Tampa UMC: First casualty of ‘Vital Congregations’?

Call To Action reinvigorates idolatry of 'newness'

I had a conversation at Annual Conference with a clergyperson twice my age. The elder clergy lamented the emphasis on “newness”: money sent to new church starts instead of revitalizing established congregations, lifting up “young clergy” rather than helping struggling middle-aged clergy, and seemingly everyone at conference with an iPad as a beacon of newness. The clergyperson did not object to those initiatives but felt like if a congregation wasn’t “new” then it wasn’t important…and that showed on the allocation of resources. My heart hurt a bit thinking of how the elder generation must feel about youth and newness being in the spotlight.

Then I heard about First UMC, Tampa, FL…and my heart hurt a little bit more.

First UMC Tampa is a dwindling elderly congregation in the inner city has been struggling for years with vitality and growth and income. They suddenly get a windfall donation from the sale of a property/business. And just as suddenly, the larger UMC gets involved and claims the money. And last week, the Annual Conference of Florida voted to close the congregation and redistribute all their assets to the district and conference level.


While we don’t have all the facts or the full history of interactions, there’s a few problems I see here.

  1. Problem of Timing. I’m suspicious because the ball started rolling faster towards closing when the money came into the equation. Would it really have hurt to discern a way forward for another year? Surely even if this has been a long process, “enough is enough” would allow for critical new situations to change the timetable.
  2. Problem of Accountability. We don’t have much information on (a) what the church’s five-year plan was, (b) what the D.S. found “unacceptable” about the plan, and (c) what the history of interactions between the church and district/conference has been. Until we have more information, we are unable to form opinions on whether the Discpline was followed.
  3. Problem of Relative Value. The church has 150 members with an average attendance of 50. They pay all their apportionments. That’s larger than the majority of UM churches in my conference for sure! And they have a plan (however hastily-built and dependent on staff) to try to revitalize. I could name a dozen churches just off the top of my head in my conference that are not at this level. Why this church? Why now?
  4. Problem of Idolizing “Newness”. To a bureaucracy, dealing with a fledgling church with money is probably more of a headache than a new church start. As the saying goes, “it’s easier to give birth than raise the dead” there’s less politics in new churches.

Am I on the side of First UMC, Tampa? No. I don’t know them or their situation. I’m sure some of them are loyal to a fault and would stick with their church even if it was painted black and held a Rob Zombie concert. There’s not a church out there without those type of people. But that said, I don’t know the district/conference level decisions, so I’m not on their side either.

But I am concerned about this and I’m of two minds.

  1. Should any conference allow a local church to sit on top of that much money if the church is not keeping the mission to make Disciples? This was asked by Sandy Pierce on FB.  I call these type of churches “Zombie Churches” whereby they have a large enough endowment that if they set everything to autopay or auto-draft from their bank account, they could keep going forever with no worries…and no missions. While they have all the checklists filled out to sustain themselves, are they the best use of resources? When can we close a church that is more interested in maintenance than missions & ministry?
  2. Should a church be judged as unredeemable and unable to become a vital congregation again? A large infusion of cash would allow the church to hire staff with the skillsets appropriate to essentially create a new church start within the old church. It would doubtlessly cost more money than a new church plant but is not unthinkable and holds onto our tradition at a depth that a new edgy “ROCKETFUEL 360 NEW HOLINESS UMC” could not hope to reach.

In short, I’m concerned about what impact the Call To Action’s usage of the term “vital congregations” will have in Tampa and in the future. Bishop Scott Jones in the Kansas West Conference has a nice blog post here that outlines the concerns over what that term ‘vital’ even means.

Like the header graphic implies, vitality is quantitatively defined by numbers and finances, but qualitatively defined by whatever quality the powers-that-be hold up. Obviously while Tampa FUMC was able to quantitatively sustain itself, was it able to qualitatively be a vital congregation? Would it ever become one? And has our denomination decided that it is of greater value to birth new churches rather than revive old ones?

Troubling times in Tampa as it becomes the first casualty of the movement towards ‘vital congregations’ that is starting to ramp up. What other ‘old’ church or ministry will lose its funding in favor of newness? What kernels of our ‘tradition’ will survive a generation that replaces their iPods and computers every 18 months? And most important, “what would God have us do?” And who is truly dedicated to that question rather than the question of “what must we do to keep the church going?” I’m pretty sure that they are not identical questions.


(Image Credits: “Numbers And Finance” by kenteegardin on Flickr [Creative Commons, SeniorLiving.org], Header graphic from  FUMC Tampa website)
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  1. Lance Houghtling says

    Your post is troubling for sure.

