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It's a Wonderful Life
The Full Story of how St. Thomas Church
uses demographics in ministry. . .
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A new church plant, concerned about the escalating suicide rate in their small community dares to go where no ministry has gone before. What followed was the beginning of a quiet miracle. . .
When a famous company that manufactures men's and boy's underwear—a seemingly necessary commodity in life—closes its plant, laying off its entire work force, life couldn't get anymore hopeless. Or could it? For the small town of Campbellsville, Kentucky, pop. 11,000, the final nail in the coffin was when their second biggest employer, Batesville Casket Company, pulled up stakes and closed its plant, draining what little was left of the town's economic lifeblood. Proving that even coffin makers don't always have a final resting place.

Most of the 3,700 workers at Fruit of the Loom had given their entire working lives for the company; a surprisingly high number of them had been at the plant 30 years or more, without ever missing a day of work.
Campbellsville, Kentucky And there were others, now in their 50s, who were second generation Fruit of the Loomers. For a child growing up in Campbellsville, the old playground tease, "Oh, go sew buttons on your underwear" wasn't a
taunt—it was, most likely, what he or she would end up doing—not literally buttons, but for workers like Karen Brockman it was thousands of "hem bottoms" and for June Judd it was "tube-flys/cut tubes". For them, and the rest of their fellow workers, working at "The Factory" as it was called by the townspeople, wasn't just their livelihood—it was their identity.

But by the end of that unseasonably cold spring morning, on April 15, 1998, the company slogan, "Good Days Begin at Fruit of the Loom" had turned into a cruel epitaph. For this tight-knit rural community, where most of its adult population was employed at the plant, the following weeks and months became some of the darkest in their 154 year   history.

From Briefs to Books

In the end, most of these salt-of-the-earth, Fruit of the Loom folks managed to survive the fallout. Reporters from as far away as "Down Under" would talk about their plight, made newsworthy by what the town symbolized. In just three years Campbellsville, Kentucky would became a textbook example of a rural town that turned around when the New Economy jumped in to save them. Their economic salvation began with the emergence of Amazon.com, the dot.com giant with a corporate culture that was radically different from the paternalistic Fruit of the Loom.

But for some of the dislocated, the turnaround was a day late and a dollar short. Many of them lost their houses and some, sadly, took their own lives. Like the character of George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life, these dissolute souls looked for the nearest proverbial bridge, perhaps

to be found at nearby Green River, climbed the highest point—and
jumped. . . only with no angel named Clarence to save them.

For the most part, the Campbellsville community rallied around its wounded. A consortium of business, civic and government leaders called Team Taylor County worked around the clock to bring in new business. Campbellsville University, the local Baptist College, offered tuition at a drastically reduced price to help those who needed to acquire new skills.

"While there was a good deal of despair when Fruit of the Loom pulled out, there was also this sense of determination that emerged as well," said the chairman of Team Taylor. "There's a special spirit among Taylor Countians. They're resilient, proud and compassionate. "

But despite the town's combined efforts, it remained that those on the fringe, the ones who had more questions than answers, and who were more disposed to despair and hopelessness, felt they had no place to turn. As a result, the suicide rate skyrocketed.

A Plant of Their Own

1500 miles away, about the same time that the layoffs were happening, companies like Amazon and Frost-Arnett were combining instinct with demographics to determine where they would put their new or relocated offices and processing plants.

Closer to home, the Lutherans and Episcopalians, specifically the Episcopal Diocese of Kentucky and the Indiana-Kentucky Synod of the ELCA were doing virtually the same thing, using both well-honed intuition and demographics in considering where they would put a new church plant.

Key to this important decision, as it turned out, was Percept. Before looking at demographics, the Episcopal Diocese was leaning towards a location West of Louisville. It was an idea with merit, they thought, since it was the county in which their Diocesan Camp and Conference Center was located. But after looking at Percept's FirstView demographic report and other resources, which the Lutheran Synod had helped provide, that reasoning was contradicted.

"Quite simply, we determined that it wasn't a place that was going to grow and it didn't have the demographic characteristics that might lend itself to an Episcopal or a Lutheran congregational start," says Karl Lusk, a Missional Planner for the Diocese. "But, on the other hand, the Campbellsville area, and the four counties surrounding it, did have those characteristics. And there were other factors that pointed to Campbellsville. Our instincts were that there would be people there who leaned towards a liturgically-based worship system where they would feel comfortable."

But perhaps the most significant factor for the Diocese and the Synod was the sudden announcement that Fruit of the Loom was closing its plant. Now there were new community-at-risk factors in the mix.

