Category Archives: Church News

Memphis, Tenn., EPC pastors collaborate with local faith leaders on reopening churches video

 

ReopeningTheChurch

Second in a series.

George Robertson, Senior Pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tenn.., and Rufus Smith, Senior Pastor of Hope Church in Cordova, Tenn., contributed their voices to “Memphis Faith Leaders Stand Together,” a one-minute video on the decision to love their neighbors by waiting for in-person worship.

Smith said the video has received significant viewership and “emboldened many churches to predicate reopening based on data, not dates. It also reinforced implementing safety protocols now and whenever we regather.”

While Tennessee’s shelter-in-place order expired on April 30, Smith noted that most of the Hope congregation understands “the three factors of healthcare, economics, and loving our neighbors must all be considered before in-person gatherings resume.”

The idea for the video emanated from a weekly Zoom meeting of Memphis-area clergy.

“A coalition of churches is in partnership with the Church Health Medical Clinic and Christ Community Health Services, both of which provide quality healthcare for the uninsured and working poor,” Smith said. “The churches in the video have covenanted to care spiritually, materially, and emotionally for those who test positive for coronavirus in their ZIP codes while they quarantine for 14 days.”

The Hope Church Creative Team produced the video.

 

Reopening the church: ‘when and how’ the critical points for EPC pastors

 

ReopeningTheChurch

First in a series.

As debate rages about opening up the country amid the coronavirus pandemic, EPC congregations across the U.S. are weighing options on how and when to resume regular worship services and other activities.

Some churches have already started holding in-person services.

Sylvania EPC in Ward, Ark., reopened for services on May 10 with about half of its regular attendees—most of whom are age 65 and older.

James Pitts, pastor of the Sylvania congregation, said there is “no pressure on the others to return before they are ready.”

He added that they are attempting to follow Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s guidelines.

“Most wore masks,” he noted. “One wore gloves. We positioned offering plates near the doors and did not have bulletins. We practiced social distancing, streamlined the service slightly, and did not have a choir.”

Arkansas has been one of the outbreak’s least-impacted states, Pitts reported. “We are thankful that none of us have experienced serious symptoms associated with COVID-19.”

In Louisiana, which was one of the early “hot spot” states for the virus, First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge reopened on May 17 with two services—each of which had an attendance limit of 25 percent of the Sanctuary’s capacity.

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Gerrit Dawson

Senior Pastor Gerrit Dawson said plans for future meetings depend on what Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards outlines in phase one of the state’s reopening plan.

“Things change so quickly, the guidelines may or may not be what has been already announced,” Dawson said. “This defines the road ahead as ‘speculative’ and we must remain dynamic and be prepared to make changes to whatever plans we have made.”

Dawson said they asked the congregation to register online prior to Sunday. When the pre-determined capacity limit was reached, the system would not accept additional registrations.

“With pre-registration, we know the size of the families, groups, and individuals who will be coming and will be able to accomplish at least some strategic seat assignments to accomplish healthy distances,” he said.

Ruling Elder Jane Cooper said about 60 people attended each of the first Sunday’s services.

“Everyone was given a mask, and we were spread out,” she said. “We stopped the online signups after the first weekend, and this past week our attendance was about the same.”

Dawson said decisions on logistical matters—such as distribution of bulletins and order of worship, communion, fellowship, and helping attendees maintain social distancing while exiting the Sanctuary—required extra thought but were necessary to reopen for public worship.

“Those who come will be hungry to worship our Lord in Spirit and in Truth,” he said. “Gathering as God’s people is a privilege and one that is in our DNA as Christians.”

In New Mexico, First Presbyterian Church in Artesia reopened for worship services on May 24.

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Dan Phelps

Pastor Dan Phelps said maintain social distancing was not difficult for the congregation of about 25 individuals.

“We are in a building that would seat 250,” he said. “I have ordered masks and gloves to have on hand so that folks who would like to utilize them may have access to them.”

Phelps added that a team cleaned the building before the service, sanitizing doorknobs and other potential high-touch items.

“We did not pass the plate but had it at the back for folks to drop off their offerings. Also, we roped off every other pew so that folks would maintain six feet distance between families.”

Faith Presbyterian Church in Crivitz, Wis., began holding outdoor worship services after Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued a new five-week “Safer at Home” quarantine order in April that allowed for church gatherings with specific restrictions.

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David Pleuss

Pastor David Pleuss said the church’s leadership felt it was time for the congregation to meet.