    My first response to it was the old adage “follow the money”. When lots of money is involved, all the spiritualization one does with “what would God have us do?” tends to become, and stay, rancid.

    And, “hiring staff” is tiredly bureaucratic and only occasionally effective.

    Finally, there isn’t anything wrong with “hospice” churches. They aren’t very exciting, but if they pay their apportionments and/or care for their patients, leave them alone. Leaving them alone seems, however, to be impossible when money gets involved.

    I don’t envy you young clergy folk; the pain of the elder clergy appears great as it has always been.

  2. says

    I’m not sure how I feel about this whole situation– obviously not knowing the whole story contributes to that! In my current appointment, I serve a new congregation– a merger of 3 (unofficially 4, but that’s a whole other story) congregations. 2 of them received large endowments and become somewhat like the zombie church that you describe…But, they came to themselves and realized what was happening and decided to change that– that’s why they merged together & now are a growing, vital congregation. If either one of the churches had been closed and their endowments used for new churches, this church wouldn’t be in existence, but it didn’t come without much planning, meeting, debate, and truth be told, it was almost entirely lay driven.

    I know that I am not called to serve a hospice church, so there is a part of me that says that all hospice churches should be closed…But, is there still life to be found with the right leadership & energy? Since I believe in resurrection, I say yes, but I don’t want to kill anyone else in the process of finding life.

    • says


      It seems like your church in their former organizations came together organically instead of being forced by outside forces to be something. It seems that when the UMC understand not “vitality” but the underlying organic process and energy that flows and provides emergence out of chaos, then things can grow. People and connections are most important they are an end not the means for some other number we are seeking. Relationships are first things. Providing spiritual growth and nurture in those connections in open ways (non hierarchical) is the essential leadership we need from the structure and little else.

      Our biggest problem we have is in measuring “vitality”. When ever we ask a congregation how its finances have grown we make a suggestion in our question. We want an answer, but we are telling them that increased giving is what it means to be a vital church. If we ask how your numbers have increased, we tell them that your worth and merit is based on your increase in people. If we ask them how much of their apportionments are paid, we tell them that being a church is about paying the apportionments. Asking the question produces the result that we ask for. Questioning needs to change towards “How is it with your churches soul” Is their a stirring in people?” “Are people acting as a means of grace for others” “Are people growing in God”? Is a pastor’s spiritual life thriving? Do we honor people that do quick fix number things by burning themselves out or do we honor those who inspire spiritual growth in others and then they bear the fruit of growth. These should be the 1st things. These should be the questions we ask because these are the essentials of what it means to be a Church and what it means to be a Christian. Our priorities are in our questions. We must stop the harmful anxious questions and place our future in God.

      If we want to be the church we will change our questions, if we want to remain a dying corporation we will keep our questions the same (numbers), we will continue to tamper with congregations, we will continue to provide experts for quick fixes to them, we will impose command and control, and we will anxiously continue to kill community and true vitality which only comes from deepening relationship with God.

  3. says

    I think the comments of Debbie McLeod on the floor of the conference really shaped the conversation for me. It seems that this has been an issue for almost 10 years…before money became an issue. I also engaged an email conversation with a First Tampa church member in May. While the church has a thin argument for staying open, I have to side with the Bishop, cabinet and the rest of the 2011 Annual Conference that First Tampa needed to close.

    I think it is easy to look at issues of money and “newness” as the motivation. But I think the real question is what does it mean to be a church. My opinion, it is much less a social club and much more a missional outpost. I believe First Tampa really wants to the former, not really the latter. And I believe they will do whatever they can to remain a social club…even if that means adding a staff member and to reach a few more people.

    One thing is for sure…small, aging churches have been, in a sense, put on notice. It seems that simply paying 100% apportionments will not be enough to be deemed a vital congregation. It can be assumed that movement towards a vision of reaching more people for Jesus Christ will have to be deeply embedded in the ethos of the local congregation. If these churches are smart, they will spend less time arguing the ‘why’s’ and avoiding this trend.

    • says

      Thanks for your comments, Derrick. It is helpful to get a first-hand response and one who has been pro-active about talking with First UMC. I can agree that small churches are on-notice, but also the conference has a responsibility to clearly define vitality and provide avenues of accountability so they can’t be painted as a money-grab like this is.

    • says


      I’d be more persuaded by this argument – although not as gung ho about it as your words appear to be – if Florida had voted to close 20 or 30 or 50 churches that are small and not very missional.

