Members of Lake Highlands United Methodist Church voted Sunday morning to create a partnership with White Rock UMC for the purpose of “doing ministry together” and “purchasing or leasing property” for that use. On behalf of that partnership, the North Texas Conference of UMC has offered a bid to purchase Lake Highlands Plaza, the foreclosed shopping center formerly home of Drug Emporium and Walmart. Following LHUMC’s vote, which passed by 84%, the congregation of WRUMC, located not far from the spillway at White Rock Lake, passed the same motion by 94%.

“We are very pleased and proud of how our members came together today to discuss the idea of a partnership in ministry between Lake Highlands and White Rock United Methodist Churches,” said LHUMC pastor John Thornton after the meeting. “Both congregations voted in overwhelming support, and we believe God has great plans for our churches to work together to positively impact our community and grow God’s Kingdom.”

“It’s like we are at the starting line of a stock car race,” Thornton told his congregation. “The cars are ready and the flag is about to go down. We are at that point in ‘rethinking church’ and expanding our horizons.”

Jim Ozier, Director of Church Transformations for the conference, explained the creation of a legal entity to allow “exploration and due diligence” on behalf of the partnership of churches. If a purchase comes to fruition, “the church must vote to enter contractual arrangements,’ he said.

“We are here to look at trying new things,” added Ozier. “Each week, the UMC loses 1500 members, mostly due to the deaths of ‘saintly folks’ who were devoted church members. The fastest growing religion in America is Islam,” Ozier said. “We must wake up to the fact that it’s time to rethink church.”

“We are seeking new and creative ways to reach to 20-40 age group,” added Thornton, “including expansion of CCDC (Christian Childhood Development Center), which constantly has a waiting list, and adding a Christian book store, a Christian coffee house, small-group ministries and a wide range of other ideas.”

Rumors about the church’s plans have swirled around LH all week. “Are we planning to build low income housing? Not true at all,” Ozier told the congregation. “Build a mega-church? No way. Harm the surrounding neighborhood and/or businesses? Not at all.”

In fact, retention of the rent-paying retail tenants in the center is an important piece of the financing plan for the property, according to Russell May, Chairman of LHUMC’s Stewardship and Finance Committee. “Having a footprint outside of this church allows us to expand our mission field and capitalize on a key piece of real estate in the heart of the community. There can be a not-for-profit component (the church) and a for-profit component (the retailers). We expect positive cash flow by year two,” said May, as the church collects rent income from the property’s tenants. The church would be exempt from paying property taxes on the portion it uses for religious purposes, but would pay tax on the more valuable parcels used for retail nearer the corner.

“I’m delighted that Highlands Café will be staying,” said church member Rosanne McAdam, who leads a women’s bible study at the church on Thursday nights. “It will be great having the café nearby to cater events and host us for meetings over coffee.”

“It’s an opportunity we might not see again in our lifetimes,” added May. “The property was valued at $8 million when we looked at it a few years ago, but it can be purchased for about half that today. The urgency comes from the fact that the property has been foreclosed upon and is available for sale at an attractive price. There are other bidders and they won’t wait. We are in the driver’s seat.”

The next step for the partnership will be to continue negotiations on the sale and report back to the church within 2-3 weeks. The church is one of three active bidders on the property, according to Terry Hoyle, head of LHUMC’s church council. A third church council meeting would be held in about 6 weeks, he said.

“This decision will be a highlighted mark in our history for decades to come,” said May. “Our goal is to combine congregational strengths of LHUMC and WRUMC, and we are blessed to be a part of a church with leadership willing to step outside their comfort zone. I began resistant to change,” May admitted, “but I realized you can’t dig in your heels while you are on your knees in prayer. Our possibilities are endless.”