In January, in their fellowship hall, a group of 40 Methodists did a radical thing. One by one, they spoke of God's new plan for their personal lives. Then they spoke about their spiritual home, which for more than 30 years had served one purpose but now, in a different economy, had another.
Then came the decision by Community United Methodist Church: To do the most good, they decided, their church needed to close — and reopen as a sanctuary for the poor and homeless of Pasco County.
"We have a lot of churches that are just surviving," said the Rev. Dan Campbell, who has led Community for four years and is credited with leading the change. "They don't want to give up the past. … That's our new task, to repurpose the vision and not live in the past."
Joining Hands Community Mission Inc. is the new name of the faith-based social services agency, now headed up by Campbell, who is also chairman of the county's homeless coalition.
Already, the facility has been operating as an informal resource center, handing out food, helping people sign up for public assistance and Medicaid, and serving meals this summer to school children on the free-lunch program.
This year, the group won a $300,000 community development block grant from Pasco County, which it will use to build on its U.S. 19 campus a permanent one-stop resource center for social services. A second phase, about two years away, is to convert part of the church into transitional housing for the homeless.
The church's transformation started more than two years ago as it faced this reality: The community it began serving in 1970 had changed dramatically.
Back then, nearly 1,000 worshippers, most of them west Pasco retirees, packed the pews every Sunday. Just to find a seat, Campbell said, "you had to get here 30 or 40 minutes early."
But the U.S. 19 corridor has seen its populations turn younger and poorer, and the church has not been immune from the changes.
Campbell is candid about the economics of church. Operating a medium-size church with about 300 members costs about $250,000 a year in salaries, overhead and insurance, he said.
He said the Methodist church commissioned its own study of the area a few years ago. In a wealthier area like Trinity, where the study found an average household income of more than $100,000, operating a medium-size church is difficult but doable, he said.
But in the U.S. 19 corridor between Holiday and Hudson, that study found an average household income of $40,000, he said, making survival even tougher.
"People don't think of money when they think of churches," said Campbell, 58. "But churches don't exist in a vacuum."
And church-going habits have changed, too. Numerous studies have found that mainline Protestant churches are struggling for worshipers as membership at nondenominational churches has been on the rise. Five west Pasco Lutheran churches, for instance, merged last September amid that reality.
Community's typical Sunday attendance had dwindled to around 200 people.
Campbell pointed out that small churches — ones that have part-time pastors or meet in members' homes — are surviving. And the megachurches that attract thousands of people every week have flourished.
That leaves churches like his at a crossroads. Methodist leaders in the area recognized that, and Community teamed up with three other local churches to launch a "visioning" process a few years ago. That process culminated in the decision to close Community as a church, with two of the other churches ramping up outreach missions of their own.
Economic realities helped force the issue, but spiritual matters moved it forward. Campbell recalls a paraphrased New Testament passage from Matthew 16:25 that guided his thinking: To save your life, you must lose it.
"That's the weirdest thing Jesus ever said!" Campbell said.
But what it means, he said, is transforming your life into what's most important. For Campbell, helping fight poverty had always been a critical mission of his.
He took that to the congregation, which was seeing firsthand those problems: Homeless people, for instance, sometimes used the church's parking lot as a place to sleep.
The transition gave parishioners a chance to put their faith into action.
"I think it's a great idea," said Amanda Lewis, 38, a church member who was helping at Joining Hands' food bank last week. "It's a way to serve the community, and the people in it."
And the soul of the church remains: A small group, including some of the people who have come to Joining Hands for help, still meet in the sanctuary every Sunday. Campbell said he expects the services to continue.
A living church
Money is rarely easy to come by for social service agencies, but the church's transition into such an organization has opened up funding sources, including the government. In addition to the Pasco County block grant, for instance, Joining Hands has received food donations from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It is also sharing in the federal stimulus money that the county received to combat homelessness.
Joining Hands is raising private funds for its annual operating expenses, expected to be around $280,000. Metropolitan Ministries of Tampa has offered to match private funds dollar for dollar, up to $50,000.
At the helm of all this is Campbell, who quotes poverty statistics as often as he quotes Scripture. He often begins with a "Here's a study for you" or "Do you know the story behind that?" before launching into recitation of statistics, or history, from memory.
His office is covered in posters showing holy sites from around the world and signs bearing sermon-worthy quips like: "If Moses was a committee, the Israelites would still be in Egypt."
He teaches an online world religions course at St. Petersburg College, where his wife, Martha, is on the faculty. They live in Dunedin and have two grown daughters, both school teachers.
The Rev. John Powers, a Largo-based district leader who oversees Methodist churches from Citrus to Manatee counties, was at Community's meeting in January.
"I was in tears," he said. "These people really get it. What it means to be the church. What it means to be the living body."
Naturally, churches often get into a self-preservation mode, he said.
"Sometimes churches … are looking to go back to their heyday. That's almost always unrealistic," he said. "What happened here is that this church understood there was no going back."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.