Good Friday prayer and fasting emphasis adds NAE, ARP, ECO, CRC, others

 

GoodFridayPrayerFastingOn March 31, the EPC announced an ecumenical Call to Prayer and Fasting for Good Friday, April 10. Other participant denominations included the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA).

As the event has gained traction in the evangelical community, additional groups are providing resources for a Good Friday prayer and fasting emphasis. These include the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Christian Reformed Church in North America, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Converge network of churches, and the National Association of Evangelicals.

“When the leaders of the PCA and ACNA and I first discussed this, we had hoped that many of our 550,000 total church members would take part,” said Jeff Jeremiah, EPC Stated Clerk. “Between one and two million people are now involved through their denominations and networks. It’s almost hard to imagine that many people humbling themselves and earnestly seeking the Lord.”

A variety of resources to help churches prepare and participate are available on the EPC website at www.epc.org/goodfridayprayerfastingresources.

GoodFridayPrayerFastingResources

Heaven’s bells: First EPC Roanoke (Va.) rings carillon bells to support local healthcare workers

 

Churches in Roanoke, Va., are showing their support for our healthcare workers in the most vocal way they know how—ringing bells. The local effort to bless and affirm medical professionals began with Carilion Clinic, a non-profit health care organization based in Roanoke, and its Carilion Community Outreach and Healing Arts program.

RobertSmith

Robert Smith

First Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Roanoke is one of its first partners. Pastor Robert Smith said it was an easy decision when the hospital asked if they would ring their bell towers during 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. shift changes to honor those caring for the community during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are the closest church to the hospital, so we immediately agreed.” Smith said. “Our bell tower has the original bells from when the church building was built in 1929. Simply changing the schedule of our bells for a period of time, it’s a very small thing for us to do.”

“I think we have a few neighbors who might be praying harder for a cure than the rest of us because of the early schedule,” he quipped.

Katie Biddle, Director of Carilion’s Keely Healing Arts Program, was seeking creative ways to cheer on their hospital workers. In Europe and elsewhere, cathedrals and churches began ringing their bells several weeks ago as a show of support for health care workers in their communities. Biddle brought the idea to the Roanoke valley.

“What we’d really like to do is offer a show of support throughout Southwest Virginia, throughout our local community hospitals, as well as long-term care facilities,” she said.

Smith’s wife, Julie, is a bereavement specialist at Carilion, so the church bells have taken on more personal tone than ever before. The church is supporting the community in other ways as well. On March 23, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam order all schools in the state closed for the rest of the school year. First EPC operates a preschool, which they also closed as a precaution.

“Because of that, we have offered our parking lot to Carilion as a drive-through rapid testing site should that become necessary. So far it hasn’t,” Smith said. “The Lord has been gracious to us. None of our members are hospitalized, and as of yesterday (April 1) Carilion only reported 34 positive tests out of the 657 they have conducted.”

Several members of the congregation live in nursing homes, which Smith said he has not been allowed to visit.

“Thankfully we are doing well, though it’s frustrating not being able to meet together—as it is for everybody. But we are participating in the prayer and fasting on Good Friday and expect that to be a blessing to our congregation.”

with additional reporting from Lindsay Cayne, WDBJ-7 News in Roanoke. Video courtesy of Carilion Clinic.

EPC churches using technology, intentionality to minister during coronavirus crisis

 
StowPres

Bob Stanley, Pastor of Stow Presbyterian Church in Stow, Ohio, took advantage of a beautiful spring day in northeast Ohio to deliver his Sunday morning message on March 29 to the church’s website from his back yard.

While the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis has dramatically impacted businesses, state and local governments, the healthcare industry, and the daily lives of all Americans, EPC churches are meeting the challenge of ministering to their congregations and communities in unprecedented circumstances.

Stephen Morefield, pastor of Christ Covenant EPC in Leoti, Kan., wrote that the church is seeing “quite a bit of fruit” from reaching out to its small, rural community of about 100 in a county with a population of 1,500.

StephenMorefield

Stephen Morefield

“Because we are an agriculture-based community, all of our farmers and ranchers are as busy, if not busier, than ever,” Morefield wrote. “We have a few non-essential businesses so while there’s no one out unless they need to be, nearly all businesses are continuing to function. The food supply is as important as it ever will be during times like this.”

He said Christ Covenant has seen an explosion of Facebook use during the crisis.

“We’ve never seen so many people watch Bible devotions or local sermons online,” wrote Morefield. “It’s quite remarkable and we’re praying that it leads to more unchurched visitors after all of this has settled down.”

Engagement on the church’s website and social media platforms has been its largest ever, according to Morefield.

“When your church page has 350 percent more views in a week, reaches 235 percent more people, has 425 percent more engagement and 18,000 more video views, something notable is happening,” Morefield said. “The challenge is using the opportunity faithfully with real biblical context and gospel hope, and then translating this into not more couch-sitting church-goers, but more actual church-goers.”

Bob Stanley, pastor of Stow Presbyterian Church in Stow, Ohio, said he was on vacation when the crisis erupted, and knew he and his staff had to work quickly to respond.

