Around Lake Okeechobee pastors, churches cooperate in ministry
By CAROLYN NICHOLS
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Baptist Associations in the United States celebrated their 300th anniversary in 2007. The Florida Baptist Witness is honoring Florida’s 49 associations in a series of articles that showcase each association and its ministries. This is the tenth installment.
BIG LAKE BAPTIST ASSOCIATION
The work of Big Lake Baptist Association is both defined and hindered by the Lake which gives it its name. Churches of the association surround the 730-square miles of Lake Okeechobee that forms a natural boundary between churches who need to cooperate in missions. According to Director of Missions Sherrill Tillery, geography has to be considered in planning any associational activity.
“The lake is a problem, really. It’s hard for people in the south to get to meetings in the north, and vice versa,” he said.
Tillery himself regularly travels the western rim of the lake to meet the demands of his two jobs. He is pastor of Moore Haven Baptist Church, and also DOM of Big Lake association, two entities based about 40 miles apart. Over the past 29 years, Tillery has served two churches in the association—as associate pastor/ education at Belle Glade First Baptist, then at Moore Haven since 1991. He has led the association five years. Combining the two jobs has “not been too bad,” he said, although “I do know the geography by now.”
“In both, I am pretty free to mix and match days and hours, so there have been very few conflicts,” he said. “I’d be going to most associational meetings anyway as a pastor, so it works.”
Big Lake’s associational office moved in 2006 55 miles north from Clewiston, south of the lake, to Okeechobee, although several churches are south of the lake, including the Native American church on Big Cypress Reservation 30 miles south of Clewiston. The association that began with 11 churches in 1954 has grown in both numbers and diversity.
“We have a lot of good, hardworking people who love the Lord, and we have a lot of diversity. We are trying to make an impact on our communities,” Tillery said.
He describes Big Lakes’ 26 churches and two missions as “a pretty good mix for a small association.” Hispanic, Native American and Haitian congregations make up almost a third of the association.
Churches are involved in ministries to migrants, to those needing groceries and to victims of natural disasters. The associational maintains a Disaster Relief clean-up trailer and trained teams to work after storms. Several volunteers were trained in Disaster Relief at an event last year in Okeechobee, but the association “is always looking for more” volunteers, Tillery said. A team from Big Lake worked in Texas after Hurricane Ike last summer, and remains ready to be called out when needed.
Big Lake Baptist Association recently launched monthly pastors’ meetings that alternate between cities in the north and south. The first meeting was held in Okeechobee, and the second will be in Clewiston March 16. Alternating meeting sites may help in the association’s biggest challenge—”getting people together,” he said.
Tillery said another challenge for the association is the proposed sale of U.S. Sugar Corp., one of the largest employers of the region. The loss of the sugar company, along with its related industries, would affect every community in the area, and would deplete churches’ finances and leadership.
“A lot of people here are worried, of course,” he said.
When asked to describe associational work in ten years, Tillery said he already sees “less dependence on associations by churches.”
“We need more cooperation among churches, and the association is key to that,” he said.
ORANGE BLOSSOM BAPTIST ASSOCIATION
The churches of Orange Blossom Baptist Association, located 50 miles south of the I-4 corridor, are ministering to a growing population moving into Highlands and Hardee counties. People are moving away from the coasts, inland to an area dominated by cattle ranches and citrus fields, said Director of Missions Gaylon Buckland.
“The area is becoming a discovered secret,” he said. “It is slower here, with not as much traffic, and you can still get great sweet tea.”
The 49 churches and missions of the mostly rural area are reluctant to change, but Buckland said he has to “keep people uncomfortable” enough to “embrace changes.”
The association itself recently transitioned from committee-based to team-led leadership. Five teams work together: administrative, community ministries, church ministries, development, and association staff. They are challenged by Buckland to always “be pro-active” as the association leaves a program-driven model of leadership.
“We ask ourselves, ‘Are we relevant to our churches?’ and ‘Can we do more with less meetings?” he said. “We want to get into the position of being need-based, instead of cramming programs down people’s throats.”
Buckland, a former minister of education at Countryside Baptist Church in Clearwater and IMB missionary in Honduras, has served the association four years. With his Spanish language skills, he finds the position “a good fit,” he said.
Four Hispanic missions in the association serve residents and an influx of migrants, generally from Mexico, who work in the area November-May. First Baptist Church in Avon Park, along with its Hispanic mission, offers Christian Women’s Job Corp, English as a Second Language, citizenship classes, a food pantry and an annual fiesta.
A free medical clinic in Avon Park serves the uninsured of the area and the Florida Baptist Mobile Dental Clinic visits two weeks annually. Also to serve area residents in an emergency, Disaster Relief teams are “trained and willing to serve,” Buckland said. Orange Blossom association was hit by three hurricanes in 2004, and hundreds of volunteers from Florida and other states ministered to residents. This spurred the creation of local teams who now work with local emergency response leaders. Buckland said the teams also prove a tenet of associational work: “we can do more together.”
