Great Hall Port St. Joe
Great Hall portico at First United Methodist Church Port St. Joe (FUMCPSJ)

September 30, 2020

Port St. Joe church rises up to help community cope

By: Michelle Bearden

Plants to rebuild FUMCPSJ
Hurricane Michael made landfall along the Gulf Coast in 2018, claiming First United Methodist Church in Port St. Joe as one of its victims. The storm damaged or destroyed the sanctuary and other structures, but its new Great Hall — built in part with a loan from the Florida United Methodist Foundation just seven months earlier — survived. Undeterred, the church plans to rebuild its campus. (FUMCPSJ photo)

It hasn’t been an easy road for the Rev. Geoffrey Lentz since becoming pastor at First United Methodist Church in Port St. Joe eight years ago.

First, he led a fund drive and capital campaign for a sorely needed 5,000-square-foot multi-purpose addition that would connect the sanctuary and another building. The much-anticipated $4 million “Great Hall” was dedicated in February 2018.

The congregation didn’t have much time to celebrate, however. Seven months later, Hurricane Michael made landfall along the Gulf Coast, becoming one of the deadliest and costliest storms to hit the Florida Panhandle.

The church, located on St. Joseph Bay, was one of its victims. Several buildings, including the sanctuary and parsonage, were either destroyed or severely damaged. The Great Hall survived — likely due to toughened hurricane code construction.

Recovery would not be swift. Insurance claims and FEMA restrictions slowed progress to nearly a standstill.

Undeterred, the congregation pressed on. The hall became a makeshift sanctuary, with ministries operating out of other properties. And the church’s outreach services made it a beacon of light in the battered community.

The next step was a new stewardship campaign in early 2020 to help cover operating expenses and rebuilding costs. The plan was to restart paying respective building loans the church received from the Alabama-West Florida and Florida United Methodist foundations.

Then the pandemic arrived, and any momentum the congregation had gained came to a standstill — again.

“They say adversity can break you or make you stronger,” Lentz said. “We’re lucky we went the path of growing stronger. The story of death and resurrection isn’t just a Bible story. It’s something we’ve lived out here.”

In it together

Those are words Andy Craske, vice president of loans and investments for the Florida United Methodist Foundation, likes to hear.

“We exist to help support churches in need so they can better impact their own communities,” he said. “It’s the Methodist way. Despite all the adversity Port St. Joe has experienced, it keeps rising up to make a difference.”

Typically, the Florida foundation only serves churches and ministries within the Florida Conference, but Lentz needed $2.5 million for the Great Hall project. His church is located in the Alabama-West Florida Conference, so he was able to get a $1 million loan — the maximum provided — from the foundation there.

Lentz needed to find the difference, so he made the unusual request for the remainder from the Florida foundation. His offer was accepted, and the church received a loan for $1.5 million.

“It made perfect sense to us,” Craske said. “The church is in Florida and had potential for growth.”

The loans from the two foundations supplemented the church’s capital campaign funds, and the project was underway.

“I’ve learned that people and congregations are stronger than you ever imagined. We sometimes look at them as weak and fragile. But that’s not the case. We’re like diamonds made stronger and more beautiful by pressure.” — Rev. Geoffrey Lentz

Craske is hoping for more partnerships like this with other foundations. He says such dual efforts put foundations in a better position to provide more loans.

When COVID-19 hit, Lentz joined more than 60 other Florida Conference pastors in taking advantage of the Florida foundation’s offer to allow loan holders to temporarily pay interest only on their loans. That offer, first made in March, was extended through August and again to Dec. 31 as congregations continue to struggle with financial shortfalls triggered by the pandemic.

Lentz took the extension through the end of the year. And if the church needs additional time to work through continued issues with FEMA and insurance companies, the foundation will work with Lentz.

Worship  in the Great Hall
The much-anticipated Great Hall at First United Methodist in Port St. Joe was dedicated in February 2018. Seven months later, Hurricane Michael hit. While other church structures were damage or destroyed, the new building survived, becoming the centerpiece of worship and outreach. (FUMCPSJ photo)

“We’re still high on this church and the community it still serves, despite all the roadblocks it has faced,” Craske says. “The bank is still being paid with the interest-only option. If we can help on our end, we’re happy to do it.”

For Lentz, the foundation’s flexibility has been a Godsend while he deals with other financial issues, such as hiring legal counsel to help manage the church’s wind damage claim and several specialists to navigate FEMA documentation.

