Innovative approaches boosting church vitality


Midweek music meditation in the courtyard of Christ, St. Petersburg draws a crowd.


Good news? It’s more than that.

Rev. Dan Jackson, director of Vital Church Initiatives, calls it all great news, with an exclamation point.

Part of the exciting development was the recent sale of a small land parcel in St. Petersburg that is fetching Christ United Methodist Church $5.6 million and a new life for ministries left previously on the sidelines for a lack of funding.

Christ United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg.

“The great news is that a church is looking to the future,” Jackson said. “It’s looking at new ways it can connect with its community, creative ways to use its assets to fund their connections with the community. It has been well done all the way.”

Jackson gave considerable credit to Rev. Jacque Jones-Smith and her husband Joshua Smith, who serves as chairman of the church’s business development committee.

“Our emphasis is starting vital ministries that connect with people wherever they are in their own spiritual journey,” Jackson said. “We helped them look at what some of the ministries and demographics in the area would suggest.

“We helped them with process. We didn’t get directly involved in the business end, but instead gave them guidance. Jackie had the ideas and we helped her shape them.”

The church originally bought the property, about three-quarters of an acre, more than 20 years ago. It was primarily used for parking, while development in St. Petersburg was happening in other locations. But, as Jones-Smith said, “God is amazing.”

Not only did the church receive a great cash influx, but it also acquired parking spaces in perpetuity from the developer who purchased the land.

“You can’t have a church without parking spaces,” Jones-Smith said.

There are big plans for the funds.

Christ UMC developed a 2020 plan to become a significant spiritual stakeholder in the community, participating and contributing to its well-being.

Rev. Jacque Jones-Smith

“It is a paradigm shift. We are not just a building, but an active participant and stakeholder in the community,” Jones-Smith said.

“We are working with other organizations to improve the community. We want to accomplish this several ways. Feeding the spirit, empowering individual transformation ad developing a close partnership with a school, serving our neighbors and collaborating with churches and other organizations to better serve minority and primarily African American communities.”
The Conference also is helping existing churches find new and creative ways to connect.

“In just the last 12 months we have started three distinct categories of new starts, free-standing new churches, and we have started four of those in the last year across the conference, which is everything from 20 miles west of Tallahassee and around the rest of the state,” Jackson said.

“We have also begun another five that are what we call second sites, where an existing church starts a new site or satellite. And, then we have another three places in the last year where we have done what we call adoptions, where an existing church comes in and takes over the management and leadership of a struggling church.”

The combination of activity helps the Conference to reach its goal of creating vital disciples of Jesus Christ. It allows financial and leadership resources to be allocated in new locations.

“I think we are on a trajectory to being healthy in that way. We have outliers of hope. What that means is we have churches spread throughout the entire Conference that are very effective at making disciples, but our entirety also includes churches that are declining and diminishing, and our overall numbers have been in a decline,” Jackson said.

“We are part of that trend, but what we have that is unique in Florida, we have these churches that we can work with, we can celebrate, we can find ways to more effectively expand the impact of their leadership.”

In an adoption, a healthy church spends from 6 to 18 months with worshipers from a struggling church, creating a single, stronger entity with renewed hope.

In each such instance, the congregation votes to make the changes.

“We did this in a model way in North Tampa with BayHope in Lutz and just last fall they adopted what had been Wellspring United Methodist, a struggling church with 140-150 worshipers. They were adopted and have now become BayHope Westchase campus,” Jackson said.  This past Easter the Westchase campus worshiped over 500 people.

A new merger took place May 23 when the congregation at Manhattan Avenue United Methodist Church in Tampa voted 22-0 with one abstention to join with a new church called Horizon Tampa Bay.

“Manhattan Avenue UMC is a church started by us in the 1950s. They’ve got a faithful history, but it’s an older congregation that are some of the loveliest people I’ve ever met,” Jackson said. “They just don’t have the energy and the resources to keep doing what needs to be done.

“A year ago, we brought two millennial-aged pastors, Revs. Chris and Erica Allen, into the area to find creative ways to connect with the millennial population moving in to the area. They have done that over the past year. What we are doing is discontinue Manhattan Avenue UMC and then immediately join them with Horizon in a merger.  All of their real estate and assets will be transferred to our Committee for New Church Development of the Florida Conference, Inc.”

It will be a new church start, with a new way of thinking. Last Easter morning, for instance, they had yoga and Christian conversation.  Using creative approaches like this, they have connected with over 350 millennial aged people.

“We don’t know what we are going to look like a year from now, but it will become one congregation,” Jackson said.

—Yvette Hammett is a freelance writer based in Valrico.


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