While Christians around the world celebrated new life in Christ this Easter, two Jacksonville churches celebrated a different kind of salvation.
|FUMC Jacksonville first began holding worship services in 1823 on the second floor of a dry goods store. The services were led by a Methodist circuit rider, John Jerry.|
It’s not a merger, said the Rev. Jay Therrell, district superintendent of North East District. Each congregation will maintain its identity, ministries and staff, but they will share space and expenses.
In a time of political and racial polarization, the agreement makes a powerful statement to the church and the community. First Church Jacksonville is a predominately white congregation; Simpson Memorial is black.
“The overall objective is to see how the two congregations can be a greater witness to the Kingdom of God in the shared space,” said Rev. Lawrence Barriner, pastor of Simpson Memorial. “It gives the churches an opportunity to live into what we proclaim as a denomination in terms of inclusivity, to be a people of God allowing the Spirit of God to transcend race and culture.”
Both churches are steeped in history with congregations whose families have been members for decades.
First Church Jacksonville grew out of the work of circuit rider John Jerry, who began holding worship services in 1823 on the second floor of a dry goods store in the newly established city of Jacksonville.
The congregation grew with the city and was buffeted by history. During the Civil War, Union troops used its sanctuary for prayer and worship. Half a century later, the church and most of the city was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1901.
The current sanctuary dates to the 1960s, an era when Jacksonville was wracked by civil rights disturbances, including the infamous Ax Handle Saturday when white supremacists attacked black demonstrators August 27, 1960, just a few blocks from the church.
Simpson Memorial was founded in 1884 in the new residential neighborhood of Springfield, north of downtown. It was Jacksonville’s first neighborhood, with stylish mansions in the Queen Anne and Colonial Revival style adjacent to a thriving business district.
But over time, the fortunes of both congregations have waned. Membership has dropped; finances dwindled. Hard decisions had to be made.
“Ours is an aging congregation,” said the Rev. Tony Chance, pastor of First Church Jacksonville. “We’re not keeping up with the losses from deaths and people moving away. We have a membership of 250 with anywhere from 70 to 125 in worship. We’re classified as a small church.”
It’s a small church with three big buildings—a sanctuary, an educational building and an administration building. It’s so big that they rent space to two nonprofits.
Simpson Memorial’s building is in poor condition, and repairs are beyond the means of the congregation, which has 232 on its rolls and 80 in attendance.
“It really takes away from our ability to do more effective ministry,” Barriner said.
In January 2017, during a cross-cultural pulpit exchange, a conversation got started between the pastors about whether there was a way to extend the legacies of both churches.
In October, with Therrell’s blessing, six members of each congregation began meeting weekly to take a hard look at what it would take for both congregations to come together—side by side—under one roof.
“We had a list of things to consider,” Chance said. “We worked through them with a spirit of grace and understanding. Nobody was guarding their territory. There was a real openness and collegiality as we talked about how to make it work.”
Chance had seen it work before at Azalea Park United Methodist Church in Orlando, where he was pastor. He was asked by the district superintendent to become part-time pastor at Faith United Methodist Church, which was struggling.
“Within about eight months, Faith had five congregations doing ministry in that little property,” Chance said. “What we found was that all the churches could do a lot more together than we could on our own. We had more people, more money, more activities.”
The two big issues facing the Jacksonville churches were time and money.
Simpson Memorial traditionally has worshipped at 10 a.m. with a service that could last for two hours or more. First Church Jacksonville convened at 11 a.m. and was done in about an hour.
In a spirit of compromise, First Church Jacksonville moved its worship service up an hour to 10 a.m.; Simpson Memorial moved its service back an hour to 11:05. The goal is to have 20 minutes between the services.
The churches also will be sharing the bills for utilities, insurance and lawn care. Each congregation will take care of its own salaries and apportionments.
The covenant was presented to each congregation in February in town hall meetings. Both churches voted overwhelmingly in favor.
But the decision wasn’t easily reached. There was some grumbling about the change of worship times and nostalgia about history and traditions.
“At the outset, there was some concern about the history of the church being lost,” Barriner said. “People were very sentimental as they reflected on their lives in the context of that facility. Some of us will struggle with having to leave, but others have said it’s time to move to a different level.”
Therrell said he has seen some beautiful things come out of the process.
“Both churches talked about how they need each other. They are saving each other,” Therrell said. “The team of 12 have really modeled the kingdom mindset in making missional decisions for their church and the other church.”
In preparation for the move, the congregations have come together several times for Wednesday night dinner and Bible study and Ash Wednesday.
Both pastors expect to find more opportunities to share worship—possibly a joint service on fifth Sundays—and ministries, like the Soul Food ministry Simpson Memorial has for the homeless.
“This is going to be incredibly positive for Jacksonville,” Chance said. “Hopefully we can model something new and different and very loving in the city. It really has been a Spirit-led and Spirit-filled process.”
--Lilla Ross is a freelance writer based in Jacksonville.