BobStanley

Bob Stanley

“In less than 48 hours we launched a new barebones website and went to a guided worship experience via prerecorded video,” he said. “The plus of all of this is that I can record my message on Thursday and upload it, and have our discipleship guys have it all set to trigger and go live at midnight on the weekend.”

While he considers himself tech-savvy, Stanley said he is amazed at the quality of video tools and resources available—he said the church started broadcasting its services using an iPhone XR.

“We literally did this with everything that we already had,” he said.

Stanley added the community has applauded the way the church has handled the crisis and efforts to stay connected while not gathering in person.

“We’ve received multiple emails or messages to social media thanking us that we have been clear, and that we have been hopeful,” he said. “Our church theme this year is to be servants, the idea that Christ is a servant and came to serve. So the Lord prepared us for that concept. We’ve received a lot of feedback that people appreciate that we have a servant’s heart in how we are approaching this.”

Thousands of miles from northeastern Ohio in downtown San Francisco, Troy Wilson, Pastor at The Table, said the small, “highly relational,” international, and multicultural church is finding ways to keep connected and meet needs. He emphasized that having the entire city and state on mandatory lockdown has presented unique challenges for the church’s congregants—comprised largely of artists, musicians, medical workers, and other professionals.

TroyWilson

Troy Wilson

“We’ve just resorted to using Facebook Live for worship. It’s nothing fancy,” he said. “Our small groups are using Google Hangouts. We can get 12 to 15 folks on there.”

He added that most of the congregation is younger adults.

“I’m one of the older people at the church,” he said. “They are definitely more tech-savvy and social media savvy. But this is all new for us as a church, because we have never relied on the social media platform—good or bad—it’s just not who we are. We’ve wanted people to come and experience us in person.”

Wilson said one of the upsides has been that those who attend The Table are sharing the link with friends who don’t go to church, as well as increased interaction.

“We really do see our community reaching out to one another,” Wilson said, adding another positive is that people not connected with the church are “looking for answers.”

For example, Wilson, who also is a realtor, shared that a real estate colleague recently reached out to him about some challenges going on in his life.

“He wants to talk because he wants to know the faith piece that he’s missing,” Wilson said. “He’s not a Christian and he’s not a person of faith, and he just wants my perspective on what Christianity is, and if the Christian message has anything to say about what he is going through.”

DougResler

Doug Resler

Doug Resler, Senior Pastor of Parker Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Parker, Colo., said keeping the congregation “relationally engaged” is essential.

“The biggest takeaway so far is that people are looking for connection and not content,” Resler said by email.

“The most impactful program we’re running is keeping our Early Learning Center open. We are in conversation and coordination with our county health partners, as well as state and local leaders, to provide childcare for up to 12 years of age for the families of those who work in the most critical sectors.”

At Memorial Park Presbyterian Church in Allison Park, Pa., pastoral and volunteer teams have mobilized to care for congregants.

KevinGourley

Kevin Gourley

“We have divided up a list of 170 members over the age of 80 to call within the next week. Next we will divide up those between 70-80 years of age to call,” Kevin Gourley, Minister of Congregational Care, said by email. “The rest of our 1,300-member congregation will be divided up by family units to be called by the six pastors, 15 elders, 36 deacons, and 30 Stephen Ministers on an every-other-week basis until the virus subsides.”

Gourley wrote that a prototypical call includes four questions: 1) How are you and your family doing? 2) Is there anything physically we can do for you? 3) Are you aware of our online services and daily devotions that we are offering and how to access them online? and 4) How can we pray for you?

“Even if we leave messages, all the congregation will know that their church leadership is caring and praying for them in this time of crisis,” he said.

Nadia Stropich, Transitional Pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in Angier, N.C., said the absence of face-to-face contact is a challenge and an opportunity for the Church.

NadiaStropich

Nadia Stropich

“It’s a beautiful time as well,” she said, “because while we many times see the negative side of cyberbullying with people thinking, ‘I can say anything because I’m not there face-to-face.’ On a positive note, we can also say things because we are not there face-to-face, so that intimidation of sharing the gospel goes away—because I just post it on Facebook.”

Stropich recounted a chapel service during her seminary studies at Princeton Theological Seminary the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She said a message from the Book of Ester by the late Thomas W. Gillespie had a deep and lasting impact on her ministry.

“He said, ‘For who knows for such a time you have been called.’ Those in that class didn’t realize the ramifications of what he was saying,” she said. “As an encouragement to pastors right now and even the flock, ‘Who knows for such a time as this you have been chosen.’ God knows what the outcome is. God knew this was coming, and we are to be strong and courageous because we have an opportunity that we have never had before to share the gospel in new ways that are taking everybody out of their comfort zone.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

EPC joins ecumenical Call to Prayer and Fasting for Good Friday, provides resources

 

GoodFridayPrayerFastingThe EPC and its 143,000 members are uniting in prayer and fasting with the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) on Good Friday, April 10. The historic, ecumenical effort is a response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic sweeping North America.

“I am thrilled that our three denominations have united for the first time to pray for God’s mercy and healing,” said Jeff Jeremiah, EPC Stated Clerk. “In Matthew 11:28 Jesus says, ‘Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.’ On April 10, we are going to humble ourselves and pray to almighty God for His grace, mercy, and love to heal us, restore us, and relieve us from this crushing burden of disease.”

