ST. PETERSBURG — There was a time when tourists helped fill the cavernous downtown sanctuary at Christ United Methodist Church. It thrived, even as a few blocks away, First United Methodist Church did the same.
For Christ United Methodist, a historic presence next to City Hall, though, those days are over. Or so it seems. In the past year, the aging congregation that has dwindled from 4,000 at its height to about 120 worshipers on Sundays has been considering its options.
One was to merge with First United Methodist, a prestigious and prosperous congregation across from Williams Park. In the end, Christ United's membership decided to remain intact and continue with what it views as an ongoing mission in the city's downtown.
"We just felt that this is not the time at this particular juncture to merge or to disband," said Tricia Rodocker, chairwoman of the church council.
"We're seeing a revitalization in the downtown area and it would be a shame not to embrace that," she said.
Across town at Lakewood United Methodist in Pinellas Point, there was also talk about joining First United Methodist. That idea was dropped as well. Instead Lakewood is preparing to restart its preschool, with a new emphasis on serving working families.
Other issues also played into the decision, said Pastor Bob Pearcy, the congregation's new part-time pastor.
One was its role as a "reconciling congregation," one that welcomes everyone and with a particular emphasis of being open to the gay community.
The congregation "felt that God had not released them from the call of being Lakewood United Methodist Church," Pearcy said. "Who knows, the day may come, but they didn't feel it was there yet."
But others have no choice, like the Red Brick Church in Kenwood. The building has been deemed unsafe by the Methodist district and the end will come in June. Its tiny membership and recovery ministry are likely to be taken over by First United Methodist. Earlier this year, St. Mark's in St. Petersburg, together with Faith United Methodist in Largo, merged with Anona United Methodist Church of Largo. That was the first merger leading to an extension campus in the Methodist church's Gulf Central District, superintendent John Powers said.
Writing in a February newsletter, he noted that "extension campuses or multisites are the new wave in both starting new churches in un-churched or underchurched locations and in reviving ministries in urban areas."
Experts have said that small church mergers do not work, he said. The most successful efforts are "when small struggling churches are merged into (or adopted by) larger healthy churches."
That's where First United Methodist, with 1,600 adult members, comes in.
Pastor David Miller said any decision has to go through a deliberate process.
"We are at the front end of the discussion," he said about talks with the Red Brick Church.
Powers said talk of mergers in the Pinellas County churches began more than five years ago. At Christ United Methodist, Pastor Robin Hager brought together a task force to talk about the church's options, which also included offers from other congregations.
"It's a difficult decision for churches," Powers said.
"The good thing about the task force, it really helped them to really face where they are and what they need to be doing for the future," he said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.