"It became evident that Campbellsville was the place to be because it was a place where people were hungry spiritually, and frankly, physically." says Lusk. "I knew that there would be people without hope who needed something different."

The Bishop Calls a Meeting

In helping to determine where the new church plant would be located, Karl thought his job was over. But the little Campbellsville country church—housed not in a traditional charming Anglican 100-plus year-old stone building, but rather a strip-mall storefront—was gasping for air. St. Thomas's had already gone through two vicars, the second one remaining less than a year.

"We were in a staff meeting and the bishop announced that this person had resigned," says Lusk. "'I don't know anybody I can send,' said the bishop. So I said, 'Ted, I don't know what we are going to do either, but I know those people over there, and I don't want the health of souls of the people in Campbellsville to suffer.' Well, the next thing you know, I found myself in the "principals" office. There I was thinking that the Bishop had called me in to scold me for something. Instead he just looked at me and asked, "How soon can you go to Campbellsville?'"

Although not an ordained minister, Lusk was a natural for the job. To start with, he was a native Kentuckian who had grown up in a small town of 10,000—almost the same size as Campbellsville. As a young boy he had traveled around with his grandfather, a large-animal veterinarian. He had seen country life in the raw, and he was not afraid to get his hands and feet dirty. He also had a strong sense of mission; one, he says, that Percept helped to define.

"What Percept did was give us a process whereby we could understand that engaging the
community outside the door was much more important than trying to get the people inside the door," says Lusk.

In Karl, the people found as perfect a match as they could hope to find. Twenty years as a funeral practitioner had taught him a great deal about people who were hurting, especially how to listen. "I'm not a great preacher, I just tell stories," admits Lusk. "And I like to get people to tell me their stories. I guess I just kind of fell into that in my former profession. I was involved because I was more interested in the pastoral care and the grief support end of it than I was in driving a big station wagon and selling boxes."

Apparently a good listener who tells stories is just what the people of Campbellsville needed, especially in their hour of crisis. Both inside and outside the church, people began to take notice of the "new" and "improved" St. Thomas Church. Soon some of the lapsed Episcopalians began to come "out of the closet," bringing in some non-Episcopalians as well. One devout member, Mimi Moore, had been praying 30 years for an Episcopal Church to come into town.

"I'm what you call a cradle Episcopalian, a fifth-generation Episcopalian who married a fifth generation Presbyterian," says Mimi. "But all that time, in my heart I ached and missed the liturgy. So when Karl showed us the Percept study I got very excited because I could see that it meant that we were going to have a church!"

Alyson Thompson, a former Catholic from her father's side, still kept the spare parts of her mother's failed Episcopal church,
stored in her basement for decades, just waiting for them to come to life. Her husband, Dale, a former Cumberland Presbyterian had tried another church for awhile but didn't feel comfortable there. Both of them found St. Thomas to be "The Church of the Happy Medium." For Alyson, the services contained just enough liturgy to give her a link to her Catholic heritage. For Dale, there was just enough "preaching" to make him feel like a good Southern Protestant.

Before long, St. Thomas was no longer doubting its existence. . . or its future. It was coming alive. In seven months they grew from eight "hangers on" to about 60 active members including the unchurched, the dechurched and the churched out. Now they're faced with a good problem—that of becoming too big for their benches. Or, in this instance, folding chairs.

"We may be a baby mission but, as Karl says, we're the fastest growing one in the Diocese, because when we get four new people, that is like one-fourth of our congregation!" says Mimi.

Part of the reason for their growth, Karl believes, is that St. Thomas is offering something that people can't find elsewhere. According to him, St. Thomas was a church plant that was done at the right place at the right time—something that would not have happened without demographics. Mimi agrees. "Percept birthed our church," she says.

But it wasn't just the Episcopalians and the denominationally marginalized that were glad to see St. Thomas come to town.

"Several leaders in the Baptist community here said to me, 'We're thankful that you are here because we have reached a saturation point,'" says Lusk. "They added, 'Our polity and our
way of doing things has been presented to everybody, and 33% of the folks who are in a faith-based relationship are active members of one of the Baptist churches here. So we feel that we may have saturated the market. We are not going to quit trying but we're glad to see that there are alternatives, because the bottom line is not about denominational labels, but whether people have heard and accepted the Gospel of Jesus Christ.'"

Lusk would give a heartfelt "Amen" to that. He is already working with other churches in the area to help build a Jubilee Center—a cross-denominational outreach center that will minister to the diverse needs of the community. It's a vision he shares with his bishop, the Diocese's Department of Evangelism & Congregational Development as well as many other leaders in Campbellsville. Although they share a common mission: "to engage the least and the lost, and then share with them the love of Christ" their methodologies will undoubtedly differ. Lusk's own "relational" approach falls in line with the Episcopal tradition.

