So, you all know how much we love our church. When we first moved to Orlando, we began attending First United Methodist of Winter Park almost right away and mostly out of convenience. It was, literally, right down the street from where we were renting, and during those months that I was unemployed, I was desperate to seek out a community where I could belong. And that’s exactly what I found there. I remember the exact day when Chris and I felt that this church was our home. We were having a really rough week. Chris’s paycheck was not enough, I was still on the job hunt, we were feeling particularly homesick for Connecticut, and so we put Michael in his stroller and spent the afternoon trolling downtown Winter Park. We window shopped and felt the sun on our faces, and it was good for both Chris and me.
We ended up at the church playground, and so we stopped to let Bean play for a bit. We had only been coming to church there for a few weeks and hadn’t met anyone yet, but it was still the only familiar place we had in our new town. As Bean was playing, our minister, Dr. Bob, walked by on his way back to his office. He saw us and came right over to say hello. We introduced ourselves and explained that we were new to town, but had been enjoying his sermons for a few weeks. It was a brief 10-15 minute conversation, and Chris and I left with the confirmation that Dr. Bob was even warmer and nicer in person than he seemed in the pulpit (if that was possible).
About a week later, on Sunday morning, Chris and I were leaving another great sermon and we stopped to greet Dr. Bob in the narthex of the church on our way out. Not sure if he would remember us from the playground, I was just about to re-introduce ourselves when Bob threw his arms around me and said, “Katie! Chris! It is so great to see you again! How’s Michael?”
And that was it.
In a time of great uncertainty and loneliness for our family, here was someone who called us by name. Someone who knew us and cared about us. We decided that very afternoon, after just over a month of attending First United Methodist, that we would join and become members there.
A few months later, I would be so incredibly grateful that we joined this church family when I battled depression and a spiritually dry season in my life. I met with Jayne Rideout, one of the associate pastors, and she gave me such wise advice that changed my life forever. Her kindness, strength, humanity, and faithful guidance was a gift from God.
And again, when my dad passed away, it was this church’s pastoral staff who came to our side. We received phone calls from all the ministers at our church within a week of Dad’s passing. I cried on the couch in Dr. Bob’s office as I tried to reconcile my anger with God. And Gary Rideout, Jayne’s sweet husband and another associate minister, reached out to me for the entire year following Dad’s death, always sending me grief books and kind letters of encouragement.
When we bought our house across town, the 45-minute commute to FUMCWP became somewhat of an issue. Now, going to a one-hour church service began to take up half our day, and that didn’t include Sunday School or any additional classes we wanted to take. But at that point, we were really just going to church on Sunday mornings there, and for such a remarkable pastors team, we felt the drive was worth the effort.
Slowly, we began to get more involved in the church. I started attending Bible study classes and volunteering, and most of those opportunities in a church happen in the evenings during the week. But for us to get back to Winter Park from our new house meant driving straight through downtown during peak rush hour traffic. It was a nightmare. I remember taking 6 or 8-week courses at the church on Tuesday nights, and it would require Chris to leave work an hour early and fight the traffic one way. Then, we would hand off the kids, and I would fight the traffic for over an hour going back the other way. Not to mention, I had to leave over an hour early for a 7:00 class, which meant that one night a week, I missed dinner, bath, and bedtime with the kids. And for a working mom, that was really tough. I began to turn down opportunities to become involved simply because commuting to church was a logistical mess.
We started to think about changing churches at that point. The area of town that we moved into had a very active Methodist church that was very close to our house. But we were hesitant to let go of Dr. Bob and the pastoral staff at our home church. About six months ago, I joined a women’s small group at this new church. I had been praying for a group of prayerful women to join, but the proximity at our old church never made that possible for me to attend year-round. Finally, I found one offered at the closer church, and the women I have met there have truly been a God-send. Through our weekly meetings together, they have introduced me to all different parts of the church’s community, and I have had nothing but positive experiences. Still, moving our entire family to this new church was going to be a commitment.
What finally made that commitment worth the effort was the kids. Bean is getting to the age where church has more to offer him than simply sitting in nursery during Sunday services. But, again, all of the children’s activities were either during the day during the week while I worked, or they were offered around 4:00 in the afternoon. And with our travel time and my job, we just couldn’t get Michael to any of these activities.
Chris and I talked about it for MONTHS. We so wanted to stay where we were in our church life. We felt plugged in and involved and more strong spiritually than we ever have been before. But it was time to think about the faith and spiritual life and needs of our kids. We wanted them to be able to be as involved as we were, and they would never be able to do that in a church so far away. Plus, if we switched now while they were young, maybe Michael would meet some kids in Sunday School that he would eventually have in his (gulp! gasp! choke!) kindergarten class next year, making that transition smoother for him, too.
A little over a month ago, Chris and I wrapped up the last of the areas where we were involved in our old church and I stopped reaching out and volunteering in new projects. It broke my heart to pull away from that church, but I continued to pray about it and gradually, we stopped attending on Sunday mornings. We have been attending our new church for about six weeks now, and while I miss those Sunday morning sermons and seeing familiar faces when I walk into a room, I feel good in my heart about our switch.
Michael is now attending Sunday School regularly (he was hit and miss at the old church, depending on how traffic was and which service we were able to attend), and this Sunday morning he had his first choir rehearsal. He’ll be singing in the Christmas Eve service and participating in the nativity pageant, too. Even Gracie came out of Sunday School on the first day and said in a very uncharacteristic way, “I LOVE new church!” (Though, I’m 99% positive that response came from the Halloween candy craft they made that morning…)
All of this is wonderful and I know that we are planting ourselves in our community and church so that we can grow in fellowship with others right here in our very own neighborhood. And for that I am very thankful. But Sunday mornings are not quite the same for me right now. I feel a little lost as I wander the new campus, and I am playing that horrible game of “testing every group I can until I find where I fit in.” Chris and I are committed to becoming just as involved at the new church as we were at First United Methodist, but that initial adjustment period in a new place – church or otherwise – can be unsettling.
I’m hoping that in the next week or so I will get a chance to visit with Dr. Bob and some of the pastoral staff who have so greatly impacted my life from First United Methodist. To tell them what a profound impact they made on our families during a time when we desperately needed a friend and many prayers. To tell them thank you for giving us a home when we felt so lost. To hug Dr. Bob, especially, and tell him how he changed our lives by simply remembering our names.
Our new minister gave a sermon a few weeks ago about what the church is. He said that the church is not a building or a place. It is the people who touch our lives and bring us closer to God. If that is true – and I believe that it is – then my heart truly does rejoice because Dr. Bob Bushong, Jayne and Gary Rideout, Kathy Bradshaw, Carrie (x2), Dawn, Kristi, and all the other friends who we feel like we are leaving behind, are not actually left behind at all. They are forever part of our church family.
If you’re the praying kind, Chris and I would like to request a few specific prayers for our family that we would be so appreciative for you to add to your prayer list: That we might come to feel more present and at home during the Sunday morning services. That we might find a couples or family small group to join together. That our kids would begin forming meaningful, lifelong friendships built on the foundation of faith. Thanks, guys.