Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared on the Florida United Methodist Foundations website. Click here to visit.
When New Covenant United Methodist Church launched in The Villages in 2001, the city had around 30,000 residents. Today, the area has a population of more than 125,000 and includes a sprawling retirement community of the same name that spreads into Lake and Sumter counties.
In 2018, The Villages ranked tenth on a list of fastest-growing U.S. metropolitan areas, according to Census data.
“Seventy percent of these people are unchurched,” said Bob Becker, a retired energy executive and lay leader at New Covenant’s main campus, called Summerhill. “Our vision is to be fishing and catching people for Christ. But we gotta go where the fish are biting.”
That’s why the church is building a second campus in The Villages’ Lake Deaton area of Wildwood—with the help of a $5.75 million loan from the Florida United Methodist Foundation’s Development Fund.
It’s a significant investment in the church’s growth, but not the first. The foundation provided a loan of $6 million in 2011 to fund construction of a much-needed 40,000-square foot addition to the main campus.
Becker, whose role puts him at the hub of the church’s strategic planning, servant leadership, staff-parish relations and finance, has seen New Covenant grow from 56 people in weekly worship attendance to more than 3,000.
“(And) not just any people,” he said. “The most prolific, awesome volunteer base I’ve ever experienced.”
Casting the vision
Rev. Harold Hendren, senior pastor at the church since 2011, agrees with Becker’s evaluation and says he is energized by the scale of opportunity.
New Covenant United Methodist Church’s Lake Deaton campus is located on a 10-acre site in the fast-growing Wildwood area of The Villages. Initial development will include a 26,600-square foot multipurpose building. A second phase will include 30,000 additional square feet used primarily as a worship center and sanctuary.
“We could see the migration pattern of The Villages was moving toward Wildwood,” Hendren said. “So, I talked with a senior executive (Villages board of supervisors) and shared that our church had a vision to grow and would they mind selling us some property.”
At first New Covenant was rebuffed. The Villages historically restricts faith organizations from having more than one location within the community. But it wasn’t long before the management company called back, and the wheels were set in motion for an unprecedented second campus.
“We were allowed to purchase more property in The Villages because they believe in our vision,” Hendren said. “They knew it would be a positive thing for the community, and they knew Methodists have the clout to actually pull it off. We’ve built strong rapport with the community and the charter school—not just a commitment to the community, but offering ministries that build community.”
The Florida Conference’s North Central District helped purchase the site for the campus, and the church made the commitment to raise funds for the new facility through a capital campaign.
“Meanwhile, we were in the middle of a $7.5 million development at the main campus,” Hendren said. “But we’re doubling down on the mortgage and are on track to pay it off in four or five years.”
In 2013, Rev. Jim Divine was brought in as minister for the new site, and he applied his church plant experience to the burgeoning vision.
|“There’s magic in the air here, and everybody gets it.” —Mike Herzberg, lay leader, Lake Deaton campus|
“We launched in February of 2014,” Divine said. “We’ve been meeting at the Eisenhower Recreation Center, and we’re averaging 530 in attendance. The new facility is on track to open around Thanksgiving.”
The Lake Deaton campus is configured to seat 650, but will offer four Sunday worship services as soon as it opens.
“We’re a younger demographic, largely because our population comprises residents 55 to 65 who have moved to The Villages more recently,” Divine said.
The new campus has the same “warm, welcoming, plug-right-in personality” as Summerhill, Divine says, but with an overlay of more intentional inclusivity indicative of a population Divine describes as “younger Boomers.”
As a campus of New Covenant, Lake Deaton is building on the positive social capital the church has already banked within the community. “There is a positive feel toward New Covenant,” Divine said. “The church is looked at as an active participant in and around The Villages, especially the schools.”
Max Herzberg believes radical hospitality is the thread that runs through both campuses.
“I’m motivated by the excitement I see in the congregants,” said Herzberg, who serves as Lake Deaton’s lay leader. “And I’m excited to see the impact on the community where we serve. It’s about mission, to serve people and to be the presence of Christ. The new campus is not so much a building; it’s a bridge to our communities.”
And members come from a variety of backgrounds. “The vast majority are not historically Methodist,” Herzberg said. “In fact, they are predominantly unaffiliated.”
New Covenant is successful, he says, because members and leaders seek out ideas that work, while also trying to understand what doesn’t. “Then we focus on what does, and we work toward results,” he said. “We are the eyes and the voice and the feet of Jesus on Earth here today.”
Not satisfied that the church is reaching everyone it can, Hendren is already thinking about a third campus.
|Members of New Covenant United Methodist Church’s Lake Deaton campus worship in a local recreation center. An average of 530 people attends weekly. (NCUMC photo)|
“I feel like Willy Wonka with the golden ticket,” he said. “I’m wired to be driven and to serve this church. I know in my heart the Lord placed this vision for Lake Deaton with me beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
Hendren is also the first to point out that once cast, a vision must be taken up. “A pastor has to lead well and to preach well and to vision cast well,” he said. “But the church owns this.”
In addition to enthusiasm, New Covenant’s culture resonates with method, organization and fiduciary care, which drove the strategic team to develop a manual as a resource for the future.
“We put together a multi-campus playbook,” Becker said. “Finance and maintenance, for example, are a global operation, whereas connectional ministries are campus-specific. We want Lake Deaton to succeed and grow—as autonomous as possible—but land, cost and building services require more support.”
A key part of that playbook is a team of lay people and staff who work well together.
“Our vision and our calling are extremely organized,” Hendren said. “We have a fantastic staff and really smart, professional laypeople who just get it. All I need to do is to keep the vision in front of the congregation.”
And that vision is all about the community.
“We’re an outwardly focused church with a lot of ministry beyond the walls,” Hendren said. “We are constantly looking for the best ways to serve the community in mission. The Villages is a huge volunteering community, and we are strategically placed to continue to grow.”
Divine agrees, and says he draws inspiration and energy from the community.
“So many of these people are just excited and want to be engaged in ministry,” he said. “They want to be active. Lake Deaton is a tremendous base of gifted, skilled people who want to do things, like no church I’ve ever pastored before.”
“There’s magic in the air here,” Herzberg said, “and everybody gets it.”
—Derek Maul is a freelance writer based in Wake Forest, North Carolina.