by Bob Smietana
The Ministry Village at Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola began with prayer, the Bible and a hurricane.
About 10 years ago, many of Olive Baptist Church’s neighbors lost their homes and jobs when Hurricane Ivan slammed the Gulf Coast. Families who had once been struggling to get by now slipped deeper into poverty.
“It uncovered a lot of needs that were there the whole time, but they all came to the surface because of Ivan,” says Stan Lollar, executive director of the Ministry Village at Olive Inc.
At the same time, the planning committee was praying about the future and studying Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 25 about “the least of these.”
That led to the start of the Ministry Village, a church-affiliated nonprofit that provides food, medical care, recovery treatment, and other assistance to those in need. It was modeled after the Christian Care Center at First Baptist Church in Leesburg, Florida.
The goal is to make the love of Christ tangible and to share the gospel in action as well as words, said Lollar.
“Matthew 25 tells us that we are the Lord’s hands and feet,” he said. “The best way to share Him with hurting people is through this kind of ministry.”
Church volunteers run some of the ministries, such as a food pantry and support groups. The Ministry Village also built a brand new 5,000 square foot space for a local medical clinic, which leases the space for free. They also opened the Bargain Center, a thrift-store that employs 10 people. Any proceeds from the store go to help support the ministry.
Last year the Ministry Village helped more than 2,300 people. Some came for short-term assistance, such as food or help paying their rent or utilities, through a program called “Tender Hearts, Caring Hands.” Others joined the ongoing support groups known as “The Most Excellent Way.”
All are linked to the gospel, says Lollar.
“Our pastor made it clear from day one,” he says. “Whatever programs we do – if the gospel can’t be part of it, we are not going to do it.”
Sometimes the gospel is shared in subtle ways, such as a tract tucked into a bag of food or prayers offered to someone who has stopped in for help.
Evangelism works better in some of the long-term settings, says Lollar, such as the support groups, where church volunteers have formed strong relationships with group members.
“It’s something we are trying to become more intentional about,” he says.
Lollar, a retired J.C. Penny manager began volunteering with the church’s support groups when they started back in the 1990s. In 2003, he felt God calling him to leave J.C. Penny and get more involved in volunteer work.
It was a real leap of faith to Lollar. He believed God had a plan for his life but wanted a few more details.
“I told the Lord I sure would like to know what those plans were,” he recalls.
Lollar became the liaison between the church and local community groups during the rebuilding process following Hurricane Ivan. That led him to become more involved in local nonprofits and affordable housing issues.
Eventually, he was asked to become the executive director for the Ministry Village. The church provided most of the initial funding as well as seven acres of land for the project, which continues to expand.
The work of the Ministry Village is hard at times. Many of the people Lollar assists are dealing with heartbreaking situations, where there’s no easy solution.
But he’s inspired to keep going, in large part because of his own experience of finding healing in Christ.
Lollar says some of his family dealt with addiction, and he saw the toll it took on them. He also lost a sister at a young age, a loss that haunted him for years and left him feeling bitter inside.
He found healing by turning that bitterness and loss over to Christ. That’s something he’s often shared with guests at the Ministry Village who are struggling with addictions or other issues.
One of the next projects for the Ministry Village, Lollar hopes, is a counseling ministry that will provide both mental health and spiritual care.
That new ministry will include outreach to military veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome. PTSD is commonplace in Pensacola, which is home to many veterans.
“It’s a big, big, big issue,” he says.
Olive Baptists’ pastor, Ted Traylor, says evangelism involves both good news and good works. He urges members to do both.
“The plow has two handles. If we are to plow in God’s field, we need to grasp both handles,” he says. “The gospel—tell it and show it.”
Want to know more? Visit ministryvillage.org.
Bob Smietana (@bobsmietana) is the senior writer and content editor of Facts & Trends.