      I’d also be a lot more comfortable if the stated purpose of closing the church was not to revamp it to appeal to young professionals living in downtown condos. I think young professionals need Jesus Christ, too, but are we really going to start chasing the upper middle class so explicitly?

      • Jeff Jaekley says

        John, I appreciate your comment about how it might appear better if the conference had closed more churches. It might appear better, but I don’t know if it would be any better. In the Missouri annual conference the names of several churches were read off as being closed. It was heart wrenching to me, even as one who is frustrated by the lack of missional focus in many of our congregations, regardless of size. It was particularly heart wrenching because I knew of at least one other congregation that has voted to close. What particularly stung me is that the latter congregation is the 2nd to close in the urban core neighborhood that has been my home for much of the last 13 years. Add to this an attempt to strongarm another inner-city congregation with a vibrant ministry to the homeless and other impoverished residents into giving up control of its facility to an middle and upper class congregation focusing on the loft and condo crowd. And finally no plans to start a new congregation in the urban core of Kansas City, MO. I do see a clear focus on chasing the middle and upper class(read “the $$$$”) while leaving the poor with no, or very few congregations, to minister with them. My fear is that vitality will be clearly defined and that it will be equated with financially wealthy, large, middle and upper class, predominantly white, suburban congregations. Where will that leave the rural areas and communities and our cities?

        • says

          Jeff you wrote:

          I do see a clear focus on chasing the middle and upper class(read “the $$$$”) while leaving the poor with no, or very few congregations, to minister with them. My fear is that vitality will be clearly defined and that it will be equated with financially wealthy, large, middle and upper class, predominantly white, suburban congregations. Where will that leave the rural areas and communities and our cities?

          That’s precisely the worry in my heart. And precisely why I’m sounding the alarm on this one, even if ‘vitality’ wasn’t a key consideration, that the inner city churches will suffer from the vitality acrostic as well.

  4. says

    You blog is always fun to read, whether I agree with you or not, I enjoy the time and effort you put into it. Thanks!

    Being one who stands in the “via media” on this issue I understand both sides. The older, existing congregation without an executable plan drifting into non-existence until a large sum of money becomes available and then inspired to make an attempt to keep it. The conference who sees the opportunity to perhaps reach new people, more diverse people, and younger people, all who are more effectively drawn to new churches rather than churches with years of baggage to overcome. Striking the balance between effective revitalization and fostering an environment of new church development is always going to be tough, but I am not sure that is the issue that your blog raises for me. The issue I see is trust.

    In Five Dysfunctions of a Team the very foundation of working together is that everyone must have a reasonable amount of trust. What I detected was that, like in so many other cases, we just don’t trust each other. We don’t trust the leadership of the church trying to revitalize. We don’t trust the DS who is involved in the process. We don’t trust the conference to make hard decisions. Essentially, this scenario, like so many others, is indicative of a lost of trust by all parties. Belonging to a conference that is beginning the use of “dashboards” I understand the concern that ministry effectiveness will be measured by gauges, nickels, and noses.

    I also understand that the UMC in the US is plummeting toward becoming a footnote in the annals of American Christianity. Dropping from 11 million to 7 million since 1968 while the population around us has soared shows that we are not only being ineffective, we are being reckless with the gospel and the gifts God has entrusted us. I do not know if “dashboards” and the Call to Action are the answers but certainly we must continue to struggle with the questions. I remain:

    Consumed by the Call,

    • Phillip Cates says

      Thanks, Marty. Whle I do not necessarily agree that the UMC is becoming a “footnote” (attributed to others), I have to wonder about when we become more focused on the institution as opposed to the movement that the Wesleys created. We’ve always had “dashboards” but we have always had endowed small churches that can come back even after a hundred and fifty years (e.g., Soapstone UMC, Raleigh District)… My greatest worry is the handling of this matter by the Bishop and conference could have been better managed – specifically, the money!!! There is no other way to interpret the press releases, timing and statements made.

  5. Creed Pogue says

    There are 23 UM churches in Tampa. Fourteen did not pay their apportionments in full in 2010. First Tampa was one of the nine who did. Yet, none of those fourteen were on the chopping block. Did all of them have an average worship attendance above fifty???

    Bishop Whitaker defended the idea of closing churches using mission as a reason. Yet, of the seven closures on the docket at Florida, six had an effective date BEFORE the Conference which would tend to indicate that they had ALREADY been closed. The only one after the Conference was First Tampa. If working the mission is the new criterion, then why weren’t there any other hospice/zombie/etc. churches on the list???? The more we hear about this, the worst it sounds.