“We noticed a shift in people’s attitudes,” he said. “Discouragement was creeping in and relational intimacy beyond our online daily devotion was needed.”

Pleuss said that while Crivitz is located in one of the state’s largest counties by land area, it has had the smallest number of COVID-19 cases.

“After looking at the new order we determined we could in good conscience hold outdoor services with appropriate social distance measures in place. We ended up having somewhere around 50 people (out of an average attendance of 80) attend our first time,” he said. “We are still doing a lot of online presence, but this was a breath of fresh air that many of our people needed.”

He added that the church’s small groups are not yet meeting.

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Tony Myers

Tony Myers, Senior Pastor of St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Somerset, Pa., said they will continue to make pre-recorded services available online through May, then consider reopening in June.

Prior to the shelter-in-place restrictions, the church held two services each Sunday—with about 250 people in each. He said the plan for in-person worship gatherings beginning in June is to require pre-registration for three Sunday morning services of no more than 100 each to allow for social distancing.

“During the month of May we are cleaning the building for the health and safety of the congregation,” Myers said, adding that Sunday School classes have been suspended through the summer.

In Indianapolis, where Southport Presbyterian Church Senior Pastor Rob Hock said there is a “healthy relationship between church and state,” churches “have been given a lot of latitude regarding public meetings.”

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Rob Hock

Despite the leeway, Hock said Southport plans to continue digital worship and times of prayer by video conference for the time being.

“We have empowered our elders who have said ‘less is more,’ and we have provided connection,” he said. “Our people believe that gathering more than 10 people together would be immoral and irresponsible, so we are going to be more restrictive. Our values will drive what we do.”

Hock said those values include caring for both the “physical and the spiritual needs of people, caring for the whole community, and caring for authorities over us.”

Cedarville United Presbyterian Church in Cedarville, Ohio, is following much the same strategy as Southport.

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Anne Horton

Anne Horton, pastor of the Cedarville congregation, said they do not have a firm date for the church to reopen. In the meantime, the church will continue to offer Sunday morning worship and Wednesday evening Bible study on Facebook Live—a service they had not provided prior to the pandemic.

“We are committed first and foremost to the health and safety of the congregation,” she said. “We will rope off some pews and encourage people to stay at least six feet away from anyone not in their household. We have already removed the hymnals, praise books, and Bibles, and will encourage people to bring their Bibles and to download a bulletin from our website and bring it with them.”

She said hand sanitizer would be placed in the sanctuary, along with cleaning supplies in the restrooms. Congregants will be encouraged—but not required—to wear masks.

Horton said she has emphasized to parishioners that while services will be different from previous experiences, it also will be a joyful experience.

“It will be a very different experience from what we have been used to,” she said. “It will feel awkward. It will feel sterile. But whether we are in the sanctuary or in living rooms, we can glorify God together.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

Church sewing groups answer call for masks for Michigan COVID-19 hotspot

 

Hamtramck, Mich., is an area that was hit hard by COVID-19. About five miles from downtown Detroit, 42 percent of Hamtramck’s 22,000 residents are foreign-born—giving Hamtramck the largest percentage of immigrants in the state and a longtime focus of EPC World Outreach efforts among Muslims in the United States.

Between January and March, as many as 300 families moved to Hamtramck from Bangladesh to join relatives. The March coronavirus outbreak and subsequent shelter-in-place orders isolated these immigrants in unfamiliar surroundings, in some cases even from relatives. So when a World Outreach global worker in the area put out an urgent request in April for masks to share with the Bangladeshi and Yemeni families in their neighborhood, women in sewing groups at two EPC churches jumped into action.

MasksForHamtramck

Paula Creamer

Paula Creamer, a Ruling Elder for Grace Community Church in Falcon, Colo., responded to the need after seeing it posted on the EPC Women’s Resource Council’s Facebook page.

“We have a women’s sewing group at the church called Stitchers of Grace,” Creamer said. “It actually started about seven years ago in response to a need for pillowcases at a local homeless shelter. We sew pillowcases every year now for the Salvation Army and the shelters.”

When COVID-19 hit Colorado and local paramedic, fire, and police departments requested mask donations, Stitchers of Grace stepped up to help. They were joined by two other women’s sewing groups in the Colorado Springs area: The Black Forest Craft Guild and Falcon Stitchers. The three groups were familiar with one another, having met at the annual craft show that is held at Grace Community Church each holiday season.