He is also waiting to hear whether the federal government will pay 75% or 90% of the FEMA reimbursement. The federal government decided early on that Hurricane Michael’s Category 5 status elevated it to the higher payout, but movement on that declaration has yet to happen.

As a worst-case scenario, Lentz says the church could face as high as $4 million in costs to rebuild the sanctuary. That’s on top of significant funds already spent on repairs to keep its remaining buildings safe and secure for church and community use.

Lentz says the roadblocks would be even more difficult to endure without the foundation’s help and patience.

“I would not expect a commercial bank to be as understanding,” he said. “We know we will get through this, but it’s really hard to put a timetable on it at the moment.”

Made stronger with pressure

Despite the uncertainty of the times, the church — founded in 1913 — is experiencing a hopeful chapter in its long history.

After the hurricane, membership actually increased from about 350 in average attendance to 400. And because the church had already begun streaming services online after losing its sanctuary, it easily adapted to remote worship when the pandemic shut down operations in March.

Ministries that served the disadvantaged and elderly also did not stop. Some had to relocate to other locations, but the work continued under new restrictions.

And having survived a hurricane, the congregation would not let COVID-19 deter it from serving others.

After the state-mandated shutdown, the church’s Methodist Learning Center, a preschool and after-school program, opened again in June, first to essential workers. The center now operates in a temporary downtown location, thanks to the FEMA funds it received.

Longtime member Helen Carlsten said Lentz provided the leadership needed during the post-hurricane and pandemic crises. She says she’s never had a pastor like him.

“He can relate to teens and to 81-year-old women like me,” she said. “By example, he’s shown us how to work through difficult times and remain harmonious and in unity. We have such a strong congregation because of him.”

Feeding Ministry
Feeding and other outreach ministries at First United Methodist in Port St. Joe are helping the Gulf Coast community cope in the wake of Hurricane Michael and the onslaught of COVID-19. (FUMCPSJ photo)

The twice-widowed Carlsten has attended the church since she and her first husband moved to the area in 1973. She used to be on staff as church treasurer. Now she volunteers on the finance committee and wherever else she’s needed. That includes stuffing Blessing Bags filled with food and snacks for needy children on weekends and helping at the church’s Care Closet, where most donated items cost 50 cents.

Even though she was forced out of her flooded home of 40 years and had to live with a friend and then in an RV for six months, Carlsten remained active with the church.

And she’s learned to adapt to new ways of doing things so she can continue strengthening her faith. That includes participating in her Bible study via Zoom.

“Imagine that, at my age,” she said. “But it’s a snap once you learn how to do it.”

Vicki Abrams, a member since 1974, feels the same way about Lentz and the church. While the brick and mortar structures are important, she says it’s the work outside the church walls that has the most lasting impact.

“This is a congregation that is always looking for ways to put our faith in action,” she said. “Even when their own lives are challenged by circumstances, they step up.”

Abrams does her part with the church’s Methodist Caring Ministries, which she describes as “our outward facing ministry.” Its main mission is to help families in the community who are one paycheck from disaster.

Along with the Blessing Bags, the ministry coordinates food deliveries to at-risk families whose children were in the school free-lunch program, the Care Closet — set to open again Oct. 2, disaster recovery, visits to the elderly, and a soon-to-be opened Two Fish Market, a food pantry that will partner with a local food bank to provide fresh and frozen foods on alternating weekends.

“We’ve got a lot of people in our congregation with incredible skill sets,” Abrams said.

And Abrams is one of them. She worked for the Florida Department of Children and Families for 35 years, bringing her organizational talents and social services knowledge to her volunteer work at the church.

“I’m just not the kind of person who could retire and do nothing,” she said. “I always wanted to devote this time in my life to working on issues around poverty and helping people become more self-sufficient. It’s just so important to give guidance to families who don’t know how to navigate the system.”

Abrams says the church offers plenty of opportunities for members to serve. And any time a roadblock comes their way — whether a natural disaster or public health crisis — they persevere.

It’s a mindset consistently channeled by their pastor and the reason First Port St. Joe won’t back down.

“I’ve learned that people and congregations are stronger than you ever imagined,” Lentz said. “We sometimes look at them as weak and fragile. But that’s not the case. We’re like diamonds made stronger and more beautiful by pressure.”

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