LAKEWOOD RANCH — As Lee Rich and Andy Wells walk the hallways of their home church, they are stepping on new, yet familiar, territory.
Lakewood Ranch Baptist Church — formerly Sarasota Baptist Church’s satellite campus — officially formed July 1.
“This is exciting; it’s a great starting point,” said Rich, who has been with the church for about eight years. “We hope to have a big kick off (Aug. 18).”
She and Wells, the church’s only full-time employees, are, in many ways, spearheading the transition.
Rich, Lakewood Ranch Baptist’s office manager, has been busy transferring accounts, setting up bookkeeping, ordering new business cards and handling other details.
Wells, the church’s youth pastor, has been overseeing changes as well, and even helped create the church’s new logo.
“My graphic-design background is coming in handy,” he said, smiling.
The two hope the church’s sign off University Parkway can be changed soon to say Lakewood Ranch Baptist Church, but the modification still is in permitting with Sarasota County.
“We’re still in the process of working out many details,” Rich said.
Sarasota Baptist Church celebrated the opening of its Lakewood Ranch campus in December 2007. The three-story, 50,000-square-foot building included 25 classrooms and a multi-purpose auditorium that can seat up to 850 people. It also is attached to a pre-existing building, which Sarasota Baptist acquired in 2003; the structure, which was converted to accommodate children and youth, previously housed University Baptist Church, which had been suffering from severe debt and lack of permanent leadership.
Sarasota Baptist Senior Pastor Mike Landry drove from campus to campus to lead services. The church hired a campus pastor to oversee day-to-day activities there.
At its peak, Lakewood Ranch Baptist had more than 500 attendees.
Rich said membership declined to about 250, as four campus pastors came and left. The last campus pastor, Larry Riley, left in September, just months before Wells joined the church’s staff full time.
“That has taken a toll on us,” Rich said of the turnover. “We were trying to operate under the vision of Sarasota Baptist.”
Wells added: “It was a different community. We felt like it was time for us to have our own vision as our own church. With that, we’re (better able) to focus on the community we have (here).”
Representatives of both Sarasota Baptist locations teamed up in December to form a feasibility team, to determine what would be necessary to move forward with separating the two churches and putting both in positions to succeed.
The team presented its plan for making the separation work to both the Sarasota and Lakewood Ranch congregations the following month. The plan received virtually unanimous approval, Rich said.
“It’s harder, but it was necessary (to move forward without a senior pastor,” Wells said. “We had to go through this process as Lakewood Ranch Baptist.”
Transition teams from both campuses began working out the details, and the separation, which Wells views as a church plant, became official this month.
As part of the agreement, Lakewood Ranch Baptist is leasing its facilities from Sarasota Baptist, which retains ownership of the property. Sarasota Baptist, Rich said, is working to refinance its mortgage to reduce costs, as well.
Interim pastor the Rev. Jeff Hessinger, of the Florida Baptist Conference, began leading services and meeting with staff in December. Still, his role with the church is limited, while the church seeks a new full-time leader.
A search committee for Lakewood Baptist’s own senior pastor launched in June, and the group quickly organized to survey members about the qualities they’d like to see in the new pastor. The pastor search has begun, but candidate interviews are likely at a least a month away.
“We’re all looking forward to finding a senior pastor,” Wells said. “I think a lot’s going to happen once that happens.”
Searches for senior pastors often take at least one year, but Rich said church members are hopeful they’ll find a new leader soon.
Rich and Wells agree they are excited about the opportunity for Lakewood Ranch Baptist to form its own identity and focus.
“We’re excited about having people volunteer and make it feel like it’s their church,” Rich said. “We can’t make it without everybody getting their hands dirty.”
Rich said the church’s ministries, including Bible studies and other programming, will remain intact, and the church hopes to move forward with a renewed focus on serving the community.
“We hope to focus more on outreach to the community than we have in the past,” Rich said.
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].