By Cynthia Walker Watts
The Alabama Baptist
As Vaughan Gardner was settling into his ministry at Trinity Baptist Church, Wilmer, in 2016 he quickly realized change was on the horizon.
A look at the Mobile Baptist Association church’s recent history revealed a story. The church had failed to partner with the elementary school across the street. Their unused gym was buried in cobwebs. They had not conducted Vacation Bible School in 10 years. On Easter Sunday in 2017 and 2018 the attendance was only 25.
The church had enough money to last approximately one-and-a-half years. Gardner intentionally shared this information repeatedly in meetings and services with the small congregation.
“Let’s talk about your future. You don’t have one,” Gardner told them.
“The first time he told them they gasped,” said Gardner’s wife, Virginia.
Gardner didn’t stop there. He explored options and found a training opportunity. That’s when he met George Yates, church health strategist for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions.
Gardner approached Yates about coming to Trinity and advising them. Yates traveled to Wilmer, visited with Gardner and the church, and then Yates and Gardner began to plan.
“The quicker churches realize the need for a turnaround and ask for help the easier it is and the stronger it is for that church to make the turn,” Yates said.
But Trinity needed more than a turn. They needed a whole new direction. So Gardner formed a steering committee.
“We could have a graceful closing or an embarrassing death. We chose the graceful closing,” Gardner said.
They agreed to close Trinity Baptist Church on Dec. 23, 2018. The church closed and the sign came down. They began meeting at the Tanner-Williams Civic and Historical Society building next door.
Although they were not meeting in the church building Gardner and volunteers began working on the church. The cement block walls became Sheetrock. The old maroon carpet became hardwood floors. Video screens were installed.
As the remodeling was taking place passersby stopped and asked if they were selling the building. Inactive members stopped to inquire what was going on. Often those who stopped offered to help or donate materials.
The proceeds from the sale of the old pastorium and the generous donations of time and materials gave the building a completely new look with no debt.
On March 3, 2019, former Trinity members and the neighborhood were invited to an open house for the launch of Westlake Church. The church had 75 in attendance on Easter Sunday.
On Mother’s Day, Gardner announced he invited 400 children to this summer’s Vacation Bible School. That same day the church held a baby dedication, a bright new start led by everyone, not just one person.
“It all had to be everyone’s decision for [the relaunch] to work,” Gardner said.