The Call to Prayer and Fasting is “for all believers in Christ in the PCA, EPC, and ACNA to set aside Good Friday, April 10, as a day of prayer and fasting to cry out for God’s help in addition to a day of worship,” Jeremiah said.

“Our goal is for all 550,000 members of these three churches to have the opportunity to participate,” he added. “Other denominations are aware of the planning for this event and have asked to be invited. Among these are the National Association of Evangelicals and ECO. Should these groups participate, we could have millions of Christians joining their hearts in prayer.”

The EPC is providing three resources to help churches prepare and participate:

“We are sending these resources ten days in advance of the event to give our pastors and church leaders time to review and consider their use,” Jeremiah noted. “Of course, churches are free to use other materials that would be helpful to their congregation. Whatever resources are used, the leadership of the PCA and ACNA join me in hoping that we will all unite in prayer to God on Good Friday.”

These resources also are available at www.epc.org/goodfridayprayerfastingresources.

GoodFridayPrayerFastingResources

TE Timothy Russell succumbs to COVID-19

 
TimRussell

Tim Russell

Dear EPC family,

It is with a heavy heart that I inform you of the death late Monday night (March 30) of TE Tim Russell. He had been hospitalized with COVID-19 for about two weeks. He served as Assistant Pastor for Middle Adults at Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis and was a member of the EPC’s Revelation 7:9 Task Force.

Please pray for his wife, Kathe, and the entire Second Pres family. I am reminded once again during this time of crisis of Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, that we do not grieve as others do, who have no hope. Our hope is in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Tim has seen His face!

I’ve known Tim since 2006, when I met him while on a trip to Memphis. We spent an afternoon together as he showed me and talked about the Memphis College of Urban and Theological Studies (MCUTS), where he was the President at the time. He was passionate about the opportunity to provide theological education to urban pastors. Tim made an indelible impact for Jesus Christ in Memphis and beyond, and will be missed tremendously.

Jeff Jeremiah
EPC Stated Clerk

CARES Act provides benefits for churches during coronavirus crisis

 

CaresActCapitolOn March 27, President Donald Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The legislation provides many benefits to individuals and churches. The purpose of this article is to provide information solely about how EPC churches may apply for federally guaranteed loans during the COVID-19 crisis. A subsequent article will address individual benefits.

“Please note that this is our best understanding of the CARES Act on March 30,” said Jeff Jeremiah, EPC Stated Clerk. “The implementation of this program hasn’t been finalized yet, so we will continue to monitor developments related to the CARES Act as they occur and provide updates as quickly as possible.”

Q: How can my church benefit from the CARES Act?

A: The CARES Act allows for any 501(c)(3) organization with 500 or fewer employees that has been substantially affected by COVID-19 to borrow under the Small Business Administration (SBA) 7(a) program—the Paycheck Protection Program Loan. The EPC is a 501(c)(3) organization, which means all EPC churches enjoy this status.

Q: Why are EPC churches eligible for this loan program?

A: The purpose of these loans is to help small businesses to keep their workers employed and compensated through the COVID-19 crisis. This program incentivizes employers to keep their employees instead of laying them off and shutting down their businesses.

Q: When will the SBA begin taking applications for Paycheck Protection Program loans?

A: On March 29, Larry Kudlow, Director of the United States National Economic Council, announced that the SBA would begin taking applications on Friday, April 3. This date may change given the fluidity of the impact of COVID-19.

Q: What is the duration of the Paycheck Protection Program?

A: The Paycheck Protection Program covers the period beginning February 15, 2020 and ending on June 30, 2020 (the “Covered Period”).

Q: What is the loan amount a church may apply for?

A: That amount is determined by the church’s payroll and related employee expenses for the period February 15 through June 30, 2020.

Q: How much can a church or ministry borrow?

A: The amount that may be borrowed is the total average monthly payroll costs for the preceding 12 months (March 2019 through February 2020), multiplied by a factor of 2.5. For example, if the average payroll costs for the preceding twelve months were $20,000, the maximum amount of the loan would be $20,000 times 2.5 for a total of $50,000. The maximum amount available for a Payroll Protection Loan is $10,000,000.

Q: What costs are considered payroll costs?

A: Salary or wages, payments of a cash tip, vacation, parental, family, medical, or sick leave, health benefits, retirement benefits, and state and local taxes.

Q: Is there a salary maximum that the loan can cover?

A: Yes. Salary expenses above $100,000 per employee are not eligible for consideration as payroll costs. Loan proceeds may not be used to pay salaries above $100,000 per employee.

Q: Is the pastor’s housing allowance included in the computation of payroll costs?

A: The SBA needs to issue guidance on how housing allowance will factor into the payroll cost calculations.

Q: Are there any other ways in which this loan may be used?

A: The loan proceeds may also be used to pay mortgage interest (not principal) payments, rent payments, utilities, or interest on other loans outstanding at the time of the pandemic. As stated above, the total amount of the loan can be up to 2.5 times the average monthly payroll costs for the one-year period preceding the date of the loan. However, the only amount eligible for forgiveness is the total spent during the eight-week period beginning on the date of the loan on payroll costs including benefits (except for staff with salaries over $100,000), mortgage interest payments (not principal), rent, and utilities.