For Campbellsville, and especially for one hurting individual, it turned out to be the right approach—one that was a healing balm applied on a wound that went deeper than anyone could know.

Surviving Suicide

"Many days you have lingered at my cabin door, but hard times come again no more" goes the Kentucky bluegrass song. In Campbellsville, people might like to sing about their hard times, but that doesn't mean they'll always talk about them. After all, this is a town where a little less than a decade ago, if you didn't show up for church on Sunday, your name would be published in the local paper. Even today, they still broadcast obituaries and birthdays on the radio. This sort of public airing does not exactly promote a climate of vulnerability. Although clearly not a "town without pity", sometimes its' very sense of piety, the same quality that gives them such a strong work ethic and resiliency, can prove to be a double-edged sword. Especially when it came to one of the town's darkest secrets—the ever-increasing suicide rate.

"With the suicides came shame, because so many people would think you were going to hell if you killed yourself," says Mimi Moore. "They would consider it a murder. So the families that were left behind were not being comforted."

Soon it would be two churches in the aftermath of April 15, St. Thomas and Bethel First Presbyterian, that would join together and go in where angels maybe not feared to go, but had little experience in treading. For the most part, all that the members of the newly formed Survivors of Suicide could do was comfort the families of those who had already taken their own lives.

All except for one man. His name wasn't George Bailey and the town wasn't Bedford Falls. But it could have been. Like its fictional counterpart, Campbellsville was as one pastor put it, "A tried-and-true sort of town,". . . "one where the loyalties of the townspeople run deep" said another. One journalist, who would later write about the town's troubles,
was amazed at its astonishing friendliness, remarking that it was a city that was "a place of discipline as well as a place of cheerfulness." This was a hard standard to hold to when you were someone like "George". For a man with an already troubled life, the layoff only served to push him dangerously close to the edge. Enter Survivors of Suicide, and Karl Lusk. Karl, who in his twenty years as a funeral practitioner had only seen "successful" suicides, was now given a Clarence-like chance to prevent one. Thankfully, through a lot of listening, sharing and praying, he was able to talk "George" out of choosing a "permanent solution to a temporary problem." It was, Karl admits, a miracle. "If I came to this town for no other reason than to help save this one life, then it would have been worth it," says Karl.

The Campbellsville Comeback

Three years after the layoffs, the looming presence that once sat on the ridge looking down onto the town, dominating it for so many decades, was gone. The huge 570,000 square foot building stood empty for awhile, the constant hum of sewing machines and the loud swoosh of heavier machinery fading into a distant memory. But then Amazon, representing a giant slice of the New Economy pie, came and changed everything. The former Factory workers returned to a New World—one of books, of music, of vibrancy and hope.

Campbellsville had defied all the odds for survival. "Apparel Layoffs Will Devastate the Local Economy" cried a newspaper headline right after the layoffs. But they didn't. Community leaders came together with astonishing speed and honesty—assessing both their weaknesses and strengths. In just 2 1/2 years Team Taylor managed to recruit 11 companies to relocate to Campbellsville/Taylor County—replacing all of the jobs, plus some. But the New Economy provided more than just jobs; it gave the people something they never had before—empowerment, a strong sense of self-esteem and a window to the future. At "The Factory," the employees had been treated more like errant children with little to contribute. At Amazon they found their ideas were welcomed, and even encouraged. As June Judd would later say, "They've given me the chance to use my brain." But it wasn't a one-sided relationship. Amazon needed the town as well—their resiliency, sense of loyalty and their strong, older-than-dirt work ethic. It wasn't patronization—it was mutual dependency.

When St. Thomas Church emerged, through "fits and starts", it was their sense of mission to help those who fall between the cracks of pity and piety—the hurting and the doubting—that would give them the chance to "use their hearts". Just as Campbellsville's community leaders recognized that it was important for all the residents of the city to benefit from the town's economic revitalization, so the members of St. Thomas had to discover who they were, their uniqueness and what they could offer to their beleaguered community. Or, as Karl says, "to walk where no one else was walking." At the same time, they had to realize they were only one part of God's redemptive purposes. All the parts of the body of Christ were needed in Campbellsville to be fully functional.

"I think there is room for many different approaches," says Karl.

"And that's what we are about—helping to bring the different denominations together for a cause that is bigger than our polities.
And interestingly, people appreciate that. They are tired of hearing all
the things that are different. They're more interested in what we can do
together." -Jenni Keast

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