A very important part of our life as disciples is to be good stewards of what God has given us. While people listening to a sermon about stewardship may hear, "the church needs money," the reality is that the people of the church come together to decide what we want our ministry to be and to be faithful with what we can afford as individuals and as a congregation. In our personal finances, we have to live within our means. We may desire a higher lifestyle, but we are not being good stewards when we overreach with homes or cars we can't afford, or if we rack up too much credit card debt. My dad used to call this "living like a captain on a corporal's salary." Too be faithful, we need to live in a way that glorifies God.
The church should be a shining example of good stewardship. We may want things, but to be faithful, we have to be realistic about what we can afford. As I read through old meeting minutes and talk to people who have been here for a while, it is clear that Tuskawilla has been burdened by too much debt and building costs that are too high for the size of our congregation for many years.
At our Congregational Meeting on Sunday, we updated the church with some new developments. But first, here is a brief recap of the events that have unfolded in the past three years. This recap has been shared with the District Superintendent.
In July of 2019 The Arbor School of Central Florida entered into a cost sharing agreement with Tuskawilla UMC to use most of the Education Building and the Fellowship Hall for their school for special needs students. This was set up by Pastor Sarah Miller to address an ongoing problem at TUMC of an overwhelming amount of debt for the size of our congregation (currently 180 members with an average in-person worship attendance of 100). I arrived as the new pastor as this transition was taking place. They had completed a site plan and received permission from the zoning board for the school to operate. We shared the cost of installing a fire alarm system along with many other improvements for the school to pass their inspections. In 2020, I became concerned about the drop in giving as in-person worship services were suspended due to COVID. I contacted Dr. Bob Bushong, who referred me to Joey Blakley of Foundry Commercial, just to get an idea of what our options are with regard to selling some of our property. Joey gave me figures for the market value of the property, which is about the same amount as our debt, approximately $1.3 million. We also asked him for an idea of market value rent. The Arbor School pays $5,000 a month and we learned that the market value is $8,000 - $12,000 per month for the square footage used. In July of 2020 we had a meeting with The Arbor School to renegotiate the contract. They were not willing to pay any more for the space. Tuskawilla was responsible for keeping up with the building repairs and paid the majority of utilities, putting a greater strain on the church's finances, as well as the volunteers doing the work. We also were not very good landlords to The Arbor School, who were frustrated by the work that needed to be done for their classrooms to be safe and comfortable. Over the next several months, we engaged in many conversations with local professionals, church members, and our leadership team. In analyzing our giving, we also recognized that our giving is not keeping up with our expenses. Only 29% of our households were giving at a sustainable level, causing a greater burden on a small number of givers.
In March of 2022, we held a congregational meeting to seek input on three options for church sustainability: 1. Sell some or all of our property 2. Hold a capital campaign to reduce the debt and renegotiate Arbor School's contract 3. Do nothing The church was willing to consider selling part of our property, but had some concerns about who might purchase it. There were also some who believed that providing space for The Arbor was a ministry in itself. We love having these students on our campus and greatly appreciate the opportunity to provide a safe space for them where they can learn and grow. Others wanted to look into the possibility of obtaining market value in rent. There was still a concern about our ability to be effective landlords with a volunteer Trustee Team. No one thought that we could afford the option of doing nothing. We gave The Arbor School 18 months notice, which would end their contract in October 2023. They began looking for other space to rent. In mid-July of 2022, The Arbor School advised us that they would be willing to purchase part or all of the property or to renegotiate the rent, with a preference for purchasing the property. Our Administrative Council discussed this proposal and the consensus was that we would like to pursue the sale of the Education Building and Fellowship Hall and use the proceeds to pay off our debt. We are in the process of working with Duke Energy to see about the possibilities of providing each building with its own electrical meter and would need legal assistance to work out contractual agreements about parking or any other potential shared spaces. We would form a design team to adapt our sanctuary building to provide office space (currently in the Education Building) and space for meals and gatherings (currently in the Fellowship Hall). We have a strong leadership team in place and a congregation who is eager to pay off this debt and engage more deeply in local and global missions. The church has been weighed down by this burden of debt since 2000 and has a constant fear of going under. This sense of scarcity impacts nearly every ministry decision we make. In the past year we have become more vital in our ministry with many young families and have a renewed purpose for missions. We have begun a Children's Community Theatre program that reaches families in our community by holding auditions in the public park across the street and are currently exploring a weekday Bible club at Red Bug Elementary school, which would also potentially provide space for Vacation Bible School.
The sale of these buildings would help us to more effectively see that our ministry is out in the world. Our sanctuary building would remain a place for worship and small groups. This sale would allow us to live into the space that is the right size for us. If this is approved by the District Board, we plan to have a Church Conference to vote on this sometime this fall. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Meeting on Sunday, August 14
We shared information about the Arbor School's interest in purchasing the property and showed a video they created to communicate their interest.
Elizabeth Healy shared a financial update. A large gift caused us to currently enjoy a surplus, however our giving is still not at a sustainable level for our expenses.
Katherine Fabian shared about our work in seeking a stewardship consultant to help with a capital campaign. We could likely raise $600,000, which would pay off a little less than half of our debt. Costs for the consultant would be $28,000 to $36,000. We also discussed the possibility of a one year stewardship consulting process to increase giving, which would cost approximately $10,000.
Administrative Council Chair, Anna Valentini facilitated a conversation of questions and comments to help us move forward. Among them:
Analyzing the financial benefits of renting vs selling over a period of ten years
Communicating with the Florida UM Foundation about our debt payoff
The importance of our ministry with the Arbor School
Questions about adapting space for a Fellowship Hall
Being open to other potential buyers
Concerns that the conference will close the church
Legalities included in a sales contract about shared spaces such as parking
Questions about how we will divide the properties
At Sunday's Church Chat we will discuss these comments and questions along with any others you have. Look for information about a Church Conference this fall, where we will dream about our future as a church and then vote on the best pathway forward. While everyone will be invited to attend, only church members will have voting privileges.
As always, please reach out to me if you want to talk one-on-one about any of this. We have all learned a lot in the course of these types of conversations. The church as one body needs every part. We all bring different perspectives, along with different skills to this work. Having all voices contributing will help us to make the best decisions.