“Between the three groups, we have about 20 women who have given their time and efforts over the last few weeks to sew almost 9,000 masks,” Creamer said. “We have given them out to rescue workers, shelters, clinics, and hospitals. We already knew how to make them when the request came from Hamtramck. So, of course, we said we could help.”

Meanwhile, across the country in Findlay, Ohio, a group of women from Gateway Church also was rallying to sew masks for Hamtramck.

“The request came from one of our mission partners,” said Cody Ohnmeiss, who serves as Gateway’s Go Local Director. “We were already partnered with that area of Michigan and wanted to help in any way that we could.”

So he called Sandra Tietje, who leads a ministry team called Sew, Quilt, Share. When Ohnmeiss told her they needed 500 masks, her response was, “That’s a big number!”

But she knew that God would provide, as He always does. The group had already been sewing masks for local hospitals and nursing home facilities. In the previous month, they had distributed more than 2,000 masks—all made from materials they already had on hand or had been donated from local fabric shops.

“God knew that this moment was coming and what would be needed, and He had already laid the foundation so that this could happen,” Tietje said. “There were many, many hands involved in this process, and God is the one who has done it.”

The women’s group launched in 2003 when a few ladies from the church felt like God was calling them to start a sewing ministry as part of the church’s outreach ministries.

“We have a strong missional history at Gateway,” Tietje said. “I have a photo of my grandmother working on a quilt with her Ladies Missionary Society back in 1967. I’m actually in the photo, too—underneath the quilt! We grew up watching our mothers hold bake sales and sew things to raise money for missions. This is our heritage.”

Every month, people meet at the church to cut fabric and put kits together to distribute to women who want to participate in the sewing projects. Ohnmeiss serves as the runner, dropping off and picking up projects throughout the city.

“One of the beautiful things about sewing is that if you have a passion for it and you meet someone else that has a passion for it as well, it breaks down the barriers that divide,” Tietje said. “This is a fun, non-threatening outreach to our friends. There are ladies who have started coming to our church because of friendship evangelism through the sewing group.”

Creamer has seen the same thing at Grace Community Church.

“Some of the women have started praying together and a few have even been attending the Tuesday Women’s Bible Study,” she said. “This latest project—the masks for frontline workers—has connected us more deeply with the community. We’ve even had grocery stores providing us with twist ties from the produce section to make the nosepiece on the masks.”

Creamer knows firsthand what a blessing these masks have been. Her husband is an essential government employee, and she is a nurse in a local hospital.

Ohnmeiss noted that a perhaps-unexpected blessing from the effort was watching how God brought many different people together to serve those who are in need.

“One of our pastors made it a family project,” he said. “He and his girls had never sewed a mask before, but they put in a day’s effort and came out with masks to send to Michigan. It was beautiful to watch.”

All of the masks produced by the church groups have been sent to Hamtramck. Between the two churches, they were able to provide even more than the 500 that were originally requested.

Tietje understands firsthand how important it is to come together in this unprecedented time and be there for one another. Her father-in-law passed away in May, and they were unable to be with him in the nursing home when he was sick or give him the kind of funeral that they would have liked. While the experience was difficult, it also gave her a greater empathy for those who were suffering and a passion to get even more masks to those in need.

“God always lays the groundwork before something like this happens,” she said. “He knew the pandemic was coming long before we did, and was aware of every little need. He brought our sewing group together for such a time as this. What a joy and privilege to play a small part in His plan.”

By Kiki Schleiff Cherry
EPConnection correspondent

Nebraska church planting pastor seeks city council seat

 
JeffRyanCityCouncil

Jeff Ryan (left), pastor of Three Timbers Church in Bennington, Nebr., has the support of his wife, Kristi; son, Levi (10); and daughter, Selah (15) in his bid for a seat on the Bennington city council.

For EPC Teaching Elder Jeff Ryan, who planted Three Timbers Church in Bennington, Nebr., in 2015, reaching his Omaha suburb for Christ means taking a holistic approach and embracing the church’s entire sphere of influence.

On May 12, Ryan will find out how far that influence extends when voters consider him for a four-year term in the Ward 2 seat on the Bennington City Council.

“People need to know that you care before they care what you know,” he said. “You have to be visible before you can be viable. Visibility shows people the love of Christ before having a conversation is a viable option for them.”

While Ryan wants to promote his campaign, he’s been acutely aware that the coronavirus pandemic has shifted many voters’ focus away from things like elections toward basic everyday needs.

