In a pandemic year when many churches have been burdened by challenges and setbacks, First United Methodist Church in Auburndale has not one, but two reasons to celebrate and give thanks.
The church observed its 100th anniversary Nov. 14, an already happy occasion made sweeter with a note-burning ceremony that marked paying off its loan from the Florida United Methodist Foundation.
What’s more, that payoff was five years earlier than planned.
“We’re officially free of that debt,” said the Rev. Jim Mitchell, now in his seventh year as pastor. “That lifts a financial burden from us and gives us a lot more flexibility for our future.”
The church tapped into foundation loans twice in 20 years — once to expand its mission and another to help with storm recovery and renovation. Mitchell says knowing the funding came from a Methodist institution made it even more meaningful.
Members at First United Methodist Church in Auburndale celebrate 100 years of ministry with a mortgage note burning, a recommitment to be in ministry with the children and youth in their community, and worship that included a message from a former member who is now a pastor. (FUMF video/Connor Murphy)
“We were able to accomplish worthwhile goals from a lender with a strong interest in our mission,” he said. “It really was a good experience, almost like working with a family member.”
In 2001, the church took out a $345,000 loan with the foundation to build a 6,000-square-foot, two-story education center that would help it better serve the community and encourage future growth. That loan was restructured in 2008 at $600,000 to pay off the previous one, complete much-needed renovations after the church suffered hurricane damage, and upgrade the sanctuary, parsonage and fellowship hall.
With a $4,600 monthly payment, the mid-sized congregation began exploring options several years ago to cancel the debt before its 2025 due date. After much brainstorming, it came up with a plan launched in 2018 called Secure the Future.
It meant asking members to dig a little deeper and pay an extra $30 a month on top of their regular offering. With a pre-pandemic membership of about 250, the campaign’s organizing committee estimated the foundation loan could be paid off in three years, in time for the church’s centennial anniversary this year.
Sticking with it
The committee counted on a congregation that has always been giving and generous. What it could not predict was a once-in-a-century pandemic that would strike in the final year of the campaign.
“We’re very aware that we’re mostly an older congregation, but we’ve got so much room for growth right here in our own neighborhood. The future of the church in general depends on how we make ourselves meaningful in the lives of the younger generation.” — Rev. Jim Mitchell
Nancy Langston, the committee’s co-chairperson, never lost faith about meeting that goal. The congregation is a second family to her — she’s a lifelong member whose late parents joined when they married in 1944.
“These are people who always step up, no matter what they are asked,” she said. “I’ve seen it time and time again. They always come through.”
Some members elected to meet their pledge in one payment. Others paid above and beyond the suggested amount. And for the part-time residents who head north during the summer months, contributions remained steady.
When COVID-19 triggered massive restrictions and a reshuffling of priorities, members continued supporting the fundraising drive.
“I was absolutely confident they would pull it off,” Langston said. “These are solid people here who make a commitment and stick with it.”
Focus on next generations
That was the same attitude her late mother saw two decades earlier when the congregation took a leap of faith to take out a foundation loan that helped build the education center now adjoining the church. Langston’s mother was one of the visionaries for that ambitious project.
Because of the church’s unique location between Stambaugh Middle School and Auburndale High School, the congregation saw the potential in focusing outreach efforts on children and youth. And it has over the years — with much of it taking place from the new building.
The church’s mission work has included buying and distributing uniforms and windbreakers to students, providing high-schoolers a safe place to congregate for entertainment and refreshment after Friday night football games, free weekly dinners for people in the community, filling laundry baskets with goods and food for distribution during the holidays, sponsoring monthly haircuts, and rotating different mission projects every November, from collecting arts and supplies for women prisoners to giving out hygiene products to Polk County students.
The church also contributes to an active ministry in Haiti and supports a volunteer team that travels to the Appalachian Mountains in eastern Kentucky every three years to assist at the Red Bird Mission.
To cement its commitment to cultivating relationships with young people, both within and outside the church, the congregation hired a full-time youth director in 2018.
“We’re very aware that we’re mostly an older congregation, but we’ve got so much room for growth right here in our own neighborhood,” Mitchell said. “The future of the church in general depends on how we make ourselves meaningful in the lives of the younger generation.”
One missed opportunity building committee member Mike Wnek believes the church still needs to pursue is a preschool and day-care children’s program. Based on a study of the community, that was one of the original intentions for the education center.
“We’re located in one of the most dynamic, growing areas of Florida,” says Wnek, a developer, business entrepreneur and commercial property manager with extensive experience in Haiti relief work. “I want this church to take advantage of our prime location. We have the space now. We can serve a need that this area could use.”
Wnek points to nearby construction of about 400 houses targeted at first-time homeowners and says that translates to more young families moving into the community.
And by reaching out to that population, he says, it could mean an increase in the church’s membership, which took a slight dip as the pandemic surged. By offering more programs that draw in children and youth, the church is potentially building future United Methodists.
“Getting the loan paid off was a major step, and I congratulate the congregation for staying focused to get that done,” Wnek said. “But by no means is it time to sit back. Now, we need to move forward with the plans we had when the center was just a concept on paper.”
Langston says the church is definitely in a better financial position to pursue new opportunities. With the completion of the Secure the Future campaign and early payoff of the foundation loan, the church has about $55,000 more to work with each year.
And that poses a challenge the longtime member is happy to pursue.
“It’s time to sit down again and see what our next step is,” Langston said. “Whatever we decide, I have all the confidence we will be successful. Because that’s the kind of congregation we have here.”