- November 20, 2015
The First United Methodist Church of Winter Garden has seen tremendous growth in the 16 years that Rusty Belcher had led from the pulpit and in the community. He arrived in 2005 to what would be his final church appointment before retirement.
Belcher retires next month, and he and his wife, Kathi, are moving to the St. Petersburg area to live near a daughter, Lauren, and two of their 10 grandchildren.
AN ANSWERED PRAYER
A number of accomplishments were achieved during Belcher’s time at FUMCWG, including several small groups that were born out of the traditional Sunday school model.
“We developed small groups — we called them Wesley Fellowship groups and home groups,” he said. “That gave people more of an opportunity to have more time in small group, more time in Bible study than just traditional Sunday mornings. To do that and for it to flow out of the Wednesday night program, where we added more classes for adult, students and youth — that’s been big.”
Belcher said it was important to him for the church to be part of the community and to form partnerships with local churches and the city of Winter Garden. One example, he said, is the annual Light Up Winter Garden, a program hosted by the West Orange Ministerial Association that brings the community together each December.
“The connection and the network with the other churches has been important to me,” he said. “My prayer (in 2005) was that I would be sent to a community church, and that prayer was answered through the United Methodist Church.”
The church has been part of the Winter Garden community since 1895, and Belcher was there for the big 120th anniversary celebration in 2015.
He said he is proud of the growth of the church’s various youth programs, including the cub scouts, boy scouts, youth group, Vacation Bible School, and The Learning Center preschool and VPK.
“It was a wild moment to grow VBS from 35 to 350 participants,” Belcher said. “That’s what you can do over 10 years. And to grow the preschool from 30 children to over 100 — VPK was part of that growth.”
The church expanded its worship opportunities too, offering services on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday evenings, and during the pandemic Belcher held outdoor worship services on Friday nights. The Easter sunrise service has always been special to him as well.
OUTSIDE THE CHURCH WALLS
Methodists are known for their ability to gather with food. Two years ago, FUMC started the Caring Table Dinner Church, which created another way to reach people. A Thanksgiving-style meal accompanies Belcher’s message each month.
“What’s remarkable about that is it’s held at the Elks Lodge on Ninth Street,” he said. “They really are the BPOE — the Best People On Earth.”
FUMCWG shares food twice a month from its food pantry, it supports a monthly meal at the Coalition for the Homeless in Orlando, and it sells pulled pork sandwiches each year at the Bloom & Grow Garden Society’s Spring Fever in the Garden festival.
Missions have long been a part of the Winter Garden church — locally, nationally and internationally — and Belcher has led teams to Mississippi, Kentucky and Cuba.
“We’ve taken teenagers and adults to Cuba,” he said. “And while we’re on mission in Cuba, we’re also receiving training from (the citizens). They have shared their lives with us, and we’re richer for it.”
The pandemic presented a challenge as the church worked to stay connected with its members, but everyone worked together to keep the church moving forward.
“During COVID, we went to virtual services, and that had a huge learning curve with it,” Belcher said. “We started with a cell phone held up to a monitor. And then we moved the cell phone up front. And then we used the camera at the back of the church to broadcast, and that was initially only meant for in-house.”
Belcher put together a COVID-19 team of church leaders who met monthly to discuss the pandemic, social distancing and virtual communication. He said every decision was made with keeping people safe as the No. 1 priority.
A NEW ADVENTURE
The Belchers’ time in Winter Garden is coming to a close, but it doesn’t mean the end to the close friendships they have cultivated. They intend to keep in touch with friends here, just as they have done in other communities.
Prior to arriving in Winter Garden, Belcher pastored in areas such as Tallahassee and Orange City. His wife is a retired school guidance counselor.
In a goodbye letter to his congregation, Belcher wrote: “I am eternally thankful for my years serving as your pastor.”
One of the first things the Belchers plan to do upon arrival at their new home is to find a new church home, one in which the couple finally can sit together in the sanctuary pew.
“We’re looking for a church through the eyes of a family instead of the eyes of a pastor,” he said.
He wants to teach his 6-year-old grandson about baseball and basketball and plans to spend his retirement watching more football and baseball, especially the Tampa Bay Rays.
As the Belchers move out of the parsonage, the newly appointed pastor and her family are preparing to move in.
“We’re excited about Rev. Melissa Stump coming to Winter Garden; we’re moving on with the next generation,” Belcher said. “She comes to us from the First United Methodist Church of Lakeland. She has 18 years of experience and also served as a pastor at First United Methodist Church of Melbourne and … of Cocoa Beach.”