“This is not at the top of the minds of people right now—it’s ‘How can I pay my bills? Do I have enough food? Am I safe?’” he acknowledged. “I have political signs out in the community. I’ve done two Facebook posts, and I’ll do one more, but I’m trying to be sensitive right now.”

Ryan noted that only one other member of Three Timbers actually lives in Ward 2, but he emphasized that the church’s leadership supports his decision to run.

“It’s not something that I have stood in front of the church and said, ‘I have made this decision,’” Ryan said. “Our elders gave me their blessing. Others who have found out have been very supportive. I think that’s because they know that my heart is for the gospel and to make our community as strong as it can be. I don’t talk politics, and I don’t preach politics. It’s Kingdom first.”

As a five-year-old church plant, Three Timbers meets in a local elementary school for worship, as well as at various venues in and around Bennington—which naturally extends the visibly and reach of the church.

“Our strategy since the beginning has been tangibly demonstrating to people our love for them—how are we visibly loving our community?” he noted. “We buy box lunches for the school where we meet. We buy box lunches every year for the entire school staff to welcome them back. We stuff Christmas stockings. We want people to know that we love this community, and we want to serve this community.”

Ryan understands that his status as a religious leader in the community of about 1,500 people could both help and hurt his candidacy.

“I think that anytime that you put that you’re a pastor, that’s a dividing line for people,” he said. “For some people it’s a real plus. For others it’s a real detriment. We have to be very careful because we are carrying the image the Christ. We have to handle ourselves the right way.”

He noted that as a small community, relationships are key in Bennington.

“I’ve had the privilege to interact with a lot of people from local businesses that we partner with at the church and the school that we have a great relationship with,” he said. “I hope that we have positive name recognition from just trying to serve our community.”

Ryan believes Three Timbers is well regarded in Bennington because of the way the church has worked to meet needs.

“We didn’t come in and say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do for you.’ We came in and asked, ‘How can we serve? Tell us where you have a need.’ So we really tried to be humble and submit to the local authorities and to serve them.”

Since Three Timbers lacks a permanent church building, the church has numerous partnerships in the area.

“Everything we do, we have to do somewhere else in the community,” Ryan explained. “From partnering with Anytime Fitness to do a 5K run that raises funds for the school’s foundation to help students and in the classroom, to a local bar called Nate’s Stumble Inn, where I do a Bible study weekly. We do something for the community in the summer called Friday Night Flicks, where we show movies in the park. Nobody’s getting up and preaching. It’s just to come out and have a good time. We provide snacks and drinks and watch a good movie.”

Tom Ricks, pastor of Greentree Community Church in Kirkwood, Mo., and chairman of the EPC Church Planting Team ran for a seat on the Kirkwood school board in 2019. He said understands the pressure of being a pastor and a candidate for public office.

“You live in a glass house as a pastor—people are watching you all the time,” Ricks said. “That would be doubly true as an elected official, so there’s a lot of pressure. I hope he wins. I think he’d do a lot of good. I know he’ll have good people around him, because it’s hard being a pastor and I imagine it’s hard to be an elected official. So it would be doubly hard to be both. But I’m rooting for him.”

Prior to launching Three Timbers, Ryan and his family lived in Orlando, Fla., where he served 13 years as team Chaplain for the NBA’s Orlando Magic. As he seeks public office in Nebraska, he looks to the life of Christ who demonstrated love through grace and truth without compromise.

“Being obedient to the call of Christ means loving people in a variety of contexts,” he said. “You can love somebody but say, ‘I see a different way;’ but say, ‘I love you, but more importantly, Jesus loves you.’ I think you can put Christ first and not your own agenda or your own politics and say, ‘I just want this person to know Jesus.’ And if that happens, that’s a success—everything else doesn’t matter. So it’s about how can God use this opportunity to bring the hope of Jesus to our community?”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

EPC churches minister to members, communities affected by Easter tornado outbreak

 
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An EF3 tornado destroyed the area of East Brainerd Road in Chattanooga, Tenn., on April 13, only a few miles from the EPC’s Brainerd Presbyterian Church. Photo courtesy of Hamilton County Office of Emergency Management & Homeland Security, Emergency Medical Services and Field Services.

One week after a series of tornados raked the southeastern United States, EPC churches are helping members of their churches and communities affected by the storms.

Michael Allen, Pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Laurel, Miss., said several members of the congregation worked on Monday following the Sunday night storms to cut fallen trees off the home of Westminster’s nursery director, Gail Smith.

