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Traveling church delivers worship service in 30 minutes or less

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 04:39 AM

Jim Butner bounds into the sunny dining room at Belvedere Commons, all smiles and full of pep. His gangly frame is constantly in motion, bending over to give hugs and shoulder squeezes.

"How are you today, Irene? What a be-you-ti-ful sweater," he enthuses to a wisp of a white-haired woman, sitting hunched in a wheelchair.

She looks up and stares at him. She recognizes him from somewhere, she's just not sure exactly where.

"The color is perfect on you," Jim says. Their eyes lock. Then she remembers. It's that nice man who comes here every week! She smiles broadly.

For 10 minutes or so on this Tuesday morning, he works the room, paying a personal visit to each of the two dozen elderly residents gathered in the communal area at the Sun City Center assisted living facility. Without using a cheat sheet, Jim calls each one by name, giving everyone a personalized greeting.

How to describe him? He makes the Energizer Bunny look as if he's out of batteries. After all the hellos, Jim, 66, gets down to business.

"Good morning, all!" he says. "So good to see everyone today. It's a beautiful day to give praise to the Lord!"

And on that positive note, Jim's ministry, Nondenominational Christian Worship Services, begins.

That's quite a mouthful of a name, he admits, but it sums up perfectly the mission of the all-volunteer, no-budget operation he founded five years ago: to provide a short, Bible-based worship service to people in independent living complexes, rehabilitation and nursing centers, and Alzheimer's and dementia facilities.

Think of it as "church on the go" for people who don't have the mobility to make it on their own anymore. The shorter duration – a half-hour, tops – is geared to those whose memories are faltering, or who have physical limitations.

"We're meeting the physical needs of our residents," says Bonnie Jones, Belvedere's executive director. "And Jim is nourishing their souls. He's a true gift from God." Her program director, Marsha Hohlbaugh, says these visits are the high point of the week for many of the residents.

"All I have to do is say it's time for Tuesday morning worship, and they're on their way," she says. "Mr. Jim is a real special person. He's lets them know they're special in his eyes and God's eyes."

****

Jim and about 30 other NCWS volunteers are leading weekly services at 10 locations in the Sun City area. With his training as a Christian lay speaker, he's one of the worship leaders, with others delivering readings, playing music and serving as ushers.

They don't promote any particular denomination. And here's something unusual: They don't pass around a collection plate. At some of the independent living facilities, they will put a donation basket up at the front of the room, making it a no-pressure decision for the worshipers. They have about eight charities they support – from the Salvation Army to Good Samaritan Mission – but there's no push to give.

That approach works. In five years, NCWS has raised about $65,000.

Marie Veysey, program director for the memory unit at Clare Bridge, says it was that aspect of the ministry that put aside her concerns. Yes, she wanted a dependable group to come in and provide this spiritual component. But not if it involved trying to get money out of the residents.

"That's the thing with Jim. He's completely trustworthy," she says. "And that enthusiasm! He's a ball of energy on legs."

To be able to run a ministry of this size efficiently, it takes an organized take-charge kind of person. And to call Jim organized is, well, an understatement.

No one knows that better than Phyllis, the woman he met on a blind date and married 45 years ago. While she's no slouch in this department, no one comes close to her husband when it comes to scheduling and planning.

Once he tried to pull her into his world. He left a detailed note for her with a to-do list and a timetable. She promptly ripped it up into "tiny little pieces" and sprinkled them all over the counter. He never tried that again.

"Jim really does keep a spreadsheet of the Publix layout," she says. "That way he can optimize his shopping time. You've got to love the guy, but most people don't operate that way."

The concept for NCWS came out of personal experience for the Butners. Both are retired Maryland teachers; Jim spent 33 years as an educator and Phyllis taught 30 years. After retiring in their 50s, they came to Florida to be close to their aging parents. They ended up as caregivers for their mothers, both of whom had Alzheimer's.

