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Orlando church voluntarily closes, paves way for new growth

Orlando church voluntarily closes, paves way for new growth

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Orlando church voluntarily closes, paves way for new growth

By Jenna De Marco | Jan. 7, 2010 {1116}

Members of Grace United Methodist Church in Orlando may well be remembered for living up to the church’s name.

Members of Grace United Methodist Church voted to close the 50-year-old church and sell the property to Orange County Public Schools for reconstruction and expansion of adjacent Evans High School. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #10-1359.

That’s partly because they voluntarily decided to close the 50-year-old church in Orlando’s Pine Hills area after it became clear a financial crossroads had arrived, said the Rev. Dr. Wayne Wiatt, superintendent of the East Central District.

Members made the decision across a period of about six months — far less time than the typical two or three years needed by most churches, Wiatt said. The final service was Dec. 27.

After completing a church study process with various leaders from the East Central District, church members concluded the church’s lifecycle was nearing an end. They wanted to end on a high note and share their resources, Wiatt said.

Several factors, including decreased membership, contributed to the relatively quick decision to close. Chief among them was an opportunity to sell the church property for about $1.3 million to Orange County Public Schools. The school system needed more space for reconstruction and expansion of adjacent Evans High School, a landmark in a community that has experienced many cultural shifts in the past 50 years.

“The irony is that Evans High School housed them for a period of time (when the church launched), and we are returning a favor,” said the Rev. Dr. Walker Walker, pastor at Grace and Solid Rock United Methodist churches. “Probably, we are making a greater sacrifice, but we are touching so many lives — parents, children and the community, which stands to benefit greatly from that sacrifice.”

Before deciding to close, it became increasingly difficult for church members to meet monthly obligations, such as its clergy salary and utilities, Walker said. Yet, like other churches in a similar situation, Grace carried no financial debt, said Dave Elyea, vice chairman of the East Central District leadership council.

Consolidating its expenses, the church had already partnered as a cooperative parish with Solid Rock United Methodist Church, sharing pastoral leadership and costs. Additionally, the church began receiving a small remittance several years ago from a Haitian congregation that had been worshipping in the building for about eight years.

But even those measures were not enough to avoid a shortage of funds. In a spring informational session with Grace’s members, Elyea predicted a six-month financial shortfall of $30,000 to $40,000. The church had three choices: sell and relocate, merge with another church, or sell and give the proceeds to the district and conference new church development ministries. Walker helped facilitate the members’ decision-making process.

“They have been a beacon of light in that community for 50 years, and after 50 years, it becomes difficult to let go,” Walker said.

But after evaluating their finances and the community’s need for the school expansion, members opted to sell.

Closure paves way for growth

“They were very much at peace with the idea that their time had come,” Elyea said. “And they were really happy with the thought that what they had worked so hard for could be turned into another new thriving congregation in the future.”

Seventy-five percent of the estimated $1.3 million proceeds will go to the East Central District’s new church development ministry. The other 25 percent will be used for conference new church development, Wiatt said. He called these funds a “miracle” that will help sustain the district ministry since that account was nearing depletion in the wake of a slow economy. The district was expecting to dip into its new church reserve funds by next July.

About a dozen churches in the district are considered new church starts; another one may be launched in 2011.

“Their passion and their love for Christ (are) not going to die,” Wiatt said of the church’s members. “It’s going to be transplanted to a new congregation.”

Tom Bledsoe, a lay volunteer for the East Central District who reviewed property appraisals for Grace, has helped other struggling United Methodist churches weigh the decision to close. He said the Grace congregation’s courage is unique and deserves to be celebrated and commended.

“So much of it’s just the attitude of the church people wanting to do the right thing for the community and the church so that (older) churches can really give birth to new churches,” Bledsoe said.

Closing a church and giving the funds to new church development can be compared to a recycling of resources, Bledsoe added.

“We’re entrusted with the resources that people have given to God over the years, and then it comes to the point where (churches) are no longer viable financially … and those resources need to be redeployed,” he said.

Church member praises ministry

At a recent community charge conference with a cluster of area churches, about a dozen Grace church members attended wearing t-shirts imprinted with a picture of the church. One of them was Joanne Sorensen, a member of the church for nearly 30 years.

Church members attending a recent community charge conference pose while wearing t-shirts imprinted with a picture of the church. Photo courtesy of Grace United Methodist Church. Photo #10-1360.

Sorensen said she agrees with the decision to close, although it is bittersweet. Several of her extended family members were baptized at the church, and her daughter began attending there when she was 8 years old. In an interview with e-Review prior to the closing, Sorensen said the last service would be difficult, but “we are going out of these doors with our heads high.”

Sorensen takes comfort in helping Evans High School meet its needs and seeing the funds bolster the development of new churches. She is also proud of the 50-year ministry at Grace, especially its 27 years of assistance to the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida. Once every month, the congregation has spent $165 purchasing food, such as grits and sugar, for delivery to the coalition. Another church member is seeking a new donor that will commit to this ministry after the church closes, Sorensen said.

Also displaced by the closure is the Haitian congregation that meets at Grace. Walker said he is working with the pastor to identify an alternate location for their ministry.

As for the final worship service, Walker said he had hoped to instill a sense of closure and “the assurance that wherever they go, God will be with them, and whatever they do will be for God’s glory.”

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

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.