As I sit and watch the record cold temperatures up north reported by the Weather Channel relaxing in my shorts, I thought this might be a good opportunity to report on what doing ministry is like in Southwest Florida.
First, it isn't all sunshine and orange juice! As I write this, I'm suffering from a nasty head cold. I don't think I've lived anywhere I've been as sick in the fall and winter. When people begin traveling down here to catch the rays starting in October, they bring all their viruses with them when packing their bags. Since we have a significant number of British, Canadian and German tourists, they bring the European bugs too. And up from Mexico and the Caribbean come many migrant workers to harvest citrus, sugar cane, and winter vegetables.
Beginning in October and continuing until the beginning of January, the Fellowship I serve grows by about 40% in attendance Sunday morning. We do the same water ceremony many congregations do in September the first Sunday in January to maximize our inclusion. For the next three months we worship together as a united community enjoying the wonderful weather. Once April rolls around, the first people begin to leave and continue to leave until June.
This uneven migration means for three months we are joyfully welcoming people back and then three months later begin sadly watching them go for another three months. This extended migration period makes it hard to program for the entire congregation except during the winter months. Many seasonal residents have split loyalties with congregations up north which makes it more challenging to forge a congregational identity and sense of mission. And most people don't migrate down here to get involved in local politics or social issues. They are here to enjoy themselves.
The kind of people who migrate and often settle here are interesting. Port Charlotte is a manufactured community sitting on swamp land and cow pasture. Canals were dug throughout the town to drain the wetlands giving it a picturesque quality. General Development Corporation platted hundreds of thousands of tiny lots and were forced by legislative initiative to build access roads to every single one. Thus we have miles and miles of roads without any sign of habitation (or electrical, sewer or water lines). This is fantastic for bicycling as these winding roads are hardly ever used since they don't go anywhere.
GDC sold these lots mainly to people in the Midwest promising them a place to retire for low monthly payments. Most of these lots are owned by individuals who eventually have the right to come down and build a home. If they did, we would have a civic disaster on our hands trying to provide them with services while attempting to mitigate the devastation to the fragile ecosystem. The Peace River Estuary is one of the cleanest in Florida and one of the main attractions of this area for the fishing and water sports.
Because the only residents of Port Charlotte and much of Charlotte County 50 years ago were cows and alligators, the people who now live here are not rooted in the land. Most have retired here from someplace else. They see the community as a threat to their fixed income and many have little interest in civic development. For the second year in a row, a ballot initiative to build sidewalks so kids could walk to school was overwhelmingly defeated. Most of the county doesn't have sewers and doesn't have the will to solve the problem, putting our most valuable resource, the Peace River Estuary, at risk.
The religious and social perspective in the community is very conservative. My only religious ally for liberal causes, the Rabbi, committed suicide last June. Our congregation is the only pro-choice voice in the county. Almost everyone who is gay or lesbian here is locked in the closet - even in our congregation. As far as people are concerned down here, time stopped in 1959.
So far this description of Florida ministry may not sound very attractive--but there are some important benefits not the least of which is the weather and excellent citrus. The kind of people who can retire to Florida tend to have a decent income and generally are well trained in stewardship in northern congregations before they arrive. Without the seasonal boost, full time ministry here would be difficult if not impossible as Charlotte County has little economic base beside retirees. People have the time to participate in programs and classes (as long as they do not require driving after dark). The pace is slower here. People aren't struggling to make a living in the rat race. There is more time for reflection and introspection. The retired set aren't looking to shape their beliefs which they fixed many years ago ("so don't tell me what to believe Sunday morning"). Most are engaged with accepting themselves and the life they have led as they face the loss of employment, health, family and friends. I end the service each Sunday with, "Go in peace. Make peace, Be at peace."
Florida has been a great place for me to begin my ministry and be trained by a congregation full of people who have a lot of church experience under their belts. An elderly congregation has so much life experience they are happy to share to help a new minister learn the ropes. And being retired, they don't expect you to work yourself to death either. I've been grateful for the ways they have nurtured me into the awesome calling of ministry. I may be old enough to be their grandson but they have treated me with respect and encouraged me to be the best minister I can be for them.
This will be my last FDR piece as I'm not on an author selected for next year. I've appreciated greatly the opportunity to write for you and will continue to do so for those of you who have been reading me on firstname.lastname@example.org.