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Banker-turned-pastor tries to ensure survival of old Seffner church

Edward Lee McWilliams stood before his new congregation hoping to infuse it with a fresh sense of optimism.

Before him sat nearly 100 people at First United Methodist Church of Seffner, which may not sound like a lot until you consider that's double the attendance number the church had drawn in recent months.

A colorful stained-glass cross shone from behind the altar. Concrete walls lent support to beautiful wooden vaulted ceilings. Pews formed a semicircle of warmth.

But sometimes a church needs more than a strong physical structure to remain standing. Sometimes it needs an energy and a bond and a sense of purpose, and this 122-year-old Seffner institution has lost much of that, causing attendance to dwindle.

So last Sunday, the remaining members came to hear McWilliams. They came to see if he could breathe new life into the church. They came, McWilliams said, seeking healing, hope and renewal.

McWilliams sought to deliver with words of Scripture from Jeremiah 29:11-14 and 33:3.

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart. I will be found by," declared the Lord, "and will bring you back from captivity.

"Call to Me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know."

The words could not have been more appropriate for members longing for the church to return to its status as a once‑ proud "country church." McWilliams, 64, explained that the passage was not just a beacon of hope for First Seffner but the light that guided his path to the ministry.

Back in 1989, McWilliams was a former bank president who had lost his job. He had reached a pinnacle in his 21-year banking career but suddenly found himself adrift, searching for answers at a Bible study at the Palma Ceia Country Club.

"I had it all, but I fell off the mountain and I began rolling off the hill, deep into the valley," he told the members.

It was then that an old high school friend came to him and said, "I have something for you." McWilliams said that in his state, he was ready and willing to accept anything.

And the friend gave him the Scriptures from Jeremiah.

"I began to see my circumstances in a much different light when I claimed those words as true."

McWilliams, who lives in South Tampa, took the words as a calling. Even though he was in his 40s, he enrolled in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.

For the next 17 years, McWilliams, fondly known as "Big Ed," said he devoted his time to the ministry, helping churches in Georgia and South Carolina experience significant growth.

He returned to Tampa with Anne, his wife of 43 years, so they could be closer to their grandchildren. But he still had a passion for the ministry and for the people.

Now McWilliams has answered another call. He longs to bring the members back, incorporate outreach and evangelism efforts, and eventually make First Seffner a "prayer-saturated" church.

"Unless we do that, we deserve whatever future we get," he told the congregation.

In this economic climate, even a storied church can't last forever with sagging attendance and low tithing. Nearby First Baptist of Seffner stood for 122 years before its sanctuary was razed and Bay Life Church assumed control of the property.

Megachurches have done well as the area has become more suburbanized, but we still need those homey churches where people have attended since they were children, old hymns are still sung and the sense of community is measured more in love than in attendance numbers.

McWilliams stands at the open door, ready to welcome members back. I hope they hear his voice and answer his call.

That's all I'm saying.

Banker-turned-pastor tries to ensure survival of old Seffner church 09/09/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 9, 2010 4:30am]
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