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Michael Allen

“We put her and her family in a hotel for a few days and will be helping her move into our mission house until she can get her home repaired,” Allen said. “She will need a new roof and possibly other structural repairs.”

In addition to Smith, Allen said one of the teachers in Westminster’s Laurel Christian School “lost everything,” and some other church members were “mildly affected” but not displaced.

Allen reported “indescribable devastation” in the area around Laurel, in southeastern Mississippi.

“The damage is over a mile wide of complete ruin and it goes for miles,” he said. “There will be lots of work to do but it looks like everybody is getting involved and helping out.”

The only known damage to an EPC church property from the Easter storm system was Brainerd Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., which Dane Deatherage serves as pastor. He said that downed trees and power lines prevented him from getting to the church campus quickly, even though he only lives about a half mile away.

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Dane Deatherage

“We have a few very minor repairs to do,” he reported. “We have some small damage to a portico, and several trees down. None of the trees, however, damaged our building.”

Deatherage said none of the congregation’s members were injured, though four families have been displaced.

“One neighborhood was hit really bad, and we have several families with substantially damaged homes and property—lost roofs, trees on their homes,” he said. “The devastation is heartbreaking, but we hope for Jesus to use us to display His grace and glory. We are thankful that God protected us, and we are praying for our neighbors who have had major home damage, injuries, and have lost loved ones.”

Pastors in Monroe, La.; Meridian, Miss.; and the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic reported varying levels of local damage, but no injuries or harm to any EPC church property or members’ homes.

John Mabray, Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Monroe, reported via text message that the hardest-hit area of the city was on the east side, including the airport.

“It hit in an area pretty far from us, the church, and most of our members,” Mabray said. “I do not know of any church members who suffered damage.”

Rhett Payne, Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Meridian Miss., said by text message that Meridian—about 60 miles northeast of Laurel—was spared a direct hit from the tornados.

“We had them all around us, but nothing in Meridian,” he said.

Further east in the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic, Stated Clerk Ron Horgan said he was not aware of any EPC churches that were impacted, despite heavy local damage in parts of North Carolina and South Carolina.

“We haven’t heard of any storm damage from our churches,” Horgan said by email.

Jeff Jeremiah, EPC Stated Clerk, said a disbursement from the EPC’s Emergency Relief Fund was made within three hours of a request for assistance.

“I am grateful that we have a very healthy balance due to the generosity of our churches and thousands of individuals in previous disaster situations,” Jeremiah said. “These funds are available for churches to repair damage to their property, but also as they identify needs among their members and their communities. We want to do everything we can to help our churches minister in Jesus’ name when the need is the greatest.”

Throughout the April 12-13 outbreak, 132 tornadoes touched down across 10 states, inflicting widespread and locally catastrophic damage. The strongest tornados occurred in southern Mississippi, several of which produced estimated winds of nearly 200 m.p.h. and reached widths of more than two miles. With a total of 32 tornado-related fatalities, it was the deadliest tornado outbreak since April 2014. Relief efforts were complicated by social distancing requirements amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

EPC churches in COVID-19 hotspots suffer losses, minister hope leading up to Easter

 
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Volunteers from Central Presbyterian Church in New York City helped set up a Samaritan’s Purse field hospital in Central Park. The 14-tent, 68-bed respiratory care unit opened on April 1.

As the human and economic toll from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic mounts, EPC churches in some of the hardest-hit areas of the United States have witnessed the death of parishioners in quarantine among other unprecedented challenges as they continue to minister to their congregations and communities.

In New York, which has experienced more cases statewide than any single country outside the U.S., grief and hope comingle in a region under lockdown.

“Every Sunday is a mixture of sadness, grief, lament, beauty, joy, and hope,” said Matt Brown, Senior Pastor of Resurrection Brooklyn. “Traffic in the city has decreased, but the sirens are incessant day and night. But in the midst of sickness and death God has gifted us with spectacular blooming magnolias and cherry trees.”

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Matt Brown

Brown said the congregation mirrors the city.

“We are in a very difficult season right now. We have growing numbers of sick people in our churches and had our first death on April 2. Fortunately, none of our staff has fallen ill yet. We are trying to cope with Sunday worship as best we can—like everyone else.”

Another coronavirus hotspot is in Detroit, 600 miles west of Brooklyn.

Scott McKee, Senior Pastor of Ward Church in Northville, Mich., said the situation is “pretty bad here in Detroit.” He reported that the church staff and congregation are mourning the recent loss of a faithful member.

