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Folklore and family form country churches

Folklore and family form country churches

Church Vitality

Sardis United Methodist Church is easy to find. Just drive east of Tallahassee on Highway 259 until you get about halfway between Monticello and Waukeenah. Look for the KOA campground. The church is right next door.

You can’t miss it.

It’s not a big church—maybe 30 members on an average Sunday morning—but the folks will always make room for someone new. They want you to feel the same love for the church that they do, as well they should. Sunday School and church at Sardis UMC is a family tradition, dating to when it opened in 1838. Or maybe it was 1839; records differ.

Pastor Stephen Lenzo of Wacissa UMC and Sardis joins some picking and grinning at a recent Wacissa steak supper. Lenzo is seated front and center with a guitar. On Sundays, Lenzo finishes one sermon, then drives 10 miles to give another.

“We’ve got a lot of families from great grandparents to great grand youngins,” Pastor Stephen Lenzo said. “We’re a country church and I imagine it’s different in a lot of ways from bigger churches.

“You’re family in a small-town church. Everybody knows your business, and everybody knows all about you, warts and all. But they welcome you anyway.”

​Actually, Lenzo gets doubly welcomed. When he is done with his Sunday message at Sardis, he makes the 10-mile drive to Wacissa UMC to minister to the approximately 75 members who attend there. He was appointed there last year, and he wouldn’t trade the small-church experience for anything.

“You really get to feel like you’re making a difference in people’s lives that you couldn’t at a larger church,” he said. “Sometimes, babies will get loose and run up and join me in the pulpit. I’ll just hold ‘em up and keep on preaching. People feel like they’re part of the family because we treat them like family.”

That sense of family also has kept Jim Stroup at First United Methodist of Reddick—an incorporated town of about 500 souls in rural northwest Marion County—since he was 5-years-old. That’s when his family moved there from Indiana in 1946. He never plans to leave.

“Once you get into a place like this, it grows on you,” he said.

Stroup has served as lay leader in Reddick for the last 40 years or so. The church is one of five small United Methodist congregations in the Reddick area. They combine sometimes for social gatherings or for a Maundy Thursday service during Holy Week. Each church is distinct, though, with its own rich history.

The church originally was founded in 1876 on a nearby plantation. In 1890 the building was moved from there to the location in Reddick where it now stands, using mules, logs and rollers.

This prayer quilt, described as an outreach ministry at Wacissa, hangs in the sanctuary where it is prayed over for several weeks for someone in need. Each prayer that is lifted is marked with a knot on the quilt's prayer strings. In the end, the quilt is given to that person with a card.

Last September, the church celebrated its 140th anniversary. Four past ministers attended the all-day party that included a regular church service, dinner and a sing-a-long.

“That was a really good day,” Stroup said.

It underscores the sense of community that exists.

“This is my church family, bottom line,” long-time member Tom Christmas said. “No matter where you are or what you do, they are there for you. They truly care.”

Small churches form the backbone of the Florida Conference. According to a 2016 conference report, 180 of the 651 churches statewide had 100 or fewer members. They mostly are long-standing churches located in small towns or rural settings, with deep, rich histories that can go back more than 100 years.

Like Sardis and Wacissa, they often share a pastor with another nearby church, which requires some juggling for both the minister and the congregation. They depend on volunteers to perform many of the tasks that would be done by paid staff at larger churches.

“I’m the staff,” Pastor Patrick Elmore said with a wry chuckle about his two-point charge.

Actually, he is the staff for two churches – St. Mark in Lakeland and Springhead in nearby Plant City. It’s a 17-minute drive between the two to deliver his Sunday message.

“It’s a unique experience,” he said. “At one time, I was at a church with 1,300 members before I came to Florida. It’s different culturally, size-wise, everything. It causes you to sharpen your senses.”

That includes knowing how to juggle a schedule. The churches may be small, but they’re active, and the pastor has to tend to the flock. That includes Bible study, Fellowship classes and things like potluck dinners and other celebrations. Once every quarter, Elmore conducts a blended worship between his two churches. They also share a men’s breakfast and women’s events.

Springhead UMC near Plant City offers what many would consider the stereotypical image of a country church. Its pastor, Patrick Elmore, serves both Springhead and St. Mark, which is located in Lakeland.

You begin to know the people and know the faces,” he said. “You develop an intimacy with everyone. You’re a listener, not a talker.”

​To fully appreciate the small-church experience, though, you also need a sense of history.

For instance, Wacissa was founded in 1850—a log cabin where meetings began on Friday night and didn’t end until Sunday night. Worshipers arrived over muddy trails by ox cart and horseback, and they started something that has yet to be stopped.

They have a ministry that delivers handmade quilts to those hospitalized or shut-in. They have salty servants. They collect a special offering called the silver drill, where people donate the change in their pockets into a fund for families in need. It’s the type of passion for helping that bought retired Wacissa pastor Jim Gamble back to sit in the congregation after he left the pulpit.

“That’s usually not done. It’s kind of the unwritten rule,” he said. “I stayed away seven months to give the new pastor (Lenzo) some space. I told him I would help him any way I could, but the best advice I could give him was just to love the people and to let them love you.”

Sardis, Lenzo’s other church, was on the brink of closing in 2005, but the members who remained there didn’t want to let it go.

That’s when Lenzo was appointed as pastor, and the church is growing again.

“There is often a lot of fear in small churches,” he said. “Fear of not keeping up.”

That fear is defeated by trust in God and a willingness to be a link in the chain of history that stretches back decades. At Sardis, there is a cemetery on church grounds where many members were laid to rest. Their family members continue the legacy of worship in what for them is a sacred spot. It matters.

“I’m a counselor. I’m a guitar player in the praise band. I’m a singer. I’m a preacher,” Lenzo said. “Everybody does something.

“We’re not Matthew West or Third Day, nothing like that. We have dairy farmers, cattlemen and people who go way back. But our aim is for people to come in and be dumbfounded with ‘wow’ when they go to our church. This is a place where they know you. And this is a place where they love you.”

--Joe Henderson is a freelance writer based in Brandon.

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