In the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible, Habakkuk ends with the prophet uttering the following words:
Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.1
These, to me, are courageous words of trust in a future that the present shows no signs of providing. Yet the prophet seems to know that there is something more than what is evident. This hope resonates with me as I reflect on the story of Rader Memorial United Methodist Church, a church that embarked on a journey from death to resurrection, but not in the way one may expect. It is not the story of a down-and-out church that changed its ways to find people flocking to its pews. That would have been a nice story to write, but it is not the story of this church. No, Rader’s story is one of death and the unlikely hope that there was something beyond that death.
Rader had a story that its people were very proud of. It was founded in the northeast quadrant of Miami in the early 1920s, and in the 1950s and ’60s it was one of the premier churches in the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. The large sanctuary was full on Sunday mornings and Sunday school classes brimmed over with kids and adults. Old black-and-white photos showed a choir loft that was full of people in crisp white choir robes.
Then everything changed. In the late 1960s the neighborhood began to experience transformation; Little Haiti moved closer to the church and church members moved farther away. Between the late 1960s and the early ’80s, Rader lost nearly 1,000 members. It was a period of transition from which the church would never fully rebound. There was a loyal remnant that remained, but a significant number moved to other neighborhoods, other churches. Unfortunately, those remaining had a large facility and a shrinking congregation. Fortunately, there were funds from trusts and the sale of real estate that provided a healthy flow of income to the church. These would be enough for a time.
In early 2004, I was in Denver, Colorado, finishing up coursework in a Ph.D. program in New Testament and early Christian history. Since I knew I would soon enter the dissertation phase, my family and I decided it was time to return home to Florida and request an appointment to a local church. I contacted my district superintendent with my request, and a short time later he called and said, “I have just the place for you, Rader Memorial United Methodist Church, in Miami.”
I asked if I could think about it for a few days and immediately called a friend who had been raised at Rader to ask what he thought. His response was swift: “Don’t do it!” Rader, he said, was perceived as a church moving in the wrong direction and would not be a pleasant place to serve. I thanked him and assured him that I would pray about the decision, which I did. A few days later, I told my wife that I really felt called to accept the appointment and “if it means turning the church around, so be it, and if it means closing the doors, so be it.”
So my family and I found ourselves back in Florida, in the strange, beautiful, diverse world of Miami, and I began my new appointment at Rader. There were some ominous signs from the start. For one, the church secretary quit the Friday before I was to arrive. Some church members quickly scrambled to get volunteer teenagers to answer phones, but that lasted only for a short time. In something of a surreal moment, I even discovered the cremated remains of two individuals in the closet of my office. On my first Sunday I arrived very early to find bulletins that were several months old stacked on pews in the narthex of the sanctuary. In the balcony I found bulletins that were several years old. It was obvious that no one had been in the sanctuary balcony in some time. It also looked as if the carpet in the sanctuary had not been vacuumed in quite a while. As it got closer to worship time, I began to wonder if anyone was even going to show up. A little while later there were only a few people who had arrived to take their places in the rather large sanctuary.
Signs of Hope
Yet there was a moment on that first Sunday that has brought me comfort many days since. As I stood to do the benediction at the close of the service I looked out at the diversity of people in that small congregation: young and old, black and white, men and women, gay and straight, Haitian, Bahaman, and Jamaican. I remember having a strong sense that this representation of diversity is what the Kingdom of God looks like. This vision became proof for me that the living Jesus was at work in this church and with these people.
This was not the only flicker of hope, though. While many of the past church leaders had long since left, others remained, and some of the new members to the church had extraordinary leadership skills. There were also some exciting ministries happening. A food closet passed out nonperishable items on a daily basis, a Wednesday community meal provided food to many in need of food or just basic social interaction, and the small music program had noticeable talent.
I look back at my sermons from that time and they were full of hope, based on the potential I saw in these people and their ministries. In the early days, I honestly believed that if we worked and prayed hard enough, change would come. This prayer was answered, but not as I would have expected or wanted.
Signs of Trouble
The tide started to change, though, a little over a year after my arrival at the church. Some of the financial reports left me with questions and concerns, and as I looked into these matters further I discovered that the trust funds the church had been relying on were running out much faster than anyone had projected. When I arrived, the last remaining trust fund was at $125,000. A couple of years prior, the Finance Committee had decided to begin using some of the principal from the trust with the plan to put the funds back when funds were available; this, of course, is a slippery slope, and it is no surprise that no money was paid back on the principal. As the balance dwindled, it was brought to the attention of the Finance Committee that the balance was now at $55,000. The math was simple: there would not be money left in the account for long. The budget at that point was already skeletal, with funds used almost exclusively for keeping the doors open and the lights on. Money would have to be transferred from the trust fund just to meet that budget. There were pledges to supplement the trust fund transfers (in fact they had increased over the previous year), but there was just not enough money or time to stop the bleeding in the trust fund balance. When that money ran out, the coffers would be empty.
