Dr. Rose: Hope for Dying Churches

By Sara L. Anderson
March/April 1989

Have a country church with waning membership, a dilapidated building and no hope? Don’t call the coroner, call Dr. Rose.

While the United Methodist Church has closed more than 4,000 churches, mostly rural ones, in the last 20 years, Rose Grindheim Sims has been in the resurrection business. Her determination and commitment to evangelism and mission have left vital congregations where the doors were once nearly nailed shut. “You can’t save the whole world, but you can save your own little corner of it,” said Dr. Rose.

Take Trilby United Methodist Church, Dr. Rose’s latest congregation. In the fall of 1984 when the good doctor walked into this little crossroads church in Florida’s rural Pasco county, she found a run-down, turn-of-the-century-vintage sanctuary with a rusty roof and a ramshackle lean-to. The handful-sized membership list indicated certain death. But to Rose Sims this was a challenge, not a source of despair. “From the minute I walked in,” she recalled, “I saw it filled with people.”

So she and her husband, Jim, retired from the Air Force, rolled up their sleeves, knocked on doors (“Knuckle Power”), and offered people Christ. They also began meeting the physical needs of that impoverished community 30 miles north of Tampa.

Now a new, debt-free plant built with volunteer labor and valued at $400,000 stands at the crossroads. The old building has been refurbished and turned into a fellowship hall, the lean-to has become a church parlor. Trilby facilities house a mission with a clothes distribution center. There’s also a free clinic staffed by the Pasco County Health Department where expectant mothers come for prenatal care and toddlers receive vaccinations. Trilby is home to a Scout troop, an Alcoholics Anonymous group, a dinner theater, senior citizens’ activities, and adult education classes. An Evangelism Explosion program and a thriving singles’ group which packs up and distributes hundreds of pounds of food monthly to needy families are also part of the ministry.

Membership stands at more than 226, mostly on professions of faith, and worship attendance fills the sanctuary. And, in a gesture that would warm any annual conference treasurer’s heart, the church pays its yearly apportionments in full – in January. The congregation has decided that its facilities are open for community use as long as users do not violate the principles of Christ. After all, Dr. Rose says, “It’s not our church; it’s God’s church.” Trilby members also believe the facilities should be put to good use instead of being carefully preserved for Sunday use alone.

Children with grubby hands and dusty feet are not shushed and directed out the door of the lovely sanctuary. “This is the most beautiful building in our community,” Dr. Rose says. “We want the children to see that God’s house can be beautiful.” Besides, she adds, “If we wear out this building, we’ll build another one.”

Members and visitors find the congregation extremely warm, accepting and non-judgmental – folks are embraced despite their hurts, problems or status in the community. Dr. Rose explains, “God doesn’t clean his fish before he catches them.”

Perhaps that’s why Dr. Rose has seen such success. She focuses on what’s important instead of on petty things that alienate people and divide congregations.

“Love them, help them let them know there is salvation in Jesus Christ,” she said.

So impressive is this country congregation that Dr. Rose and Trilby have been extensively covered by local and regional newspapers. The congregation has headed Florida UM churches on professions of faith ratio and has led its dynamic pastor to Methodism’s Circuit Rider Award for church growth.

Oscar Grindheim would be proud. You see, when Rose fell in love with this Norwegian church-growth pioneer more than 45 years ago, she also made his vision for opening dying churches her own. For 27 years, first as Baptists, then as Methodists, they revived dead Midwest country churches. With three of their own children, two adopted and several foster children on their way to maturity, the Grindheims were looking forward to teaching in a Missouri college (Rose had just earned a doctorate in educational psychology) and opening yet another country church called New Hope.

But Oscar, dying of Lou Gehrig’s Disease in 1971, encouraged Rose to lead New Hope and gave her this charge: “Make Methodists see that it can happen anywhere, and it must happen everywhere.” Reluctant at first, she was approached by 14 families who had received Christ under her fledgling ministry and who pledged funds and labor for construction of the church. New Hope lived up to its name, and she left a thriving congregation because “people got saved, people got loved, people got caring.”

Dr. Rose believes this can happen anywhere if you offer people Christ, meet their physical needs, and receive help and encouragement from the body of Christ. One of her favorite proposals is, “I’d like to offer you the opportunity to do something significant that will last for eternity.”

Individuals and larger churches have responded to the challenge by contributing time, money, and used furnishings. What happened at Trilby is an example of the pattern she and Oscar had seen happen over and over again.

After Dr. Rose married Jim Sims (her second husband also died), the couple moved to Florida to golf, sail, and enjoy retirement. After six months, at the call of God and Jim’s urging, Dr. Rose took Trilby Church. She considered her years of experience in church growth and education and put them to work. “You can’t take these skills, see a need and not use them,” she said.

Yet, she would never consider the work a burden. She recalls how she and Jim sat in the sanctuary one evening just to look at that beautiful church. His rhetorical question summed up that ministry for both of them. “Haven’t we had fun doing this? Haven’t we been blessed?!”

When this was published in 1989, Sara Anderson was associate editor of Good News.

 

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