Historic Methodist church fights to survive in downtown St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG

After 123 years downtown, its tranquil courtyard a respite for passers-by and the stained glass-illuminated sanctuary a continuous setting for worship and community gatherings, Christ United Methodist Church refuses to fade away.

That's despite suggestions that the historic church next to City Hall close and merge with another Methodist congregation mere blocks away.

Never mind talk that there might only be enough money to carry on for another two or three years. Or that its full-time pastor was reassigned to the sister congregation down the road.

"Nobody wants to think that they gave up on anything in life, and we're certainly the same way about our church," said church council chairman Clint Horn. "It would be a shame to lose the church as a church, as well as an architectural part of St. Petersburg."

Marshaled by two retired clergy, recently appointed senior pastor the Rev. James Swartz and assistant pastor the Rev. Tom Gregory, the congregation known for its music ministry is offering a series of arts-centered enticements to draw visitors to its 1,000-seat sanctuary.

They should not be seen as "gimmicks to get people to the church," Swartz said. "The arts are a service to the greater community. When people return to the church, it's a plus."

A recent concert by the St. Petersburg Community Band, with selections from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, had an audience of almost 500. In December, musicians from the church and St. Petersburg College attracted more than 550 people to the church at 467 First Ave. N.

"Little by little, we are seeing the results and it's exciting," Gregory said, adding that new people have been joining the church. "It's thrilling to see this congregation grow again."

The push toward revitalization is also being fueled by a guest preachers series. Kicking the program off, the Rev. Bud Carroll, a missionary to Hong Kong who grew up in Christ United Methodist, urged the church of about 250 members to "never, never, never, never, never give up."

To that end, the church has created a brochure touting its diverse membership, music program, year-round, dawn-to-dusk Hortin Child Development Center, and an after-school arts program called JAM, or Jesus, the Arts and Me.

The church also hosts a Haitian Baptist congregation and has dedicated a plot in the heart of downtown to a community garden. It's also attracting attention with noontime and Sunday morning organ chimes.

"You would be surprised at the number of people who thank us for the music during their lunch hours, or others who have followed the chimes and came to church," said Janice Buchanan Swartz, who is married to the new senior pastor and was director of music for 26 years.

Full-court press

"They are trying hard to be visible to the community and to reach out to the community around Christ Church," said superintendent John Powers, head of the United Methodist Church's Gulf Central District. "I wish them well."

Thomas E. Frank, a professor of American religious history at the undergraduate school at Wake Forest University and its School of Divinity, said the congregation is on the right track. Many churches in downtown neighborhoods or urban centers are struggling, he said.

"This one sounds like they're taking a lot of initiative and trying to find a lot of new partners in the community to help them thrive," Frank said. "I think that's the key to not only surviving but to thriving in a new direction and creating something new."

Frank said churches have formed nonprofits and built partnerships with banks, neighboring businesses, community foundations and arts groups to get help keeping up historic properties.

"The new concept is that congregations have many activities and many constituencies coming and going, and all become stakeholders in what happens to the building," Frank said.

"The United Methodist Church doesn't like to close churches. They keep as many as are viable to do so. It sounds like they are giving them a chance to make a go at it, and I applaud that and I say, give them a chance."

Last week, Powers spoke about appointing Swartz and Gregory to the undaunted congregation.

"As a superintendent, I did not want to impose a merger or closure on them, and they could not afford to continue with a full-time elder and I told them I would work with them," the superintendent said. "They wanted to see if I could give them a few more years to see if they could revitalize."

Swartz had retired from the denomination's New England Conference and become active at Christ United with his late wife, Frances, who had also been a pastor.

"I felt that he would be the right person," Powers said.

Swartz asked Powers to appoint Gregory, a St. Petersburg native and former chairman of the board of trustees at St. Petersburg College, as his assistant.

Swartz is intent on developing the church's contemporary service and getting the organization back on track administratively. He has reinstated the chapel service for the children who attend the Hortin center. He and Gregory also are focusing on pastoral care, particularly for the elderly and shut-ins, and are making rounds across South Pinellas.

"The two of them just love the church," Powers said, "and they are really wanting to try to make a go of it."

A dual presence

Founded in 1892, Christ United Methodist was affiliated with the Northern branch of Methodism. The denomination's other downtown congregation, First United Methodist, belonged to the Southern movement that split with Northern Methodists over slavery. The two sides reconciled in 1939, leaving downtown with two Methodist churches.

In recent weeks, a few members have followed Christ United Methodist's former pastor to First United Methodist, which is opening a second site in Kenwood. Swartz held a "commissioning" service for those who left, which Powers called "a wonderful, gracious act."

Tricia Rodocker, past chairwoman of Christ United's church council, is optimistic about the congregation's future.

"Of course, it's certainly not up to us. It's the Lord's church and his work, and we're just privileged to be his hands and feet," she said.

"It's been there for over 100 years, and I certainly anticipate that we will be there for 100 more."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

IF YOU GO

Reasons to visit

• America's Great Preachers Series: J. Ellsworth Kalas, former president of Asbury Theological Seminary and senior professor of homiletics, 11 a.m. Sunday.

• JAM (Jesus, the Arts and Me) piano/keyboard, chimes, music theater, puppets, drumming, art and homework assistance for elementary school children, 3 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays.

• Monthly tours of the church, chapel and stained glass windows,

10 a.m. the first Saturday of each month, Christ United Methodist Church, 467 First Ave. N. (727) 822-3343 or christchurchstpete.org.

Historic Methodist church fights to survive in downtown St. Petersburg 03/04/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 4, 2014 4:00pm]

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