There was another event that, I see now, was significant to the church’s story—the death of a certain member. This gentleman was in his early eighties but had the energy and spirit of a twenty-year-old. He had been away from the church for about ten years caring for his wife, who had Alzheimer’s. When he returned—at about the same time I arrived—he was appalled at the condition of the church. He immediately went to work at organizing a United Methodist men’s ministry to get the men of the congregation more active and involved. He confronted church leadership about how they needed to “clean the bathrooms and vacuum the carpet.” People listened to him. He was determined that as long as Rader was open, the church was going to make a difference. His thick New York accent seemed to motivate people in ways that amazed me. Then, out of the blue, he died of a sudden heart attack in his front yard. The church was stunned and something of the life went out of the congregation. They would never fully recover from this death.
A few weeks later, Hurricane Wilma passed through our area, leaving behind fallen trees and tattered roofs. Some of the people in the area were without power for sixteen days. The church, having a gas stove, served morning coffee and powdered soup to those in nearby homes. A few days later, the United Methodist Committee on Relief delivered several semi-trucks full of supplies that we stored in our fellowship hall and distributed to the community. As we passed out canned goods and health kits, cleaned up tree branches, and put things back together, we didn’t realize that it was the aftershock of the hurricane that would impact us the most.
As the new year began, significant financial problems still faced Rader Memorial. Then the bill for property insurance arrived. As members of the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, Rader was part of a conference-wide property insurance plan. As a result of the hurricanes that passed through Florida, our premium rose from $30,000 to over $60,000. There was no foreseeable way to pay this bill.
I do not point to the insurance increase as the reason that Rader had to close its doors. It was simply the event that forced our hand sooner than expected. Even if the premium had stayed the same, there would have been serious financial difficulties to come to terms with, but now we had choices to make. The first big decision involved me. I did not see any way that the congregation could afford a full-time pastor. After much prayer and struggle, I contacted my district superintendent and told her that there was no way I could return the following year. This was especially hard since I had preached such hope at the beginning. But the fields were not yielding the fruit that I had hoped.
Very early in the process I went to my district superintendent to explain the situation. I brought financial data and reports and discussed what I thought were possible scenarios. She helped me work through questions about my leaving Rader and was often a voice of comfort. I cannot overstate the support that I received from her and the difference it made in this process. It became a well from which to draw strength, courage, and reassurance.
Considering Our Options
In light of the situation now before us, I wanted to be proactive. I did some research and reflection and made a list of several options the congregation could consider; including bringing in a part-time local pastor, selling the property and relocating to a smaller facility, merging with another congregation, and sharing facilities with another congregation. In addition, we put together a process for making that decision.
The first step would be to tell our Staff Parish Relations Committee that I would be leaving in June and that this was not negotiable. That same night I would hold a meeting of the entire congregation to explain the issues, walk them through their options one at a time, and answer any questions they may have. A second meeting was scheduled for two weeks later to give church members an opportunity, after they had had a chance to contemplate the options, to ask more questions. The district superintendent agreed to be present at that meeting. A third meeting was scheduled for two weeks after that, where a vote would be taken about what to do.
If this sounds like a hurried process, it was. Funds were running out quickly and decisions had to be made; we did not have the luxury of time. When the third meeting came, there was little discussion. The plan was that we would vote on all eight options, then a second and final vote would be taken on the top two. As the final vote was being tallied, the district superintendent led the congregation in song. I will never forget the sight of longtime church members, awaiting the result of the vote with tears streaming down their faces, singing the old hymns of the church. In the end, the vote was twenty-four to twenty-two in favor of merging with another congregation.
Finding Our New Home
Things moved quickly from there. A team was put together to find another congregation for us to merge with. Interestingly, some churches (most in a similar financial situation as Rader) approached us about joining them, but our view was that we didn’t want to join another congregation in a situation similar to our own. We couldn’t see putting the congregation through all of this again a few years later. We wanted to join a congregation that was United Methodist, active in ministry, financially stable and close enough that members would not have to adjust their commute too much. Further, because the church was proactive, the funds from the sale of the Rader property would be transferred to the merged congregation. This was significant, as the building sold about a year later for several million dollars and this became part of what Rader could offer in the merger of the congregations: we could come with new people and resources.