Q: How will the church need to document how its Paycheck Protection Program loan is used?

A: The church is required to make a “good faith certification” that the loan is necessary due to economic conditions caused by COVID-19. The church will need to demonstrate that the loan was used to retain employees, maintain payroll, and pay rent and utilities.

Q: How soon must the church, ministry, or pastor repay the loan?

A: A Paycheck Protection Program loan may include a term of up to 10 years from the date of application.

Q: What is the interest rate for a Paycheck Protection Program loan?

A: The maximum interest rate for this loan is 4 percent per year.

Q: May payments under the loan be deferred?

A: Yes, for a period not less than six months but not to exceed more than one year from the date of the loan.

Q: May all or part of the Paycheck Protection Program loan be forgiven?

A: Yes, the program is designed to encourage employers to retain employees and loan forgiveness is a key feature of these loans. A church under a covered loan can have all or a portion of the principal of the loan forgiven in an amount equal to payroll costs, mortgage interest, rent, or utility costs during the eight-week period following the origination of the loan. The forgiven amount, however, may be reduced based on a formula that compares the ministry’s employment in prior pre-COVID periods with the number of employees and each employee’s wage or salary in the eight-week period following the origination of the loan.

Q: How does my church apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan?

A: Churches will apply for this loan through an approved SBA lender, which includes most local banks.

Q: What can the church do immediately to prepare to apply for a loan?

  • Confirm the church’s bank is an approved SBA lender. If it is, inform it that the church wants to apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan ASAP. Ask the bank to provide the church with loan document documentation requirements. The bank will assist the church in completing the application.
  • Take whatever action is required for the church to apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan (Session and/or congregational approval). Depending on local social distancing or meeting limitation regulations, this meeting may need to be virtual.
  • Ensure the church’s 2019 financial statements are complete and first quarter 2020 financial statements are prepared ASAP.

 

Information is gleaned with appreciation from Batts, Morrison, Wales & Lee (the audit firm of the EPC), the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), Horizons Stewardship, and Baptist Press of the Southern Baptist Convention, which utilized a Q&A approach in its report.

World Outreach global workers minister, monitor coronavirus locally

 
PhilLinton

Phil Linton

by Phil Linton
Director, EPC World Outreach

As WWII drew to a close, a young Russian soldier-mathematician was arrested and condemned to imprisonment and permanent exile for privately criticizing Stalin. Imprisoned in a Siberian labor camp, later suffering from cancer and given just weeks to live, it seemed that all the plans, hopes, and dreams of his life were shattered. But what Stalin meant for evil, God used for good, and the arrest changed the course of Aleksankr Solzhenitsyn’s life so that the soldier-mathematician became one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

The COVID-19 pandemic is shattering many of our plans and dreams, but how is it affecting EPC World Outreach? It is causing us, like you, to be on heightened alert. We are talking with and listening to government sources, other mission agencies, and our own colleagues around the world to try to keep up with changing situations. But, above all else, we keep in mind that God is in control, and there is no virus that can do anything without God using it for His good purposes.

The EPC World Outreach staff in Orlando is doing the same things that many of you are—working from our homes, canceling all but essential travel, postponing events, and changing meetings to video conferences. We have stepped up text, audio, and video calls to stay in even closer communication with our global workers to pray with them and help them think through their responses.

World Outreach is neither requiring nor forbidding any of our workers to return to the States. We believe these decisions are best made at a team level by those most aware of local situations. Two of our workers, in exceptional circumstances, have returned to the States in the past week. The rest are heeding local medical advice, postponing travel, and adopting social practices to inhibit spreading the disease. As they have long prayed for spiritual breakthroughs in their communities, they are now waiting in hope for opportunities to be God’s ambassadors to neighbors in need.

The message that our global workers tell their neighbors is the same message they tell themselves: in a global pandemic the only safe place to flee to is the arms of God.

Thank you for remembering our missionaries even as you face your own challenges. Thank you for praying for them as you pray for your own families; thank you for giving to support them, even as you deal with your own financial reverses. Please continue to pray.

  • Pray for our missionaries’ health and stamina, especially for those working with the poor and providing health care in difficult settings.
  • Pray for World Outreach leaders to be full of grace and truth as we respond to our colleagues’ questions and needs.
  • Pray for all of us to be radiant ambassadors of the Kingdom of God, sharing the good news that brings life to the dying.

Looking back at the surprising course of his life, Solzhenitsyn wrote this prayer:

How easy for me to live with you, Lord!
How easy to believe in you!
When my mind casts about
or flags in bewilderment,
when the cleverest among us
cannot see past the present evening,
not knowing what to do tomorrow—
you send me the clarity to know
that you exist
and will take care
that not all paths of goodness should be barred.
At the crest of earthly fame
I look back in wonderment
at the journey beyond hope — to this place,
from which I was able to send mankind
a reflection of your rays.
And however long the time
that I must yet reflect them
you will give it me.
And whatever I fail to accomplish
you surely have allotted unto others.

