Temple Terrace UMC Struggles to
Like many churches in the Florida Conference, Temple Terrace United Methodist Church has searched for ways to attract new members to worship. Pastor John Legg and members of the congregation prayed for God to send people to the church, and that is happening. It's just not happening in the way many might have expected, though.
First, players from a soccer league began using the church's expansive athletic field for pickup games and practice. A local youth football program, the Tampa Hurricanes, soon followed, bringing about 200 youth and adults to that same field four nights a week.
Then an email from the West Florida Foster Care Services organization led to a partnership that turned an unused storage room into a badly needed clothes closet that foster parents can use for children under their care.
"My policy is that unless there is a good reason to say no, I try to say yes when it comes to meeting the needs in the community," Pastor Legg said.
The church isn't simply saying yes, though, and leaving it at that. Legg and volunteers are getting to know the visitors to the church campus, forming relationships aimed at showing the love of Jesus in action and trusting God to do the rest. The foster closet is just the latest example of that plan.
There is a huge foster care community being served in Temple Terrace. When a family gets licensed to be a foster home, they set up a profile about what age, gender, et cetera of children they can take in that fits in best with their families," Janet Rinaldi, Coordinator of West Florida Foster Care Services, said. "As a foster parent, you just don't know who you're going to get. Where one call (to place a child) might be a newborn, the next might be an 8-year-old. That's a lot of clothing inventory to have on hand."
Even though the church is looking for ways to generate income off buildings and classrooms that stay empty during the week, leadership decided to give the closet space rent free. The foster organization only pays for electricity.
"A lot of churches are in the place where funds are tight, particularly with the pandemic. So, the question is how to maximize the utility of our buildings and grounds,” Pastor Legg said. "Should we try to monetize our assets? Or do we think the gift and the ultimate benefit to the community outweigh our need to get rent from that space? That was a conversation the collective church leadership had to have."
Hillsborough County has more than 2,300 children in foster care, the largest number in the state. Compounding the problem is that the demands of caring for these children can overwhelm foster parents to the point where about 50 percent of them drop out after one year.
"I was surprised to learn that most foster kids show up with very little. Foster families often get kids they weren't planning on, either with age or they get a sibling group that's kind of a surprise," Pastor Legg said. "We want to tell the foster parents that it's OK a 2-year-old came with the 4-year-old because we have the things here for you. Instead of worrying about that stuff, they can focus on relationship issues. The parents I have met who come to get thing are joyful, they are excited, they feel connected and supported, and they're just surprised that someone sees them and recognizes their need."
Volunteers offer clothes, diapers, wipes, shoes, toiletries, and other necessities free of charge to the parents. In turn, the children can keep all the donated items they receive, giving them a sense of possession. And maybe some hope they didn't have before.
Temple Terrace United Methodist Church sits back off busy Busch Boulevard in Tampa, with large open areas in the front and rear. In the 1980s, it was known locally as the place where many Temple Terrace community leaders went to church. Attendance thrived. Extra seating had to be brought in for Christmas and Easter services. There was a robust Sunday School program and after-school care, but over the years much of that dwindled. Low-income housing is across the back street from the church, and nearby areas struggle against drug use and crime.
Members leaders tried new programs and classes, added an upbeat contemporary service, and a preschool, but the struggles continued. Legg, who arrived in June 2019, suggested a new approach. Instead of saying, hey, come in and experience our cool service and music, how about meeting people in their safe spaces. Show people you care and are interested in them for who they are. Show the love of Jesus in action.
Church members served as mentors for students at a nearby middle school. They served teachers and staff breakfast there to kick off the new school year.
The athletic field was under-used and in poor repair. The storage room – once home to a Conference district office – was largely a gathering place for dust instead of people. Now it's a place of giving and hope.
The pandemic slowed progress somewhat, but the soccer games have renewed. The goals didn't have nets at first, but the team installed new netting. The church held a season kickoff dinner to members of the football teams and their parents and organized a pep rally before their first games. Members sometimes attend practices and get to know the football parents by just chatting with them. In turn, the Hurricanes said they may help upgrade the athletic field.
People are noticing. Shortly after the foster care partnership formed, the church was featured on a local television segment. TTUMC is one of only two churches in Tampa to offer foster closets.
"It can make an incredible difference. All of these kids have suffered trauma—whatever they experienced at home that led to their removal. If they can be with a stable family, even if it's for a short time, it gives them some peace," Coordinator Rinaldi said. "It gives them a picture of what life can be. Life doesn't have to be filled with chaos and drama."
To that end, TTUMC is working on ways to lessen the burden on foster parents. That might include dinners and offering to give parents a night out while church volunteers care for the children.
Legg said it's all about taking the lessons and inspiration from Sunday worship and putting that in practice in the community. "It's what we need to do," he said. "We want to show the community what the love of God means. God is opening doors for us," Legg said. "It's right there. We asked Him to send us people, and that's what is happening. Now it's up to us."