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Journey transforms struggling congregation

BARTOW, Fla. (BP) — On a rainy but otherwise quiet April 2012 afternoon in a crowded room of First Baptist Church in Bartow, Fla., about 20 deacons went to their knees in prayer together. One by one they prayed, seeking God’s renewal and guidance.

Such prayerful focus among the church’s spiritual leaders is a welcome change from the dissension and fragmentation that once characterized the church.

“We had collectively lost our focus,” recalled Linton Sloan, a former deacon chair at the central Florida church.

“There was no sense of peace or unity. Even our dialogue had degenerated to something we weren’t proud of,” he said.

The church’s focus on essentials, such as evangelism and discipleship, had somehow been replaced by a focus on non-essentials, several church leaders explained.

After conversations between church and Florida Baptist Convention leaders, a plan to help the struggling church began to unfold. The process would begin with the deacons, ripple out to other church leaders and then to the church as a whole.

In May 2010, in a deacon retreat at Lake Yale, the turnaround began.

As the deacons arrived on Friday and the weekend began, retreat leader Tony Ponceti sensed determined resistance to change. Yet, as Saturday night rolled around, the deacons began to soften their hearts to one another and to the leadership of the Holy Spirit, said Ponceti.

By retreat’s end, Ponceti, who has led innumerable retreats, described the experience as “the most profound time in any church environment” that he has ever had.

During that weekend, a “change in spirit among the deacons occurred,” according to church member Marvin Pittman, a current active deacon and former deacon chair.

“There was a spirit of brotherly love and unity.”

Through tears, confession and prayer, the deacons realized, “If we are called to serve, then we’ve got to be an example to the entire church,” explained Pittman.

As the deacons returned to their church, other church leaders couldn’t help but notice the significant change. Soon, they too would have opportunity for personal renewal and recommitment.

In the fall of 2010, church leaders participated in a multi-week study, culminating in a time of repentance and recommitment.

Finally, after the deacons and other church leaders had recommitted themselves, the church as a whole was ready for a church renewal weekend, held in January 2011. Terry Land, a volunteer who helps coordinate Church Renewal Journey among Florida Baptist churches, led the event.

More than 300 people participated in the weekend, along with about 80 volunteers who helped lead.

“Lay renewal weekend is designed to bring renewal and a closeness of the people as well as a renewed love for the Lord,” explained Land.

The weekend was a “God thing;” it was “nothing short of life-changing,” said pastor Ron Burks.

Church member Donna Wingard recalled the weekend’s impact on her life.

“This was the first time in my life I had the sense of allowing the Lord to work through me. It was a powerful experience.”

On the Sunday evening following the lay renewal weekend, church members met together for three hours, “sharing with one another, praying with one another and praising God,” said the pastor.

Coming out of the weekend, church member Joyce Hensley realized, “This church is a church that He wants to use if we will let Him.”

Not wanting the weekend to be a “flash in the pan,” the lay renewal weekend was followed by a revival, intended to keep members “energized and encouraged,” led by Glen Owens of the Florida Baptist Convention.

“God is calling this church to be what He intended it to be,” said Hensley.
Margaret Dempsey-Colson is a freelance writer for Florida Baptist Convention. This article appeared in the Florida Baptist Witness (gofbw.com). Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Margaret Dempsey-Colson/Florida Baptist Convention