Let us live these days of the COVID-19 pandemic so that, when it has passed, you and I will look back at it in wonderment as a time where God’s glory was most radiant.

EPC chaplain for Christian school requests prayer as coronavirus infects 40+ community members

 
MatthewSullivan

Matthew Sullivan

Matthew Sullivan, an EPC Chaplain for a Christian school in Nashville, Tenn., is requesting prayer as more than 40 members of the school community have tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19) following a school fundraising event held earlier in March.

Sullivan, 52, has served as chaplain of The Covenant School for 10 years, where he is the Director of Campus Life and Bible teacher. The school is a ministry of Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in the affluent Green Hills area of southern Nashville. Sullivan is a Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of the Central South.

“We could use prayer here in Nashville. We have been hit very hard by the coronavirus, with over 30 positive cases recorded thus far in our little school,” Sullivan said by email on March 18. “Needless to say, there is a lot of ministry being done and still to do, as there is a lot of anxiety.”

In a follow-up message on March 22, he wrote that “we’re now looking at well over 40 positives” among adult staff, faculty, and parents at the school of about 160 students ranging from age 3 through sixth grade.

“We are all self-quarantining, as was recommended by the Metro Health Department,” he said, adding that “tons of texting, sharing of prayers, Scriptures, and encouragements” are being shared between students and their families, staff, and other supporters.

“Our social media is extremely active, too. We’ve created a hashtag #covenantstrong to help bind our community together.”

Sullivan reported that as of March 22, none of the individuals who has tested positive has become seriously ill.

“Our people have been amazing in their faith and resilience. Thank the Lord, no one has had serious symptoms,” he said. “Because of our size, our families are very well-connected and have banded together to not only take care of each other but to be a resource to their non-believing neighbors and friends. It is having an impact on our community.”

Sullivan noted that the school and church community had already mobilized for ministry efforts following recent tornadoes that inflicted widespread damage in and around Nashville.

“We were already working on recovery efforts that actually parlayed well into bracing for and creating avenues of care as the pandemic approached,” he said. “Pray for the Spirit of the Lord to bring peace to our families, and for us to be an example to the city of Nashville of the Body of Christ at work to soothe, heal, and bring wholeness.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

A virtual minister tries to tend a missing flock during the coronavirus crisis

 
DavidSwanson

David Swanson, Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Fla., has been preaching to an empty church during the coronavirus crisis. His sermons are live-streamed to the congregation. (photo credit: David Whitley)

On a normal Sunday morning, David Swanson will shake hundreds of hands. On an abnormal Thursday afternoon, there were only 20 hands in the building. No ushers, no bulletins, no offering plates, no choir, and no congregation. Swanson took the stage, and all he saw was 60 empty pews stretching to the back of sanctuary.

“Good morning, First Presbyterian Church of Orlando,” Swanson said to a camera.

For the next hour, the senior pastor played virtual preacher. When his recorded sermon was over, Swanson didn’t scurry to the foyer to greet a virtual line of members.

The non-virtual reality is that coronavirus has closed just about every church, so many are now streaming their services online. But technology giveth, and it taketh away. Computer glitches knocked last Sunday’s live service offline, so Swanson wasn’t taking any chances this week. He taped the service Thursday. It was just him, Senior Associate Pastor Case Thorp, a singer, an organist, two guitarists, a drummer, two video technicians, and a camera operator.

With all due glory to Silicon Valley, technology is not providing the miracle pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams an are looking for in this abnormal new world.

“I will tell you,” Swanson said, “this past week has been one of the most challenging ever.”

A minister is like an NFL coach. The public sees the team’s performance on Sundays, but most of the work is put in during the week.

It’s visiting hospitals, counseling members, leading meetings, directing outreach programs. At the core of it all is interacting with people. Swanson is more hard-wired for that than most.

“My goodness,” he said. “I don’t think I realized what a touchy-feely person I am.”

As a kid in Dallas, Swanson sat in Catholic mass and was mesmerized by the priest. He went to a Bible study at a Presbyterian church when he was 17.

“It was like a light came on,” Swanson said.

He had found his calling.

He’s been at First Presbyterian 15 years. The church celebrated its 144th anniversary Wednesday. Like many downtown churches, the flight to suburbia has been a challenge.

With about 4,000 members, First Presbyterian has tried to stay relevant by changing with the times. It’s safe to say none of the 11 original members who gathered at Prof. Benjamin Gould’s house on March 18, 1876, envisioned outreach programs powered by Facebook and Instagram.

But a virtual flock still needs a real shepherd, especially in a crisis. Swanson can’t go to Westminster Towers, the senior living facility, for his weekly lunch lecture.

He had to call four brides this week to inform them First Presbyterian can’t host their wedding ceremonies. Two decided to go ahead and be married in an empty church.

Swanson conducted a graveside funeral and couldn’t hug any mourners. He went to a hospital to visit sick members and was turned away.

“I thought they’d say, ‘Well, pastors can come in, but not average citizens,’” he said. “You’re caring for people. I think that makes us an indispensable part of health care, but we’re not. I understand that, but I do feel a little bit at loose ends.”

He’s in the hand-holding business, and hands are now off limits.

