When the Church Needs to Move

April 25th, 2012
This article is featured in the Change (May/June/July 2012) issue of Circuit Rider

This cannot be happening. I am failing miserably to keep my promise of standing stoically and reading with an air of polished dignity. I am buckling under the strain. The genuine smile that has played continually about my face for almost three years is gone, and my promise of not dissolving in tears is now broken.

I have practiced for this moment for weeks; and yet as I stand before the congregation of Impact United Methodist Church—the new church start that I launched without a mother church and without knowing a single soul in Port Arthur, Texas—on this final Sunday morning in the only building Impact has ever known as “home,” my emotions get the better of me. As Brenda, lay leader and choir member, stands beside me whispering in her trademark tone of reassurance, “It’s okay, Pastor,” I try to continue reading through the building deconsecration service as found in the United Methodist Book of Worship. As my tears begin pouring down my cheeks like torrents from a mountain stream, the uneasy congregation experiences its own cathartic moment as tears and sniffles quickly reverberate throughout the almost-full sanctuary. Even the heavens appear to be in mournful partnership with us as the sky is overhung and overspread with a darkness uncharacteristic of a typical Southeast Texas Sunday morning.

As I utter the final “Amen” of the deconsecration litany, a group of men carry the pulpit emblazoned with our custom-designed Impact logo and load it onto the bed of a truck parked just outside the exit door to the left of the sanctuary. The lights slowly and dramatically dim one final time, the police escort takes its place directly in front of the pulpit-laden truck, the congregants file from the sanctuary and into their cars, the sanctuary doors are locked, and the caravan of worshipers makes its way to a building just under two miles away. We are on our way to another place of worship: the church had to move.

It might have looked like failure to leave our original building not because we outgrew it but because we couldn’t afford it. I may have failed to remain dry-eyed on that Sunday morning of January 15, 2012, but the church itself can hardly be called anything but a great testament to God’s powerful, life-changing presence.

Impact United Methodist Church of Port Arthur, Texas, is a nearly three-year-old, award-winning new church start in the Texas Annual Conference; hailed by our bishop and cabinet members as the most successful, yet-to-be-chartered, African American new church start in our conference, and as the most successful African American congregation in our district. At last year’s Annual Conference, Impact was awarded the prestigious Copeland Award for Distinguished Evangelism for having had the most professions of faith and baptisms of any church in our size category. Last year’s Copeland Award was Impact’s first as a congregation and my second as a pastor in the Texas Annual Conference. That’s not failure; that’s God at work.

This past summer—just days before the new school year began - Impact distributed free school supplies, immunizations (in partnership with the city health department), and free lunches to nearly 1,300 children and youth in Port Arthur! An unchartered, new church start was used by God to accomplish something that many older, wealthier, larger, more-established congregations have never done. That’s not failure; that’s God at work.

Impact conducted Vacation Bible School on-site in the recreation room of one of the most densely populated public housing projects in the city. Many of the children who assembled in that furnace of a rec room did not regularly attend worship anywhere and their families probably would not feel totally comfortable doing so—so we took the church to them. That’s not failure; that’s God at work.

And yet, that same Impact UMC was informed by district and cabinet officials that the property where it currently worshiped and worked was going to be sold and that the congregation would have to relocate; the church had to move.

Some people outside the Impact congregation happily interpreted this relocation as the death knell for this upstart, brash, totally un-Methodist Methodist church with a preacher who wears FUBU boots and blue jeans but never his black doctoral robe with the gorgeous royal blue velvet chevrons, an energetic choir that never wears matching outfits and rarely (if ever) sings anything written by Charles Wesley, and young people who sit in the pews wearing backwards caps, tattoos, and sagging pants. Some of the Impact congregants themselves privately and publicly wondered whether or not the congregation could thrive in another location, with a few even comparing the upcoming scenario of renting space from a predominantly Anglo United Methodist congregation as “sharecropping.” I must admit, that particular comment made me cringe.

How did we get here? And where do we go from here?

To begin with, the building that originally housed what eventually became Impact UMC was purchased by our district upon the recommendation of the then-district superintendent and district trustees. The property, located in a declining part of town, had previously housed a Presbyterian congregation that had grown older in the average age of its congregants and had become increasingly less able to sustain the upkeep on its 35,000 square feet facility. The building was purchased for approximately $1.2 million dollars due to a generous loan by the Texas Methodist Foundation. The vision was to start a United Methodist congregation that would appeal to a segment of the African American population—young, urban “twenty- and thirty-somethings”—that traditional churches often have difficulty reaching for a myriad of reasons.  I was pastoring in another district at the time, and was asked to move two hours southeast and helm this new church start effort; a challenge I willingly and gladly accepted. With my penchant for evangelism (my strongest spiritual gift), I had long felt that church planting was my calling, and now the opportunity presented itself.

However, the condition of the building was a bit shoddier than anyone involved had really anticipated. We had a $1.2 million dollar mortgage; a forty-year-old air and heating system that only worked at 60 percent capacity (and would cost nearly $40,000 dollars to replace); an antiquated boiler that exploded and had to be replaced; superannuated, faulty electrical wiring that caused a fire in what was originally the youth ministry lounge and caused the left side of the sanctuary to always be shrouded in darkness; and a decades-old plumbing problem that resulted in an $11,000 dollar water bill and left only two out of twelve bathrooms at full functionality. All that with a congregation of new Christians—many of whom had either never been in church before or were church dropouts who after many years returned to church because they finally felt at home in the non-traditional, relaxed, non-judgmental atmosphere we purposefully attempted to create at Impact—all added up to one option: the church had to move.

And so, on a somber Sunday morning in January, Impact left her original location at 1645 Jefferson Drive and moved to a building that once housed a now defunct United Methodist congregation, and is now owned and used by the largest Anglo UMC in Port Arthur as that congregation’s outreach center. Impact did not merge with that congregation; we entered their building as an independent congregation, simply renting the space for worship and weekly activities. The original idea was for Impact to become an African American “outreach” of the host congregation, but an eleventh-hour change in that original plan retained Impact as an independent congregation with the goal of becoming self-sufficient, eventually chartering, and purchasing its own building—a testament to God’s hand at work with this new, upstart, brash aggregation of untraditional United Methodists who gained a degree of national notoriety after a mystery worshiper placed his or her unwanted marijuana in the offering plate! (Read more about that story here.) The change in status from possible outreach ministry to independent congregation renting space did create some not-necessarily-negative tension, which, frankly, both congregations and their leaders will have to continue to wade through.

If there was a failure of any kind, it was the “failure” of a new, young church primarily comprised of lower income new Christians to be able—after less than three years of existence —to financially support a $1.2 million dollar mortgage on a building in great need of repair. To quote our conference treasurer (a great friend and supporter of this pastor and this congregation), “I don’t know of that many wealthy churches that could rise to that level of stewardship in just three years. Impact has done extremely well, all things considered.”

Personally, I don’t see any of this as anybody’s fault. It is what it is. However, I am up to chapter 3 of my new book which I think I will call 1001 Things NOT to Do Before, During, or After Starting a New Church. How’s that for a working title?

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