Naples United Church of Christ and Land of the Sky United Church of Christ aren't close in geography, or in membership. Naples UCC, in Naples, Fla., has about 1,200 members, while Land of the Sky UCC, in Asheville, N.C., has almost 150. But both congregations share the same heart, a passion for justice and community outreach, and the pursuit of excellence in everything they do. The two are linked further by Naples UCC's contribution of $5,000 to Land of the Sky through the UCC's Testimony! campaign.
The Rev. Ron Patterson, pastor at Naples UCC, asked his mission board to make a $5,000 gift to Testimony! to Land of the Sky. It will be the first disbursement to a local congregation since Testimony! was announced in late June 2013 during General Synod.
"They're a center of excellence and a different model for ministry," Patterson said of Land of the Sky. "We're committed to the idea that the United Church of Christ's future has to do with duplicating those models of excellence."
Testimony! is the UCC's $1 million fundraising campaign to fund new UCC congregations that demonstrate the possibility of growth and vitality. Testimony! also seeks to bring donors — whether it's individuals or churches — closer to the denomination's inspiring new communities of faith.
Patterson and his wife visited Land of the Sky, which was formed in 2009 and welcomed in to the UCC in 2012, while vacationing in North Carolina four years ago.
"My wife and I stayed in the Asheville area, and we pulled up the brochure at the hotel and saw an advertisement for a new UCC church," Patterson said. "So we went to worship with them, and they have two phenomenal young women leading them."
When he returned to Naples, Patterson sent the Asheville congregation a small gift from his discretionary fund. It was a spark the Land of the Sky co-pastor the Rev. Amanda Hendler-Voss said was critical to the congregation's growth.
"I can't tell you how thrilled we are. In many ways we feel like Ron Patterson and his church have just nurtured us and encouraged us along the way," Hendler-Voss said. "That kind of encouragement is very vital to success of a new church start.
"This is just the kind of investment the church needs to be making right now," she added.
Land of the Sky will use the funds to expand music in its young children's ministry, which Hender-Voss said is "busting at the seams" in terms of growth, and to grow worship service in ways "folks are hungry for."
"This year they must have had 40 little kids up at the front of the church — in the middle of the summer," Patterson said. "There were young families, diverse families, still meeting in this shared space."
"One of the objectives of Testimony! is to provide opportunities for strong mission-minded churches to be in closer relationship with our most promising new church starts, so that the experience is a win-win for both congregations," said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, executive minister of Local Church Ministries. "Naples UCC's gift to Land of the Sky UCC via the Testimony! campaign is an example of how we hope to connect churches to one another, so that new UCC communities of faith might become an extension of our established churches' mission and funding priorities."
Testimony! kicked off with a fundraiser luncheon at General Synod 2013 and a pledge to raise $1 million. So far, approximately $294,000 has been donated by 165 individuals and organizations to the campaign.
"When it comes to Testimony!, I want to put our strongest new church starts, even if still a bit fragile financially, in front of funders and donors that will get excited about investing in something that is a relatively safe investment and a successful ministry in the making," Guess said.
LCM budgets $600,000 annually for direct and in-kind support of new congregations, but Guess believes it's not sufficient. Testimony! is another way to continue to fund those promising new church starts.
"There was a noticeable gap in our grant-making process because, until Testimony! came about, all funding for a new church project ended after an initial three-year grant cycle, no matter how successful or viable the church had proven itself to be," Guess said. "This is a way to bring wood where there is fire, and to do so in a way that ensures individual and congregational donors are investing in places with proven promise for sustainability and growth."