That journey was a "true test of faith," Jim says, putting him through a roller coaster of emotions and challenges. After his mother's death in 2007, he started thinking of how to make the difficult journey better for both the afflicted and their loved ones.

"Spiritual contact is not a big priority in these facilities," he says. "You've got people coming in to do services, but they would change on a weekly basis. One time it might be someone in seminary, then the next week an ordained pastor, and another time a lay individual."

That rotation doesn't work well with people suffering from memory loss. Consistency and routine are very important for this population. Based on their own observations and background in education, they came up with a 30-minute format for a service. The messages and Scripture readings would be Christian-based but would not promote any particular denomination.

The hymns also would be a vital component. Because even when a person forgets a spouse's name, the memory of a song sung in church as a child tends to remain, or the reciting of "The Lord's Prayer" or the 23rd Psalm.

Their first service was at Belvedere Commons (then called Benton House). The Butners never expected it to go any further than that. The residents and staff loved it. As word-of-mouth grew, so did the ministry. Other facilities began requesting services. Jim and Phyllis started recruiting friends to lend a hand. He now refers to the team as "MOM" – a ministry of many.

Sun City Center neighbor Mary Ann Innis says if Jim comes calling, "You just know you're about to be pulled into something." She's now a volunteer. So is Claire Hadley, who plays her portable keyboard at some of the services.

"He's got such a sweet spirit and a huge heart. You hear some of the residents say, 'Oh boy, I wish I could take him home with me.' They like that they don't just get a Christian message, they get a happy one," Hadley says.

"And," she notes, "at our age, we need that."

Jim thinks laughter is the best medicine, and doesn't mind poking fun at himself. At a Sunday morning service at Aston Gardens, an independent living facility, he pulls out a giant water blaster.

"Some of the ladies are complaining that a few men are dozing off during services," he says, surveying the room. "I must warn you, I can hit an eyeglass lens from 30 paces. I'm armed and dangerous!"

Jack Barton, sitting in the back of the room, breaks out in a chuckle. Raised a Baptist, he remembers Sunday mornings in church that sometimes stretched on for two hours.

"This is in and out," he says. "He gets right to the point. Of all the ministers I've had in my lifetime, he's the best."

****

Jim admits he often gets mistaken for a preacher. He clears that up right away.

"I'm just a spiritually driven Christian who likes to share his faith," he says. 'We saw a need and we found a way to fill it. It's really pretty simple."

It's not like Jim has nothing but time on his hands in his retirement. He says he's busier now than when he taught school, only "now it's my choice."

He's a driver for the Sun City Center Emergency Squad, a coordinator for Reddick Elementary School's Role Model program for fifth-graders and a regular visitor to residents in nursing homes. His organizational skills come in handy for scheduling all those volunteer obligations.

When Claire Hadley's husband died of a heart attack, the first thing she said was "Call Jim Butner." She needed someone to help her navigate the emotional aftershocks that come with a spouse's sudden death, and to help her make the necessary arrangements. He took care of everything, something she will never forget.

"You can depend on him," she says. "And he has such a comforting way. Everything he does, he does from the heart."

The way Jim figures it, he and Phyllis were blessed with a good retirement and good health. It's something he doesn't take for granted. He says they intend to give back as long as they're able.

As for being able to remember all those names, Jim credits the years he spent in the classroom. In three days, he would be able to attach a name and a face to all 150 students. He says that skill is a "vital part" of the NCWS ministry.

"You need to get their attention and keep it. And part of that is making that personal connection," he says. "I think there's nothing more important than knowing someone's name. It shows that you are taking time to care about that individual."

Hildie Wetherbe says she feels the love every time Jim comes to Belvedere Commons.

"He has a way of making you feel like you're somebody special," says Hiltie, 85. "You know what? This is the one half-hour a week that I look forward to the most."

To learn more about the ministry and how to get involved, call (813) 634-3114.

mbearden@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7613

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