Swanson is trying to make up for that by starting daily online devotionals. He and his staff plan to call every church member.

“Do you need food? Do you need medicine,” they’ll ask. “Is there anything we can do?”

But there’s only so much a virtual ministry can do. Swanson acknowledged that in his Thursday/Sunday sermon.

“Trust me, I’m so grateful we can do this today,” he said. “But please, don’t get lulled into believing this is always going to sufficient, because it’s not. We’ve been created to be in relationships, face-to-face, in each other’s presence.”

So why has God taken that away?

Perhaps, to make us realize what we’ve lost in a world that now revolves around Facebook, Instagram, and socially isolating media.

“The incredible irony of this season is that God has removed from us the very thing we as a culture, as a nation, had started to take completely for granted,” Swanson said. “The privilege of being able to gather together for worship.”

When he finished speaking Thursday, the bright lights illuminating the pulpit shut down. The afternoon sun beamed through the stained-glass window, casting long shafts of light over the empty pews.

As the musicians quietly packed up their instruments, Swanson took off his coat, loosened his tie, and took a seat on the front row.

What he’d have given for just one hand to shake.

by David Whitley/Orlando Sentinel
Reprinted by permission

EPC pastors, churches in California adapt amid statewide lockdown

 
ShawnRobinsonMensBibleStudy

Shawn Robinson, Pastor of Clayton Community Church in Clayton, Calif., leads a virtual men’s Bible study on March 19 using Zoom, a popular online video conference tool. 

Having an entire state on mandatory lockdown as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic presents unique challenges for state and local government, businesses, and 40 million residents of California.

For pastors and churches accustomed to gathering in groups and striving to meet the needs of their members and communities, the challenges take on a spiritual dynamic.

“COVID-19 has impacted our church the most by preventing us from gathering for Sunday worship and midweek community groups, creating isolation, and forcing new ways of maintaining community, fellowship, and worship,” said Andrew Ong, a ministry resident at Christ Church East Bay, which has campuses in Berkeley and Oakland, Calif.

AndrewOng

Andrew Ong

Ong said about 20-25 percent of the church’s congregation is older than 50, with some of its senior members living alone.

“This is leading to much anxiety and loneliness,” he said. “We have a team who is almost done personally contacting all our seniors to make sure they know that we are here for them, and to identify any ways that we can serve them spiritually, materially, and emotionally.”

On March 16, San Francisco-area residents received a directive from Gov. Gavin Newsom to “shelter in place.” Three days later, Newsom announced the dramatic step of requiring all 40 million residents of the state to stay home to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Scott Farmer, Transitional Pastor of Moraga Valley Presbyterian Church in Moraga, Calif., laughed during an interview above the screams of grandchildren.

“I’m good. I’m on grandpa duty right now,” he chuckled. “I’ve got a four- and six-year-old that are definitely ready to go to the park.”

ScottFarmer

Scott Farmer

Like Ong and other ministry colleagues around the country, Farmer said he and his church are doing their best to adapt to “the new normal.”

“There’s no normal,” Farmer acknowledged. “This is nowhere near normal. We’re adjusting. Last Friday we got one directive from county health not to have gatherings of more than 50, and we adjusted to that until Sunday night when the governor gave us a new directive. So we were gathering Monday morning to adjust to those. At one o’clock we got a new directive to shelter in place. All the schools were closed and all non-essential services. So that’s how rapidly it has been changing.”

Farmer said the church is doing its best to keep people connected.

“We send out an e-news update every week. I tell them what time of day that I send it out because information is changing so fast,” he said.

“All of our ministries: children’s, youth, men and women’s, missions—everyone is all remote now. So we’re all asking the questions, ‘How do you live as a church in a sheltered-in-place environment? How do you care for one another, and how do you care for the community?’”

He added that the church, like many, is broadcasting their worship online and holding Bible study classes online.

“All of our small groups and community groups are virtual now. We have activities for the children that are video-based online, with exercises and things like that.”

Farmer said as the church has increased its video and social media capacity, it has made it a priority to train older members on how to use it.

“They aren’t used to getting online, among other things. We are calling everyone in our congregation who are in their 70s, and we have a whole system of runners who are committed to doing their errands for them by going to the grocery store and anything else for those who are vulnerable,” he said.

“We’re also asking the congregation to think of ways we can serve one another and the community to let us know, and we’ll try to evaluate and respond.”

Shawn Robinson has served as Pastor of Clayton Community Church in Clayton, Calif. for 23 years, and said the lack of weekly gatherings has his ministry team working to create an online learning environment that keeps people connected. The congregation normally meets for worship in a local middle school.

ShawnRobinson

Shawn Robinson

“Everything is online now,” Robinson said. “We are having a regular Sunday morning service that you can click on at the regular time. We recorded it, and this last Sunday (March 15) was our first one.”

Robinson said his staff recently called on him to prepare several weeks of messages ahead of time.

“We heard Monday morning that come midnight, the shelter-in-place was going to be in effect. So my worship team leaders came to me and said ‘Hey, can we record your messages today?’” Robinson laughed. “Well, OK, so we’re told to be ready to preach in and out of season—that became very real. I had maybe an hour to prepare but I think it went OK. Our executive pastor was going to do the next week, so basically we’ve got three weeks of messages ready.”

