transition team. She said the Pompano Beach church was like a flower that had begun to fade and “no longer had the strength to impart its fragrance.”

“While God watched his flower wilt, he knew there was life and love and spirit still within, painfully wanting to be renewed … so he placed on the hearts of a few mortals a glorious plan for rebirth,” she said. And along with that rebirth came tension and the questions of what this new flower would look like. The result? “A new delight to God was being created,” Johnson said.

Youth from both the Fort Lauderdale and Pompano Beach campuses of Christ Church United Methodist participate in Sunday night youth worship. Photo courtesy of Christ Church United Methodist, Photo #06-421.

That transformation has led to what the Rev. Phil Roughton, pastor of Christ Church, calls “one church on two sites.” Now fully merged under the umbrella of Christ Church, the two campuses have been worshipping together and involved in ministry activities for several months.

The merger was the culmination of some prayerful discussions that kicked off near the beginning of 2006 as the Pompano Beach church faced some difficult realities. The Rev. Doug Kirk, senior pastor of the church, decided to take early retirement. Attendance was down to about 145 people in worship each week, a far cry from the hundreds who had attended years ago. Like many long-established United Methodist churches it was struggling both to continue and with its identity.

Both churches are located in the South East District. Their superintendent, the Rev. Debbie McLeod, said she felt led by the Holy Spirit to ask the Pompano Beach church if a partnership with Christ Church would be a viable option. The Christ Church congregation — with 1,600 or so in worship each week and a $3 million annual budget — had lately been feeling constrained by its lack of space, facilities and properties, Roughton said. McLeod had served on the staff of Christ Church before becoming a district superintendent and was very familiar with the dynamics of the congregation.

With Pompano Beach SPR members open to the idea, McLeod contacted Roughton, who visited the church with the Rev. Alex Shanks, another pastor at Christ Church. “With amazing speed and remarkable ease, they at the Pompano Beach campus decided they wanted to present this to the congregation,” Roughton recalled.

Several weeks later Roughton said he and Shanks met with about 80 or 90 people from the Pompano Beach congregation to answer questions and “give them some sense of how we thought it might work.”

“At that meeting, I felt there wasn’t a lot of understanding and not much embrace about this working,” Roughton said. “They would have celebrated their 100th anniversary in about two years, while Christ Church is only about 50 years old. They’re an agricultural, old Florida kind of community, and we’re more of a cosmopolitan, diverse culture. It’s two different worlds.”

Roughton says he felt the Pompano Beach church needed to lead the way, “because we didn’t ask for this, and the last thing we wanted was for them to feel this was some kind of takeover. They had some time to think and pray about it.”

A Pompano Beach charge conference resulted in 99 votes in favor of the merger, 18 votes against it and two abstentions.

“This was a stunning victory. I thought if they voted to do it at all it would have been a 60-40 split, or maybe 70-30, which would have been difficult for me,” Roughton said, adding he was clear from the beginning that “the only way I thought this would work was for there to be one name, one vision and one leader.”

After the vote Roughton addressed the full group, saying: “It feels to me like God has really been in this decision. Part of my goal is to make sure that those of you, whom for whatever reason didn’t sense this is what God had in mind, see this in a new way that will help you to embrace that goal.” Roughton also spoke individually with people who had concerns or questions.

The Christ Church charge conference unanimously approved the merger several weeks later.

The charge conference decisions led to the formation of the transition team representing both congregations, which met weekly to hammer out the merger details. The Christ Church Leadership Table, which is composed of the chairs of the church’s administrative committees and three key lay leaders, was expanded to include a lay leader from the Pompano Beach church.

The Rev. Fawn Mikel, who had been serving as associate pastor at the Pompano Beach church, continues at that site as campus pastor. “She’s (Mikel) been there five years. She has great pastoral strength there,” Roughton said. Four other pastors, including Roughton and Shanks, are appointed to Christ Church and serve at both campuses.

Circe Burnett (left) from the Fort Lauderdale campus and Clair Engle from the Pompano Beach campus spend time doing a devotion and reflection during Christ Church United Methodist's mid-hi mission trip. Youth pastor Theresa Mazza says teens from the two campuses "have set a huge example during this merge. They were the first to worship together and have already served on missions teams together. They are building friendships and building a youth community that proves to be stronger each week." Photo courtesy of Christ Church United Methodist, Photo #06-422.

In May, members of both congregations met on a Sunday afternoon at the Pompano Beach campus and celebrated Holy Communion. About 650 people gathered in the sanctuary, “which they said they hadn’t seen in many, many years,” Roughton said. “We all went out and had a nice barbeque afterwards. We did a similar thing on the Fort Lauderdale campus in June.”

Attendance at the Pompano Beach campus has increased during the last few months, particularly as Fort Lauderdale-based members have traveled to worship there. Roughton travels back and forth between the two campuses, which are spaced just four miles apart. “We’re still hammering out details about the preaching and all of that. I preached for five straight weeks on the Pompano campus in May and June. Most of the time I will be preaching on the Fort Lauderdale campus,” Roughton said.

A key aspect of the new church, according to Roughton, is building relationships through such events and “making sure the DNA that has built Christ Church for many, many years is transferred into the life of the Pompano campus.” Church consultant Tom Bandy recently visited Christ Church and noted it is not uncommon with mergers for both congregations to decline.

“In this case, you have a vital, strong congregation — far from perfect — at Christ Church. It’s got a healthy DNA and a clear vision, which gives us a shot at infusing both of these campuses with an even healthier DNA that will allow us to be a prevailing church into the future,” Roughton says.

A key aspect of this future growth, Roughton asserts, is reaching out to the Pompano neighborhoods.

“The Pompano campus, like so many in Florida, has had a huge demographic shift. The growing population groups are Brazilian, Haitian and African-American, probably mostly Brazilian,” he says. “The challenge is, are we willing and able to extend the reach of God’s love into people groups who are quite different from the majority of our people who are part of our congregation?”

Concerning what he feels is unique about the merger of the two congregations, Roughton reflects: “I think all of us who were a part of it feel it was God-led and not human-devised. None of us were scheming or attempting to build kingdoms. Largely through our superintendent, who has a heart for being obedient to God and the willingness to open that door with Pompano — all of that contributed to this happening at all.”

He adds: “I know how resistant church people can be to new ideas, especially when they have a lot to lose. Even with that, there was a wonderful willingness to be open to it.”

Roughton says the new congregation on two campuses is in the throes of a major shift in thinking about the church in general.

“Christ Church has been largely a program-driven ministry,” he says. “Tom Bandy was here to help us think about, ‘What does it take to move from being a program-based, staff-led ministry to being a leadership development, team-led kind of ministry?’ That’s where we’re heading.”


This article relates to Congregational Transformation.

*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.