The team began by brainstorming a list of United Methodist Churches in the area that were candidates. Most of the members of the team were at least somewhat familiar with the churches first mentioned. They knew members of each of the congregations and had worked together on various projects, ministries, and district committees, so there was a level of familiarity with the congregations and the congregations with Rader. Some were easily ruled out for the reasons mentioned above. For those that were possibilities, it was decided that members of the committee would visit the different congregations to try to get an even better sense of them. This took several weeks, and then there were several meetings to reflect on the various experiences team members had had at the other churches.
To some degree, the work of approaching other churches about the possibility of merging was done for us. Among United Methodists in the northeast part of Miami, word about Rader’s situation spread fast. In addition, I had a good relationship with many of the other United Methodist clergy in the area and I had numerous conversations with them about the events at Rader and the congregation’s upcoming decisions. One of the advantages of this was that I could get a sense during these conversations as to whether or not another congregation was interested in merger; most were, because it would mean more people and additional resources for them.
In the end, the Rader team recommended merging with Fulford United Methodist Church, located a few miles north of Rader. They were financially stable, had active ministries, and the personnel and other resources we could bring to Fulford represented great potential for growing the ministries that Fulford was already engaged in. Further, the resources we could contribute would enable Fulford to do some needed work to their facilities to increase ministry effectiveness, such as improvements that were needed to their preschool and education building.
I conferred with the pastor of Fulford, who took the proposal to the church’s Charge Conference (the governing body in local United Methodist congregations). They voted to approve the merger.
Each church now put together a transition team to help work through the process. Interestingly, the biggest question was what to name the merged congregation. The people from Rader graciously stated the name should remain Fulford because of historical significance, and so it did. The other question was property, but it was quickly decided that the Rader congregation would come to Fulford and the Rader property would be sold. The merger also meant there were now two pastors involved in the process. My colleague from Fulford was an amazing pastoral presence to both the people of Fulford and Rader. When I would leave a month or so later, she was left with much of the healing that remained. As my strength was running out, she carried the work through.
There were aftershocks that I never anticipated. There were some at Rader opposed to merger who acted out their grief in difficult ways. I remember one person telling me she would rather see the church’s refrigerator sent to a mission somewhere than go to the new church. There were some who openly stated that they would have preferred to see Rader just run out of money and close its doors. At one point, when I took a few days vacation, some even brought their cars down to the church and began taking plates and cookware from the kitchen, claiming they had paid for it over the years and it belonged to them. Many directed their anger at me for forcing the decision. After my children came upon an angry church member yelling at me one Sunday, we made the difficult decision that my wife and children would go ahead and make the move to Fulford. Even during these last days, denial was present. “There has got to be money somewhere,” one elderly woman insisted. “You are just not looking in the right places.” Many of the members with these reactions refused to go to Fulford, instead finding other church homes. One word of caution that I offer is while additional resources and people sound enticing, merger comes with a cost. There is a great deal of pastoral work to be done and sometimes as a pastor I had to put on a thick skin to walk with people in their grief. There were many days I came home exhausted and depleted, even after the decision was made.
When Rader Memorial United Methodist Church’s last Sunday arrived, we celebrated its ministry through the years. It was both a sad and a joyful day. At the end of the service, we de-consecrated the sanctuary and recessed out with the cross that had stood on the altar for so many years! The cross was then taken by Rader members the few miles drive to Fulford. As we knocked on the door of the Fulford sanctuary, the congregation was waiting for us with bright smiles and nervous anticipation. We proceeded in and placed our old cross on a new altar table. A new day had begun.
I left for a new church about a month after that day. My colleague in ministry had many more pastoral and administrative issues to deal with. About a year later I went back to Fulford to do a baptism for a close friend. I was nervous about what I would see and experience. I knew that some were still angry with me. What I saw, though, was a beautiful sight: people working, serving, and worshiping together. There in that newly merged congregation, the fields were slowly producing food again. Long-awaited resurrection had finally come.
NOTE1. Habakkuk 3:17–18 (NRSV)
|Principles for leaders to keep in mind:
Questions for Reflection
- Congregations, like people, go through different phases in the life cycle. What is the role of the pastor in helping congregations discern where they are in that cycle?
- What does it mean to preach hope when “the fields yield no food”?
- How do we as pastors/church leaders proclaim resurrection, without seeing it through a predetermined lens?
- How can we balance honest assessment and pastoral sensitivity in working with struggling congregations?
- What is the prophetic role of the pastor in struggling congregations?