Buckland said he enjoys training pastor search committees in the churches and getting to know the pastors who come there to serve. Some will choose “to be a team player,” he said, and some will not. A pastor/peer learning group, in cooperation with the Leadership and Life Development Office of the Florida Baptist Convention, offers training and a monthly pastors’ fellowship meeting offers encouragement to pastors.
“I know how difficult being a pastor or staff member can be, that sometimes you need a friend,” he said. “Sometimes, a director of missions is the only person you can talk to.
Winter visitors also swell the population of the area, and associational leadership focuses on events during the time more people may participate. The area’s popular week-long craft fair, Pioneer Park Days in March, provides opportunities for area churches to minister to thousands of residents and visitors.
Although most events are held in the winter months to attract more people, an exception in local churches is Vacation Bible School.
“Our VBS is always strong—even without the ‘winter people,’” Buckland said.
Orange Blossom association owns Lake Denton Camp that is increasingly popular with divers in the area. Maintenance of camp facilities around the deep, clear lake is aided by Campers on Mission who come and stay two-three months while making repairs. The camp is “nothing fancy, but we are upgrading,” Buckland said. Many people think of the camp as a special place, he said, because they made professions of faith there, or met their spouses there.
PALM LAKE BAPTIST ASSOCIATION
Located along the busy Highway 95 corridor along the Atlantic Ocean, Palm Lake Baptist Association churches minister in an urban, fast growing area. The pastors of its 84 churches and dozens of missions—many of whom worship in languages other then English—are finding “a renewed interest in determining the future work of the association,” according to association moderator Keith Albert.
Albert, pastor of Jog Road Baptist Church in West Palm Beach, has served as moderator of the association two years, and has been active in associational ministries since he began his tenure at Jog Road Baptist 20 years ago. The 71-year-old association’s monthly pastors’ conference has been a source of invaluable friendship and encouragement, he told Florida Baptist Witness.
“I find meaningful friendships there, and I enjoy seeing smiling faces every month,” he said. “I look forward to it, and I prioritize it.”
Albert told a story to illustrate the camaraderie fostered in the meetings. He said his church was the site of a large funeral of a local high school coach in November. Needing help with the overflow crowd, he called nearby colleague Pastor Dale Fairclothof Royal Palm First Baptist Church to ask for help with parking.
“These are the kind of things that are developing. We have a desire to do things together,” he said
Albert and fellow long-time pastor Truman Herring of Boca Glades Baptist Church in Boca Raton are among the mainstays of the pastors’ gathering where the men are free to “talk about what is on our hearts,” and free from “comparing numbers.” The meetings, “like meeting with old friends,” are open to all pastors of the association and rotate among the churches. Spanish-speaking pastors gather for similar meetings, he said.
Dozens of the 24,000 members of Palm Lake churches volunteered during the association’s recent ministry to the workers of the annual South Florida Fair at the West Palm Beach Fairgrounds. Volunteers, during the two-week fair, provide home-cooked food for the fair workers along with clothing and hygiene kits assembled by church groups. Albert credited the work of Ann Lemas from Florida Gardens Baptist Church in Lake Worth with coordinating the fair ministry.
“Over the years, few things have allowed our lay people more opportunities to work together than the fair,” Albert said. “The fair ministry has always been a unifier.”
Albert also extolled the work of Florida Baptist Convention’s Urban Impact Ministries in the association. Urban Impact Ministries was formed in 2006 to work with Florida’s most urban south Florida associations: Miami, Gulf Stream and Palm Lake. Several Convention employees have since led peer learning opportunities where church leaders were aided by “coaching, mentoring and resourcing,” he said.
Jim Chavis, who works with Urban Impact Ministries, now also serves as interim director of Palm Lake association. He currently is promoting an April 30 gathering of pastors to participate in WildWorks, “a collaborative leadership process” through which the association will “design, prepare and experience a template-driven, results-based conversation,” according to the association’s website. Bob Bumgarner, director of the Convention’s Church Development Division, and Rick Wheeler, director of the Leadership and Life Development Department, will lead the meeting at the associational office, beginning at 8:30 a.m.
“We want as many pastors as we can get to talk about the future of the association,” Chavis said.
PEACE RIVER BAPTIST ASSOCIATION
Many of the 29 churches of the Peace River Baptist Association are serving area residents by providing food at a reduced cost. According to Director of Missions Rafael de Armas, the ministry “is not just for poor people,” as job losses mount in the national economic downturn.
“Our churches, our association and our communities are hurting,” he said.
Requests for reduced-cost food are pouring into ministries such as Feed the Need from South Biscayne Baptist Church, and Angel Food ministries which began locally in the de Armas’ garage almost a year ago. Both provide groceries for hundreds of families at a fraction of the actual cost.
