The Great Easter Bash at Charlie Daniels Park has been cancelled by its host this year. Friendship Community Church has sponsored the Easter egg hunt the past 10 years and Senior Pastor Michael DiMarco said the decision to cancel was a very difficult choice, but necessary for a number of reasons.
"Our heartbeat is still with the community, but now in more practical ways and loving Jesus," DiMarco said Wednesday.
The bash grew bigger and bigger, had an extravagant price tag, church membership dwindled to half its size with less tithings to pay for the hunt, a fire that obliterated their offices and the purchase of Shiloh Plaza for their upcoming Ministry Mall are a few of the changes that made sponsoring the $20,000 annual event cost prohibitive.
However, said DiMarco, the church will continue their smaller Easter Egg Hunt for special needs children. It is an annual event as well and each year is scheduled at a different time than the main egg hunt. Now that the main egg hunt is cancelled, the special needs hunt its tentatively scheduled for April 8 this year, with the time announced closer to the event.
For a decade the community's children converged on the park the Saturday before Easter and scoured the fields for more than 60,000 eggs. The egg hunt morphed through the years to include pony rides, face painting, food and more. Thousands attended the egg hunt that got so big it was broken into two hunts the same day.
A common misconception is the City of Mt. Juliet sponsored the annual hunt, or kicked in with the planning, however, this is not the case DiMarco said.
"We did it all and it was so expensive," he explained. "In November we reached out to see if any other churches wanted to help shoulder the load, but I think it was too late this year to take on. Hopefully, now that there is a vacuum something can be done to unite the church community to help share the load next year."
Purchase of Shiloh Plaza for Ministry Mall
Friendship Community Church in March 2016 purchased Shiloh Plaza for around $3 million. The church meets at Elzie Patton Elementary School and has an active capital building fund that was healthy enough to put a down payment on the strip mall that was built in the 1970s and has slowly dwindled over the years.
The strip mall is situated right on the county line on Lebanon Road near Hermitage. While they now have their offices and children's youth ministry space open there, their worship and Ministry Mall spaces won't be ready until August. Also open and in gear at the Ministry Mall is their outreach, The Food Bank, that served 250 families in 2016 as a place to grocery shop for food with dignity.
"With this new huge space we want to be the gateway to Mt. Juliet," DiMarco said.
They are building out the former Save-A-Lot space for their worship hall and a total of 22,000 square feet for other church functions. Currently there are five existing tenants in the strip mall and the pastor said as their leases expire the church will decide on a case-by-case-basis the future rent status of those businesses. Comcast is the largest tenant on the church property at this time and rents from the church.
Decision to cancel Easter Egg Hunt
DiMarco cringed and said he didn't want to be known as the 'minister who killed the Easter Bash,' but said reality spoke and it just wasn't doable anymore because of circumstances.
"Oh, we aren't against candy and fun and events," he said. "We had a really neat Candy Cruise In at the strip mall for this past Halloween."
That cost was more "doable" at $600.
DiMarco took over as senior pastor six months ago. He came to a church that had not had a pastor, or even an interim pastor, for over a year.
"Membership dwindled by more than half," he said. "At one point the church had 1,200 congregants per Sunday. When I came there were about 450. The church had retracted without leadership. It was kind of attrition."
With fewer members, the tithing budget plummeted.
"I looked at the budget," DiMarco said. "I had to think of the best use of resources and manpower."
He surveyed the staff.
"I didn't want to be the one who killed Easter," he said. "But, really, the egg hunt isn't really Easter. I polled the staff and members, and lay leaders. I asked, 'Do we want to do this next year?' Our offices had burned down and we had to move to the plaza sooner than expected and set up offices. It was unanimous."
DiMarco said while they love and are committed to the community, they found many of the people who attended the Easter egg hunt were already committed to other churches and, "We didn't see we drew any new members." However, the preacher said this didn't preclude cancelling the hunt, but they could not find anyone at that point to "share the heavy load."
"Everyone at the church loved the Easter Egg Bash, but, unfortunately the fire etc...were legitimate reasons why we could not carry on with it," DiMarco explained. "With this lost momentum, maybe in 2018 we can get the churches to come together."
He said just like a family budget, hard choices had to be made.
The future Ministry Mall
Now, it's time to look to the future of the church and its ministry. Along with the worship space slated to open in August, there will also be a preschool Sunday school space. The Food Bank is now open on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Along with church donation of food for the bank, Second Harvest Food Bank is involved, as well as numerous local businesses that donate food. It's one of the few food banks that also gives away meat.
The church hopes to provide spiritual Christian councilors for those in need and there are talks to open a career services center with job interviewing strategy classes and more.
"We also want to start a tutoring center for children, for those families who can't afford to hire one," DiMarco said.
"It's all about the spirit of cooperation," he said.
News is spreading about this move to Shiloh Plaza and the church's plans for the future. Already, membership has blossomed again to 650 congregants.