New Dollars/New Partners for Your Sacred Place, Partners’ flagship training program, is commonly seen as an ideal starting place for congregations that need to learn how to raise funds for their buildings, use their assets more effectively, and deepen the connections and service to their communities. And it is a significant first step for many that seek to grow and serve in new ways.
New Dollars is also an extraordinary tool for those congregations who are farther up the path toward renewal and growth. Fairburn United Methodist Church (FUMC), in Georgia, is a model example of such a church, and its story shows that even a congregation that has been hard at work building community connections and serving their neighbors can use New Dollars training to go farther. Fairburn’s Pastor Vicki Smith says it well:
“New Dollars created a time and space to reflect beyond stop-gap issues and mere survival. Members of the congregation came away encouraged that they were ‘not the only ones’ and that a vital, active future for our church is a realistic possibility.”
Fairburn, GA, is a small town on the south side of Atlanta, a sprawling metropolitan area that ranges across nine counties. With most of the growth concentrated to the north and east of the city center, Fairburn enjoyed a rural, small-town feeling despite the urbanization occurring nearby. Over the past 15 years, though, as Atlantans began migrating south from the far-reaching suburbs north of the city in search of neighborhoods that might make their commutes a little shorter, Fairburn has seen its population triple to about 15,000. With the influx of new townspeople, long-term residents sought ways to incorporate everyone into the emerging community.
Enter Fairburn United Methodist Church, a 300-member congregation housed in a circa-1904 building. The church had seen its membership drop off over the years, as “white flight” in the 1960s and 1970s, and the town’s subsequent economic downturn, caused many of the children who were raised there to move into Atlanta. With new residents and evolving town demographics, the church realized it could have a role in forging the changing community. When Pastor Smith arrived in 2006, she recognized that the congregation – with many members more than 80 years old – needed to see what could be done to help welcome newcomers and strengthen the church’s position in the community. Taking stock of where the church stood in the community, Pastor Smith found that there were lifelong residents of the town who didn’t know of FUMC. She and the congregation began working to change that.
The United Methodist Church’s national motto is “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.” From that came the idea for FUMC to have an “Open Doors Day” for the community to learn about the church and what it offered. The congregation enthusiastically worked to set up a large carnival-type event featuring hayrides, games, food booths, and tours – all free for anyone who came by. The congregation was thrilled when over 300 people attended the event; as Pastor Smith says, it gave “a big boost of encouragement to the congregation. They saw that a small effort could yield a large response.”
Building on that effort, the congregation brainstormed ways to make its building – located on a busy street corner, but often overlooked by motorists – more noticeable, and developed the “First Impressions” campaign to improve their signage and prominence from the street. They received a grant for exterior lighting for the building and steeple, as well as for a new sign. They also repaired the carillon system to serve as an aural reminder of the church. These small changes, Pastor Smith says, have had “a huge impact on our literal and figural visibility.”
Having tackled the building itself, the church turned once more to making itself better known in the community. Congregants developed a program known as the “Bottomless Basket,” in which baskets filled with fruit, cookies, nuts, and other snacks were delivered to city hall, the police department, and the fire department to let those who serve the community know how they are appreciated. Whenever the baskets’ contents get low, FUMC members come around to replenish them.
Last spring, for the first time, FUMC hosted a community Easter egg hunt that drew nearly 125 children and their families, about 90% of whom were unknown to the church. The church is also collaborating with smaller congregations in the area to reach out to long-term community members. To that end, a multi-congregation Vacation Bible School was held at FUMC last summer. Pastor Smith is delighted that “people in the community are talking about us and what we’re doing.” She hopes that the coming years will bring “significant fruit from our efforts of the past few years.”
With all of this community building and awareness raising under their belt, the congregation went through New Dollars/New Partners training last spring. What did they get from it? Pastor Smith answers definitively, “wisdom, affirmation, and encouragement.” New Dollars “helped us think about where to go next. [The] training content and exercises offered us helpful ways to think about organizing our longer-term approach, and provided tools to use in researching funding sources [as well as] recommendations for local architects and craftsmen who can assist us in assessing our physical plant.”
Like many historic sacred places, FUMC has its share of deferred maintenance that needs to be addressed. While the church has been more focused on day-to-day cosmetic improvements, the training “helped crystallize the need for a thorough assessment of their physical plant,” and they are in the midst of researching grant opportunities to help fund this critical step.
Another important lesson learned from New Dollars was the value of connecting their history with that of the town. As an initial foray, there are discussions underway to use their space as a gathering place for a walking tour in conjunction with the local historical society, or for welcome/orientation events for new residents.
As Fairburn has grown and changed, Fairburn United Methodist Church has shown how a congregation can contribute to the town’s vitality by making good use of its historic site for community-building activities. Its efforts are creating a community that retains its small-town feeling while welcoming new residents with open hearts, open minds, and open doors.