  6. says

    Perhaps I am one of the few who chooses to give Bishops, DSs and Conference Staff the benefit of the doubt. After all it is my understanding that it is God and the discernment of prayerful people who put them in authority. The stories I’ve read on this, including the one from the UMNS, were all heavily slanted in the direction of existing members with extensive interviews of those opposed with little if any voice from the Conference.

    Methodists have a history of being very concerned about issues of inclusion and any attempt at marginalization and perhaps that drives the frame to stand up for who we perceive the little guy to be.

    I believe the conference was/is right in their decision. The presence of many other unfaithful (as defined by not actively baptizing and making new disciples) does not make this closure unjust. It only, hopefully, means that more accountability is coming in the future.

    The real issue in a connectional church is not a question of paying apportionments or fees (though to some degree that has played an outsized factor in the past). The real issue is a question of whether an individual church location is being faithful to the shared mission.

    If a church isn’t making disciples and transforming the world (as our Church indicates is our shared mission), then it has no right and should have no expectation of continuing.

    • Creed Pogue says

      It isn’t a matter of “giving the benefit of the doubt.” I generally give the benefit of the doubt to the Bishops and Cabinets anyway. But, I also know that they are human beings who by definition are fallible. The explanations don’t add up. Why start with Tampa First unless it’s about the money?

      • says


        How do you interpret “making disciples” does this mean numerically more baptisms, visitors, etc or that the people who gather are being disciples and being made into disciples in a process of growth?

        • Creed Pogue says

          It’s both. But, I can measure new members whether by profession or restoration of faith. There are probably four criteria that can be used (in order of most objective to least): money (are the apportionments and billings paid?), members (how many are you adding and how many are you subtracting?), attendance (increasing or decreasing) and story (what do you do for the Great Commandment or the Great Commission? How do you live out Matthew 25?).

          If you are 0 for four, there is a serious problem because the rest of us are subsidizing you.

  7. Billy says

    I am no fan of our current infatuation with “vitality,” especially as that term is defined in the Call to Action. And my initial reaction to this story is one of horror and disgust. There are many churches with fewer people on their rolls, with smaller worship attendance, and who don’t pay their apportionments who may never face the fate this congregation has. What strikes me as a read the story more carefully, however, is that this was a decision of the Annual Conference. This was not a bureaucratic, hand-selected, sycophantic committee making decisions by proxy for the Bishop or the denominational hierarchy. Doubtless, the decision may well have been supported and facilitated by just such a committee, but it was ultimately made by the members of the Annual Conference. This fact alone makes the implied storyline of greedy bureaucrats making a fast money grab more than suspect. I do not know the whole story here. But I have a feeling my sisters and brothers in the Florida Annual Conference made as informed a decision as they could.

    • says

      “ultimately made by the members of the Annual Conference”

      Probably the biggest key here. Thanks for the reminder that the final decision was made by a large gathering of Methodists (many of whom are quite elderly themselves) and not a small private group.

    • says

      I would be careful about relying on huge numbers as evidence of rightfulness. Annual Conferences pass resolutions and legislation all the time that the Judicial Council strikes down, so the “wisdom of crowds” is not sacrosanct…I would expect this to be appealed to the JC and I don’t know how it will end up…

      • Billy says

        It is not my intent to champion all decisions (or even necessarily this particular one) of Annual Conferences as ipso-facto “correct.” Conferences make bad decisions all the time. My purpose in pointing out that this was a decision of the Florida Annual Conference is to rebut the implication of the article (or at least my impression of it) that this was somehow a decision made in a dark corner by bureaucratic overlords. Quite the contrary: this decision was made in the light of day by a large number of people who presumably had some knowledge of the facts on the ground, or at least trusted the facts as they were presented to them sufficiently to vote as they did.

        Let us lament that a historic congregation has closed its doors. Let us lament that a majority of the members of the Florida Annual Conference saw this as the best option available to them. But let us not pretend that the vital congregation bogeyman ambushed First UMC, Tampa to take their pot of gold. I happen to think the vital congregation bogeyman may very well be real, and will do great damage to our congregations. But that is not what happened here. And we will only make it more difficult to fight the real thing in the future if we are less than honest in the present.

        • says

          Thanks for your further comments, Billy. I would push back as well and say that I didn’t intend to make it look like a dark-room decision. The facts are that the Conference Board of Trustees brought it to the AC, and the AC voted on it. Done. We’ll see what happens next and I doubt if we’ll get any illumination on what happened before.