A local ministry to young lawbreakers, under the director of Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church Pastor Greg Martin and his wife Jane, also keeps volunteers busy visiting several facilities that house juvenile offenders.
“A lot of professions of faith come out of this. It is very thrilling,” de Armas said.
Such ministries, along with a Disaster Relief team that organized after the devastating hurricanes of 2004, are evidence of a trend that de Armas has observed since beginning work with the association in 1995.
“We have changed from executive board-type leadership to family updates,” he said. “We are not embroiled in business meetings, but we are doing ministry.”
In what he said was the first work among Hispanics in Orange County at the church de Armas planted, First Hispanic Baptist Church in Orlando, he served the church 26 years—”since before Disney came”—and moved to Punta Gorda to work part-time for Peace River association.
“I am paid part-time, but I work full-time,” he said with a chuckle.
The 133-year-old association of churches in Desoto, Charlotte and Sarasota counties includes two Haitian churches; three works among Hispanics, including a brand new mission of First Baptist in Charlotte Harbor; and a Russian church. All of the pastors meet monthly at restaurants in alternating cities. Encouragement is always on the menu.
“We talk about what our churches are doing. I want to encourage every church to be servants in their communities, and that will be different for every church,” the veteran DOM said. “My hope is that all churches would focus on servant evangelism.”
Pastors of the association will team up to minister to baseball teams who train in the area. Rookie and Class A teams from the Tampa Bay Rays attend baseball chapel meetings led by de Armas and Punta Gorda First Baptist Church Pastor Paul Russell. Services are held in both English and Spanish.
Associational leadership is working to plan Peace River association’s spring semi-annual meeting on the afternoon of March 29 at First Baptist Church in Punta Gorda. The campus will be filled with booths promoting the ministries of the association and of Florida Baptist Convention agencies. Children and youth may play on inflatables, and other activities may include “Soak the Shepherd,” during which participants may purchase wet sponges to hurl at their pastors. The Mast Brothers and others will sing on a flat bed trailer.
“There will be no speaking. It will all be just fun,” De Armas said.
TREASURE COAST ASSOCIATION
The six dozen churches of Treasure Coast Baptist Association are working to embrace changes in Florida’s Atlantic coast communities, and associational leadership wants to help church leaders find their niches in Kingdom ministry.
“You can depend on change; if you don’t change, you’ll die,” said Director of Missions Harvey Webb. “My desire is to help churches and pastors determine the uniqueness of their churches, and to read their communities and develop strategies for reaching them.”
Even the name of the 120-rear-old association changed six years ago from Indian River association to Treasure Coast Baptist Association. The new name better reflects the communities of Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin counties whose industries in the area are moving from fruit producing to manufacturing and technology, Webb said.
The fast-growing population of the area is more diversified than in the past, presenting a new challenge to once-rural churches.
“In knowing how to reach and minister to the communities, we are still in the learning curve. I don’t know if anyone has the silver bullet to reach everyone in the community,” he said.
Helping churches to plant other churches, especially among language groups, is an immediate goal for the association. Almost 40 percent of the association’s churches now worship in a language other than English, Webb said.
Needy residents of the area may turn to Treasure Coast churches to find help in feeding their families and in finding dental care. Parkview Baptist Church in Fort Pierce offers a food pantry and Tropical Farms Baptist Church in Stuart provides a dental clinic at Salerno Road Baptist Church where local dentist Al Warren treats those in need. The association has a long-standing relationship with North American Mission Board’s World Changers.
“World Changers transforms our communities. They become energized to clean up and paint even after they leave,” Webb said. “We work on houses just to have opportunities to relate the Gospel to the communities.”
The association also boasts Disaster Relief teams of 75 trained volunteers to help in emergencies. The teams ministered in Texas last summer after Hurricane Ike hit its Gulf coast.
Webb said the association’s ministries stem from networking churches to do ministry and watching for church ministries that are “regional and not a one-time thing.” The current philosophy reflects a move away from the association’s “doing church,” and towards equipping churches for ministry.
Webb, in his 10 years as DOM, helped restructure the association as “needs driven” instead of “program driven.”
“I think the association needs to read the landscape and be ready to change methods and processes to be more effective in ministry,” he said.
Even the pastors’ peer learning group focuses on “how to navigate change without running into the rocks,” Webb said. As methodology, process and structures change, theology, core values and the message do not, he said.
Webb recently returned to work at his Fort Pierce office after a three-month sabbatical during which he studied to lead the pastor peer groups “in a new direction.” He read dozens of books on leadership, both personal and inter-personal, and on churches’ developing missional approaches to ministry.
“I have been recharged,” he said. “I’ve discovered new authors and even bloggers on the cutting edge.” Webb said he hopes the association will serve as a model for churches in offering sabbaticals to their pastors, who also “burn out, need recharging and intensive study.”
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