Robinson applauded the response of the church staff and ministry teams.

“They just all came together during this amazing time. We’re realizing that we’re not a megachurch, but what we send out we want to do with quality. Funny thing is, we have some recording equipment but if you have one of the newer iPhones the recordings on one of those are probably even better quality.”

He added he has been encouraged by the way people are engaging with the church—sometimes in unexpected ways.

“One of the interesting things that just cracks me up is that just before this happened, our office manager ordered a couple of cases of toilet paper,” Robinson recalled. “When we realized that we weren’t going to be able to get to our office, they brought it to my house. So I just went online and said, ‘Hey do you need toilet paper?’ I got so much response from that! We can say our motto is ‘We’ve got your backside!’”

In addition to dealing with the situation with hope and humor, Ong said the pandemic presents a unique opportunity for the Church to testify to the truth of Jesus and Scripture.

“We need to embody a countercultural community of selfless sacrifice, taking care of the least of these, first amongst ourselves, but also amongst our neighbors,” he emphasized. “We need to bear witness to our hope by not acting out of fear. Our hope is not ultimately in the markets, the government, or even in medical science, but in Christ—and we seek His Kingdom.”

Robinson has witnessed some surprising ways his church has been able to minister to people, spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

“I’m just watching our people really reach out to their neighbors, offering prayer, asking if they can go get groceries for the neighbors,” he said. “In that regard, it’s quite encouraging. It’s funny, but I’m kind of excited right now. It’s forcing us out of complacency.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

ChristChurchEastBayStaffMeeting

The staff of Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, Calif., participate in an online video conference staff meeting on March 17.

Text-based smartphone app for primary care physician visits extended to all EPC benefit plan participants

 

98point6Effective immediately, access to 98point6, the newest benefit provided by EPC Benefit Resources, Inc., has been extended to all EPC benefit plan participants. 98point6 is a text-based primary care app for smartphones and tablets. This new benefit launched on March 14.

“Anyone enrolled in any of our plans can take advantage of this low-cost, high-value tool,” said Bart Francescone, BRI’s Executive Director. “This includes people in our dental, vision, life insurance, and disability programs—even if they are not in one of our medical plans. All they have to do is download the app and register using the name listed on their insurance card from any of our plans. No registration or membership fee is required.”

Through 98point6, a U.S.-based, board-certified physician is available by text 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The service is provided with no co-pay for participants in the Platinum, Gold, and Silver PPO Medical/Prescription Plans, and only a $5 co-pay for participants in all other benefit plans.

“This is a great resource for people who are forced to shelter in place and thus not able to get to a physician,” Francescone added. “It’s fast, easy, secure, and one of the most cost-effective ways out there to have personal communication with a physician.”

For more information about 98point6, see www.98point6.com/how-it-works. To register, see the one-minute video at www. youtu.be/TSu0XKj5CVg.

For more information about the EPC benefit plans, see www.epc.org/benefits or contact benefits@epc.org.

40th General Assembly online registration launch delayed to April 15

 

GA2020BannerThe opening of online registration for the 40th General Assembly has been delayed until April 15. The Assembly is scheduled for June 23-26 at Hope Church in suburban Memphis, Tenn. Online registration was originally scheduled to open on April 1.

“We have pushed the registration back because there are so many unknowns right now,” said Jeff Jeremiah, EPC Stated Clerk. “At this point, the Assembly is still scheduled for June but we are discussing a number of options. I am staying in regular contact with Hope Church’s leadership, as well as the Chairman of the National Leadership Team, Moderator, and Moderator-Elect. We are all keeping an eye on developments as they unfold and are prepared to move quickly should additional changes be necessary.”

The latest General Assembly information is available at www.epc.org/ga2020.

March Jeremiah Journal offers encouragement during coronavirus crisis

 

In the March 2020 edition of The Jeremiah Journal, EPC Stated Clerk Jeff Jeremiah offers some encouraging words in the midst of the coronavirus situation.

The Jeremiah Journal is a monthly video blog hosted on the EPC’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/EPChurch80. Each month’s update also is posted to EPConnection and the EPC’s Facebook page and Twitter feed.

For a transcript of this month’s edition in printable pdf format, click here

EPC Benefit Resources, Inc., announces waiving of co-pay for coronavirus testing, new smartphone app for text-based primary care physician visits

 

BRIlogoFollowing White House guidance, EPC Benefit Resources, Inc. (BRI) has made arrangements with Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield to waive the normal co-pay costs for coronavirus (COVID-19) lab tests when prescribed by a physician. The co-pay waiver applies to participants in all five Medical/Prescription Plans offered by BRI: Platinum, Gold, Gold HDHP (High-Deductible Health Plan), Silver, and Bronze HDHP.

“I am very pleased that Highmark worked with us to get the co-pays removed for coronavirus testing,” said Bart Francescone, BRI Executive Director. “The situation is so prominent in the news and on social media, we want our Plan participants to be able to know if they are affected without any additional burden. Also, we want them to be able to have peace of mind without having to worry about an unexpected expense.”