          As I commented above, my purpose is to ask what role the Call To Actions’ “vital congregations” played in this conversation (clearly, there are multiple churches worse off than FUMC Tampa) and how many inner city and rural church closings will we sit through blaming other factors until we see an underlying common thread of defining vitality in ways that inner city and rural churches are unable to comply with?

          • michael says


            Are you arguing that urban and rural churches are unable to meet these ‘vital church’ criteria? http://ow.ly/5ciDr

            If yes, please say more, like, why do you say that?


          • says

            We hit the max on nested comments, sorry.

            Of course not. I’m not saying they are not vital, I serve a rural church myself and served a small inner-city church prior to this church. I’m saying that I’m not seeing a lot of suburban churches closing across these conferences…and all the church plants in my home state for the past 4 years have been in affluent suburbs. So the only churches needing to fear being labeled by the vitality index are, apparently, inner city and rural. It says nothing about their merits and more about what does the church value?

  8. Lance Houghtling says

    I wonder what the original donor thinks, or would have thought? Doesn’t the UMC have a fiduciary duty to warn those who give big bucks to a small “non-vital” church that the UMC might take it away and obviate the intent of the donor? This isn’t about “what God wants”. Just simple ethics, which ought not to be hard. . . . . .

    • says

      There wasn’t a donor: it was from the sale of property and a business that the church owned. Hence it falls under the establishment clause that all property is owned by the greater UMC not the local church.

      • Lance Houghtling says

        Thanks Jeremy. That changes things at least to a more corporate concept, and does make more sense.

      • Creed Pogue says

        First Tampa DIDN’T own Methodist Place. A separate non-profit did. I don’t know how the district got their hands on the money in the first place.

  9. James Lambert says

    Thanks for getting this discussion started Jeremy. I’m with those who say it looks fishy. There may be good reasons to close and start over, but I can’t see a good reason to do so this quickly, over the protest of the members, with this particular church singled out. I tend to agree with the commenter who said that “hospice churches” should generally be left alone as long as they can pay their bills and apportionments. How can it possibly be good for the Kingdom of God to close down a congregation against their will? Unless they are in violation of the Discipline in some objective area? Just because one has power does not mean one should use it. The power to close a church should be exercised only with the greatest fear and trembling, by the bishop, the cabinet, and the Conference members. There doesn’t seem to have been much fear and trembling here, just “this is how it is, these people wouldn’t shape up, and it’s too late for them now.” Add to that the fact that this congregation still still worships with 50 – that’s a large church to much of our denomination.

    If God is doing a new thing in a place, God will make a way and provide everything that’s necessary, *without* running anyone over in the process. If a United Methodist Conference or District wants to start a new ministry in an urban setting, be it poor or rich, why do they even need to start with a big facility, let alone one confiscated from an unwilling congregation? You can start house churches, cell churches, and of course the mother-daughter model our conference is using now, which I think is great. I am all for accountability and using resources wisely, but a church is not the same as a branch store or corporate franchise location. A church is people, people who God put there.

    We should be able to strike a balance between accountability on the one hand and mercy on the other, between insisting on congregations having a vision and a plan, and yet still honoring their consent to new forms of ministry. At the very least the process of closure should be slow, transparent, and filled with options.

    • says

      Amen to that, James. “Just because one has power does not mean one should use it.” is a really helpful reminder.

      Thanks for commenting and finding your way here.

    • says

      How would cell churches remain loyal to the UMC and its structure? The Discipline and the US conferences are not very good at understanding these things. We would rather pay quick fix experts to measure what they see as valuable. We provide a specific structure that we expect congregations to fit into which does not promote small/basic cell development, but hinders and kills smaller churches that are and could be. What leadership will we give and what changes would we need to have for cell churches that are not destroyed or inhibited by our old way of structuring churches and over-measuring things?

  10. Stephanie Harmon says

    Many in my conference keep asking just how ‘vitality’ is really being defined. Is our denomination truly focused on transforming the world through sharing the love of Christ, or on the financial bottom line? And how often is God included in the conversations by our leaders? Seems like too much of the emphasis is on what persons, whether clergy or laity, do or not do, rather than a seeking of God’s will or leading, and then obediently following it. We at least were called to a year of prayer at our conference.

  11. Charles Alkula says

    I serve two congregations and a convalescent center in west Texas, combined worship in all three services averages 70-75. Average age is over 70 at one congregation and at the convalescent center. Well over 50 at the other congregation. Are these worshipping communities healthy? Are they viable, let alone vital in the eyes of the SWTX Conference. I doubt it.

    Judging on the elections to General/Jurisdicitional Conferences where none of the delegates comes from a small town/trying to be the church in the 21st century in areas with rapidly declining populations.

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