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Scott McKee

“He was 79 years old and a very active church volunteer. What is heartbreaking is that his wife was not able to be with him, and now, in her grief, is not able to be with family. She has COVID-19 and is home in quarantine.”

Despite the heartache, McKee said church members are stepping up to help in the face of the pandemic.

“A young medical resident in our church was worried about becoming infected and passing it on to his wife and young children. A member of our church loaned him their travel trailer, which is now parked in front of the doctor’s house and has become his home away from home.”

Hotspot-SewingMatthewNeighbor

Matthew Neighbor, grandson of Ward Church member Barb Stahl, taught himself to sew and make face masks by watching a YouTube video. He and other Ward volunteers have made 1,000 masks for local nursing homes, healthcare facilities, and at-risk church and community members.

In addition, more than 100 volunteers from the church have mobilized to sew 1,000 face masks for local nursing homes and healthcare facilities, as well as at-risk church and community members and hospitals.

“God is faithful. Times are troubled. Jesus’ Church prevails,” McKee proclaimed.

For Randy Brown, Pastor of Military Avenue EPC in Detroit, personal illness has slowed—but not stopped—his efforts to address the needs of the congregation.

“I am extremely busy trying to get up to speed on streaming our classes and services online,” Brown said, noting that he came down with the seasonal flu and has been in isolation since early March. “I have had to replace much of our dated internet equipment, as well as learning new software.”

He reported that none of the church’s members have contracted the coronavirus, but confessed, “the isolation is getting to people.”

Back in New York, volunteers from Central Presbyterian Church in Manhattan helped set up a Samaritan’s Purse field hospital about three miles from the church in Central Park. The 14-tent, 68-bed respiratory care unit opened on April 1 and is designed especially for coronavirus response.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris, Senior Pastor of Central, reported that “a lot of positive work” is taking place during the crisis, noting that volunteers from the church also are preparing hundreds of sack lunches for the city’s homeless each week. Yet he echoed Matt Brown’s comments that the good is mixed with heartache.

“Several people within our congregation contracted the virus, and we suffered our first loss on April 2. An elderly member contracted the virus, and then fell in his home fracturing nine ribs, one of which punctured his lung. He was rushed to the hospital Wednesday night and died peacefully Thursday morning. The saddest part is that none of us could visit him in the hospital.”

Harris emphasized that the member received “exceptional care” from the attending doctor, who “rested his hand on his shoulder as he breathed his last. This has brought comfort to the family and friends.”

Across the East River from Manhattan, members of Resurrection Brooklyn’s Williamsburg campus (one of five in Resurrection’s network of churches in New York’s largest borough), are communicating their experience of isolation to the rest of the congregation by email.

“Anything that reveals a bit of light ultimately points to the One who is the Light of the World,” said Vito Aiuto, Lead Pastor of the Williamsburg congregation.

Steve Brune, a self-described “seminary dropout” who now works in finance, offered the following perspective during Holy Week:

“As we celebrate the season of Lent in anticipation of Good Friday and Easter, we would do well to imagine the ultimate moment of Christian emotional dislocation and vertigo as we see our King executed outside the city like a common criminal. The hopes and dreams of the faith community crushed—overwhelming feelings of tilting or spinning.” Brune wrote. “The losses we are experiencing are real and should never be diminished. We have absorbed tangible losses, fractured community, emotional dislocation, and severe vertigo.”

He added that “grief and outrage at these forms of evil and pain and at death itself” are normal and acceptable responses—but are not the end of the story.

“Then it happens,” he wrote. “Easter comes. Resurrection. A new song of the Lord.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

Drive-in church the ‘new normal’ for rural Missouri EPC congregation

 
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Nathan Markley, Pastor of Big Creek EPC in Hannibal, Mo., led Palm Sunday worship from the sanctuary’s fire escape, which faces the church parking lot. 

Drive-in restaurants. Drive-in oil changes. Drive-in car washes. And for those old enough to remember, drive-in theaters.

Big Creek EPC in Hannibal, Mo., has added “drive-in church” to the list.

Nathan Markley serves as pastor of the congregation of less than 50 in rural northeastern Missouri. When a deacon proposed it as a way to gather during the coronavirus pandemic, he thought she was joking.

“When we first cancelled our regular worship gatherings, we shifted to a home worship,” Markley said. “I did the bulletins and mailed them to our members by Wednesday. I was not preparing a sermon the rest of the week, so I called everyone in the church to check on them and find out if they had any prayer needs. One of our deacons mentioned that someone in her family went to a big church that was meeting this way. She said I could stand on the fire escape and everyone could just stay in their cars and listen.”

