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Lealman Methodist fights for survival

(ran West, South, East, Seminole editions of Neighborhood Times)

In the chilly dusk, the church lights glow through stained glass.

Inside Lealman United Methodist Church, guitars and drums keep time at the biweekly contemporary service. A skit focuses on temptation. A film snippet from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers makes a point about the destructive effects of giving in to temptation. And worshipers dance up the aisle in a conga line.

But for all the enthusiasm, the attendance is small _ about 40, including the choir _ and clustered in the first few pews. No offering is taken. Attendees are asked to drop money in the appropriate place.

Then the group adjourns to the church hall for refreshments.

It has been that way for so long that the church, more than three-quarters of a century old, is in danger of closing.

To save money, congregation leaders on Thursday voted to become a part-time church in June, but longtime members acknowledge such measures may be too late.

"It's a shame that the doors would have to close because it's been such a cornerstone to this community," said Mike Quinlivan, who has been a member since his birth in 1948. "I hate to see it go under."

Congregants have proposed holding monthly dinners and contacting former members to encourage them to come back to the church, Quinlivan said.

Becoming a part-time church means sharing a minister with another congregation. That should help cut expenses as the pastor's salary would be shared with the other group.

The current minister, the Rev. Richard Jones, will be reassigned to another congregation, said Kevin James, superintendent for the St. Petersburg District of the United Methodist Church. The district covers Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Jones' new appointment and his replacement will be announced in May and the change will take place June 15, James said.

Jones likely will remain in the Tampa Bay area because his wife, Terri, is minister at Gulfport United Methodist Church and the congregation there is "madly in love" with her, James said.

Lealman United, 4090 58th Ave. N, is more than 75 years old and grew up with the Lealman community. In recent years, the church has become a nexus for change within the largely poor neighborhood.

It has opened its doors to community meetings, even when they have become raucous and angry, and provides space for the Family Center and a play area for the center's summer camp.

Movements to revive the area, help the local families and fight annexation were born within the church walls.

But recently its congregation has begun dwindling, a reflection of happenings elsewhere in the nation where membership in traditional denominations is dropping while nondenominational churches are seeing a surge in interest, James said.

Five churches in James' district have closed in the past four years. But another four have opened as people have shifted around, he said.

It was James who met with the Lealman congregation Thursday to tell them they had a choice: closure or part time. They chose part time.

Another meeting is scheduled a year from now. If the financial picture hasn't improved, the church then could vote to close, James said.

Up next:WEDDINGS

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