Francescone noted that the co-pay waiver applies only to the coronavirus test. All normal office visit co-pays will still apply.

Coinciding with heightened health concerns, BRI has expedited implementation of 98point6, a text-based primary care app for smartphones and tablets. This new benefit begins Saturday, March 14, and is provided to all EPC benefit plan participants.

Through 98point6, a U.S.-based, board-certified physician is available by text 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The service is provided with no co-pay for participants in the Platinum, Gold, and Silver PPO Plans, and only a $5 co-pay for participants in all other benefit plans.

Francescone said the BRI Board of Directors had earlier approved this new benefit to be announced and put into place in April, but pushed its release earlier in light of coronavirus concerns.

“Given the current situation, we knew we needed to make it available as soon as possible,” Francescone said. “I hope our plan members will take advantage of 98point6 when they have questions about episodic care, diagnosis, prescriptions, or other medical questions. I think it will be a useful tool for their health care—as well as for their covered family members.”

For more information about 98point6, see www.98point6.com/how-it-works. To register, see the one-minute video at www. youtu.be/TSu0XKj5CVg.

For more information about the EPC benefit plans, see www.epc.org/benefits.

Responding to coronavirus: EPC collates resources to assess situation as churches consider canceling worship services

 

CoronavirusResponseAs the coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread in North America, EPC Stated Clerk Clerk Jeff Jeremiah said churches should avail themselves to the most current information and monitor how local authorities are dealing with the unfolding situation.

“I am grateful for the way EPC leaders are using their networks and social media to exchange information as they respond to COVID-19,” Jeremiah said. “We know that local conditions vary widely, so we encourage our pastors and church leaders to follow the guidance of the Center for Disease Control and the actions taken by their state and/or local governments.”

In some cases, a church’s decision to cancel worship services or provide an online worship experience only has been made for them by local authorities.

“The mayor of San Francisco asked that non-essential large gatherings not take place,” Jeremiah noted, “and the Governor of Kentucky has requested that churches not hold worship services this weekend.”

Numerous organizations and governmental agencies have made information and other helpful resources available. These include:

Jeremiah reported that the EPC’s permanent committee meetings scheduled for April at the Office of the General Assembly in Orlando will conduct their business virtually in online video conferences. These include the National Leadership Team, the Next Generation Ministries Council, and the World Outreach Committee.

In addition, Jeremiah responded to a request from the Presbytery of the Southeast to hold its spring meeting virtually rather than as an in-person gathering.

“I wrote a provisional opinion that gives EPC presbyteries the ability to provide for virtual presence and participation of commissioners at their spring meetings,” Jeremiah said. “This gives our presbytery leaders the freedom to conduct their business in whatever way they feel is best for their safety and peace of mind.”

Jeremiah emphasized that preparations for the 40th General Assembly are proceeding as normal.

“At this point, we are not planning on postponing or canceling GA,” he said. “But if that changes, we will use every means at our disposal to keep the EPC informed quickly. The Hope Church team is watching the situation too, and they will be prepared.”

February 2020 EPC budget report: PMA contributions 4 percent above FY 2019, above FY 2020 budget projection

 

As of February 29, Per Member Asking (PMA) contributions received by the Office of the General Assembly since the July 1 start of Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20) total $1,668,492. The amount received is 4 percent higher—$64,055—than the same period in the previous fiscal year (FY19). The EPC’s fiscal year runs from July 1 through June 30.

Fiscal-year-to-date contributions are $2,947 above the $1,6695,545 budgeted projection to support the EPC’s Collaborative Ministries, Connectional Support, and Custodial Operations.

“I am very thankful for our churches’ faithful commitment to Per Member Asking in the early months of 2020,” said Jeff Jeremiah, EPC Stated Clerk. “PMA is our financial lifeblood as a connectional body, and when we closed the books on February it was the first month in this fiscal year that PMA support eclipsed our projected budget expenditures. I am grateful that the shortfall in December has passed for the time being. At the same time, we are being very careful with our expenses in light of economic uncertainties related to the coronavirus situation.”

Of the $1,668,492 received, $333,580 (20 percent) was contributed to EPC World Outreach.

In addition to PMA contributions, $4,210,219 in designated gifts were received through February 29. This total was $371,292 (9.7 percent) higher than the $3,838,927 in designated gifts received in the same period in FY19. Designated gifts include support for World Outreach global workers and projects, and contributions to EPC Special Projects such as Emergency Relief, church planting and revitalization initiatives, and the EPC’s holiday offerings.

Of the total, $3,482,043 was designated for World Outreach workers and projects, and $728,176 was designated for EPC projects. These amounts only reflect gifts received and distributed by the Office of the General Assembly, and do not reflect donations given directly to WO global workers or other projects.

Among the donations received in February designated for specific projects were a $35,000 gift for the World Outreach general fund, and a $25,000 gift to the EPC Emergency Relief Fund. Each of these gifts was donated by an individual or family—not a church or other organization.

“Giving to PMA and designated funds since July 1 together is more than $5.8 million,” Jeremiah added. “I am so grateful for the generosity of churches and individuals who support the ministries of the EPC in such a sacrificial way.”