Janet Taylor suggested the idea, and said she was serious.

“We’ve been doing in-home church which worked out really good, but you just need that fellowship and your fellow Christians,” she said. “To be with your friends and family and hear Nathan preach—it’s just not the same on TV or Facetime. I’m glad Nathan was energetic and said, ‘let’s try this.’”

BigCreek2-FireEscapeDespite what seemed like an outlandish idea for their small congregation, Markley researched what it would take.

“A house in our little community of about 200 people has Christmas decorations with music tuned to it—you drive by and they have signs to tune your radio to a certain station to hear the music. I thought that if a house can do that, surely a church can do it.”

For about $100, Markley purchased an FCC-compliant transmitter that sends a low-power signal throughout the church property.

“I am not a technical person at all. We don’t have a sound guy, and it’s not like I could call people in to help either,” he said. “I very nearly dismissed this as an option, but I found this device online and literally plugged it in to our sound system and turned it on. That was it. I almost bypassed this because I didn’t think we could figure it out, and it was easier than I ever imagined.”

Big Creek launched their drive-in service on Palm Sunday.

“It wasn’t like a huge, super-packed out, hyped event,” Markley said with a laugh. “We also didn’t do it for Holy Week. It just worked out that way because Palm Sunday was the first Sunday that we had it set up.”

Markley estimated that 50-100 people showed up.

“I knew some people from the other churches in town were joining us, because we were the only ones doing this,” he said. “But I couldn’t see everything, and I couldn’t see in all the cars either.”

But he knew they were there, which was the whole idea.

“Our goal was that we could gather in a way that was safe and healthy, but still gather to worship,” Markley said. “Home worship in the weeks prior was good. There is a spiritual union—if I could call it that—in that, but it’s not the same. We want to worship as a body if possible.”

Markley said the morning had some challenges, including being so windy that he had to stand inside the window leading to the fire escape instead of outside.

BigCreek3-Window“I could hear myself through the church speakers and I could hear the wind, so I preached from just inside the window,” he said. “I’m sure many of the people only saw my arms and hands.”

Taylor laughed that her brother-in-law was one of those with a somewhat restricted view. “He told me. ‘I never realized Nathan talks with his hands so much!’”

But the act of gathering together was worth it.

“One of our members told me last week that she knew it wouldn’t feel the same as a regular Sunday, but she told me after that it was ‘a lot more like a regular Sunday than I expected,’” Markley said. “She said, ‘I need that,’ and to be honest, so did I. To have them see their church family was really beautiful, even though they were in the car with the windows up. I saw some people holding their babies up to the car windows and people were waving. To see one another was just…good.”

Taylor agreed.

“One lady I talked to said she couldn’t see Nathan but told me, ‘I felt that I was at church,’” she said. “You can’t hug them, but you’re still in fellowship with them. Especially during this time and Holy Week. I can’t express what a feeling it was. It felt like a true Sunday.”

Markley noted that as a pastor, “I want to shepherd them as best I can, and to have some semblance of that was so very important. The whole time I thought this would be helpful for the people in the congregation, but I didn’t realize how much I needed to see them also. It’s been fine talking to them through the screen and the phone, but I realized that I needed them in person. Watching the cars pull in before we started, I was just in tears. But then I had to pull myself together so I could lead us through a service.”

At the conclusion of the morning, those who attended were encouraged to honk their car horns following the benediction.

“It was a chorus of car horns,” Marley said. “I know they were singing and praying with me during the service, but I couldn’t hear them. But when I heard the horns, it was like ‘this is the Lord’s church.’ And it was stunning.”

NBC “Today” show honors Second Presbyterian Church choir’s ministry to Kathe Russell

 

On the April 4 edition of the “Today” show on NBC, host Willie Geist began the “Highs and Lows” segment with a tribute to the choir of Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis. The church’s Chancel Choir sang hymns outside Kathe Russell’s home on April 1. Her husband, Tim, died on March 30 following a two-week hospitalization from COVID-19. He served as the church’s Assistant Pastor for Middle Adults.

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

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.

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.

Nashville EPC church plant mobilizes for tornado relief

 
AllSoulsTornadoReliefA

All Souls Church in Nashville, Tenn., set up a portable kitchen in the front yard of a parishioner and fed nearly 2,500 people over four days in the wake of the March 3 tornado outbreak.

