"Is the community different because we're here?"Missions and Outreach School-Church Partnerships
One warm summer night in 2020, as COVID-19 raged, Rev. John Legg noticed activity on the open athletic field in the back of Temple Terrace United Methodist Church.
A youth football team, looking for a place to practice, spotted the field.
"No one yelled at them to go away, so they just started practicing," Rev. Legg said.
The pastor made his way to the field.
|The Tampa Bay Hurricanes at practice|
"I started talking to a guy and introduced myself as the pastor. He thought I was going to kick them out," Rev. Legg said. "It turned out it was the president of the league. Out of random 25 men out there, I go to him. How about that!"
Instead of telling the team to leave, Rev. Legg asked what they needed. They had been practicing at a county-run park, but it closed because of the pandemic. The Tampa Bay Hurricanes needed a place for about 250 players and cheerleaders to practice three nights a week.
Rev. Legg welcomed them and then told the congregation, "We've been asking God to send us children. Well, 250 of them just showed up on our doorstep."
It was a new way of thinking for TTUMC, and it wouldn't be the last time the church opened its arms to the community.
LIKE TOO MANY CHURCHES of all denominations, Temple Terrace United Methodist experienced a long, slow, and steep decline from its heyday. It's necessary to say that upfront to appreciate fully what's happening there now.
Located on 10 acres along busy Busch Boulevard just inside the city limits of Tampa, TTUMC once was known as the country club church. Many leaders of the small town of Temple Terrace regularly attended there.
In the 1970s and early '80s, worshipers filled the pews on Sunday morning, and folding chairs were placed in the aisles on Christmas and Easter to accommodate the extra people on hand.
But as the neighborhood in the back of the church declined, so did attendance. Offerings decreased significantly and stressed the budget.
And when Rev. Legg took over as senior pastor – well, the only pastor – in 2019, it was time for a day of reckoning.
"The church was upside down financially," he said. "I was the bearer of bad news."
Rev. Legg, however, also was the bearer of something very good.
"When you stand with a posture of welcome and interest in doing good things for the community, opportunities present themselves," he said. "Those opportunities don't always work out, but if we continue to listen to God's leading, the ones that do work out are very good.
"Our whole leadership team is willing to listen to God's leading, and good things are happening."
TTUMC is personal to me and my family. I truly believe God led me there, and I always will be grateful.
I joined the church in 1979, took adult baptism there, and met the woman who would become my wife at a church league softball game. We exchanged our vows there, baptized our kids there, and made lasting friendships with many people.
We've had multiple good pastors in that time, and each one contributed to my spiritual journey in unique ways. But I could tell right away that there was something different about John Legg.
He's a gifted musician and gives thought-provoking sermons, but it's his message of open arms to all around us that resonates deeply. He doesn't just talk it, he walks it, and our church is changing for the better because of that.
So is our community.
THE MESSAGE IS SIMPLE. Don't be afraid of change.
"What I do know is that 15-20 years ago, having the best choir and the best Christmas productions was very important to many churches," Rev. Legg said.
"But what used to work doesn't work anymore. We can be upset about that, keep trying things that don't work, or listen to God and learn new ways to present the gospel. We can't just sit back and expect people to show up and start behaving like us."
Diversity is one of TTUMC's strengths. We have a multi-cultural congregation, and the partnership with the
Hurricanes football turned out to be just the beginning of the church's partnering with the community.
Florida Community Christian College has a new football team this season. The Spartans also practice at TTUMC.
The Empty Closet outreach by West Florida Foster Care Services partnered with the church for space to provide clothing, and other needed donated items to foster parents. That filled a huge need because foster parents often receive a child on short notice and sometimes buy the supplies themselves.
The Empty Closet meets that need for free.
"That all started with a cold-call email, but it sounded like a great opportunity. Let's talk," Rev. Legg said.
"The thing that got me is that they were experiencing a 50% dropout rate of parents after the first year because taking in foster children can be hard. So, I asked how we could become a vital partner."
When Rev. Legg arrived at TTUMC, the church had no program for children or youth because, well, hardly anyone in those age groups attended. That has changed, and now the church has something else to offer.
"I'm leading the youth right now, but the great thing is that the team leaders are all new people to our church," he said.
Church volunteers help tutor students. And the church was the only one in Florida chosen to participate in the Changemaker Initiative.
It's a program that says, "We believe in risking something big for something good."
Yes, TTUMC is starting to grow. There's no need for folding chairs just yet, but there's a steady online attendance, and in-house attendance seems to be increasing a little bit every week.
Clarke Campbell-Evans, the Conference Missional Engagement, gave an encouraging outlook.
"I am very impressed with the story of how Temple Terrace UMC looked around for a place to serve their neighbors and emerged with such a great example of how to engage missionally in their neighborhood," he said.
"Congratulations to John Legg and the leaders of this church for your vision on how to make Christ's love tangible in such a powerful way!"
The budget is rebounding as well. Allowing outside groups to rent space that previously sat empty has helped greatly. In the first week of October, Harmon Preparatory – a charter school focused on education for disadvantaged students – moved into one of the empty buildings.
"We're financially stable," Rev. Legg said. "We're finding and developing stewardship for our new people and monetizing our campus. People are discovering that the more they give, the more comes back to them."
IT HAS BEEN a long two-plus years to get to this point, but TTUMC is coming back through the faithfulness of its members and the partnerships with the community.
|Temple Terrace UMC|
"For me, it's not just about partnering with anybody," Rev. Legg said. "It's about supporting groups that are doing good things in the community. It's a posture of being open to the way the Spirit is moving in the community."
The work is far from done, of course. Ideally, it will never be done.
And yes, there are some Sundays when the online feed goes on the fritz, the video boards misfire, or the sound system gets cranky. But then, we remember Jesus didn't have video boards or a sound system for the Sermon on the Mount, and that turned out OK.
So, TTUMC keeps striving and keeps working toward the goal of being the welcoming arms of Jesus. And for Rev. John Legg, it comes down to a simple premise.
"Is the community different because we're here," he said.
The answer to that is yes. TTUMC is different, too.
Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for flumc.org.
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