All Souls Church, an EPC church plant in Nashville, Tenn., received $5,000 from the EPC Emergency Relief Fund on March 4 for its ministry to its neighbors in the wake of a devastating tornado outbreak on March 3 that took the lives of at least 25 people. The church holds its worship services in a school near the hard-hit Germantown area of North Nashville.

KirkAdkisson

Kirk Adkisson

Kirk Adkisson, Pastor of All Souls Church, said most of the congregation escaped the worst of the destruction.

“Thankfully no one in All Souls was injured, but two households are still without power and unsure when it will return,” he said. “My home didn’t have electricity for four days, but we didn’t have any damage. But six blocks south of us is a path about three-and-a-half miles long that is devastated.”

Adkisson reported that the initial relief funds were used to feed people in the area.

“We spent four days feeding about 600 people a day,” he said. “We served breakfast tacos in the morning, then from about noon until about 5:00 when we had to stop because of darkness we would cook burgers and hot dogs.”

He said their team served meals to both local residents and relief volunteers.

“Many people were just walking around because thousands have been displaced,” he explained. “We also were feeding the volunteers who were in the area—it was amazing to watch how many volunteers are helping.”

He said the feeding station was set up in the front yard of an All Souls parishioner whose home was damaged.

AllSoulsTornadoReliefB

The home next door to the feeding station set up by All Souls Church was heavily damaged.

“Although this man had no power—and still doesn’t—and had some damage to his house, he allowed hundreds of local residents and volunteers working in the area to walk into his house and use his bathroom. He invited hundreds of strangers in.”

Adkisson said that they know many of the volunteers “are going to have to leave soon, but we will continue to serve the community as it recovers. We know we want to pay attention to single moms and the elderly.”

These efforts include providing tarps and grocery store gift cards to local residents.

He also said that the mayor’s office approached him about leading a longer-term effort to stem the threat of developers seeking to take advantage of residents of the historically African-American community.

“We were working in the front yard the other day and a developer approached a guy six times whose home was destroyed about buying him out,” Adkisson said. “This is happening all over North Nashville. Developers are walking up to homes and offering lowball numbers for people to sell their property.”

He noted that in many cases, the offers are attractive because insurance deductibles can be beyond the means of the homeowners.

“That includes African-American churches here,” he said. “Many were damaged, and they also have deductible costs. Many of their parishioners are struggling.”

Adkisson emphasized that the recovery is in its early stages.

“It feels as if most the moves we make at this point are reactionary,” he said. “However, we are here and all-in for the long haul. We have begun the process of planning how to love and serve over the next month, 3 months, 6 months, and even a year.”

Jeff Jeremiah, EPC Stated Clerk, said he was thrilled to be able to disperse relief funds within 24 hours of the storm.

“Due to the amazing generosity of EPC churches and their members following a series of disasters in recent years, we had funds available to send immediately,” Jeremiah said. “I also am thankful for our churches’ faithful support of Per Member Asking, which allows us to have the infrastructure in place to help in emergency situations when they arise. I expect that we will provide additional funds as Kirk and his congregation continue to assess the needs in their community.”

Secure online donations to the EPC Emergency Relief Fund can be made at www.epc.org/donate/emergencyrelief.

Pastoral response to the coronavirus

 
LarryHackman

Larry Hackman

by Larry Hackman
Executive Pastor, Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church
Gig Harbor, Washington

In AD 251, a plague struck the Roman Empire. We now believe it was measles, but then it was a devastating, mysterious illness that seemingly struck at random and ravaged the population. No one knew why or how the disease spread, so fear spread thick. It was recorded that five thousand people were dying every day just in the city of Rome.

In the modern age, disease is not so mysterious. But it’s incredible how much the human spirit remains the same. Much like thousands of years ago, the response to the threat of a pandemic is fear and isolation. We heard Sunday of those who did not attend worship for fear of being exposed to a virus, when there’s no reason to believe it’s within the general population. Costco ran out of water and toilet paper. We cannot turn on the news without hearing of the coronavirus. I am chagrined to find that Christians are among those who are falling prey to the rising panic.

But in AD 251, Christians were the one segment of the population who fared much better than any other. The average Roman, believing that the plague was the judgment of the gods, would, as Dionysius recorded, “[push] the sufferer away, and [flee] from their dearest…hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.” Thucydides reports that many “were afraid to visit one another…they died with no one to look after them; indeed there were many houses in which all the inhabitants perished through lack of any attention.”

Christians responded differently. Trusting in God’s promises of eternal life, they turned to care for the sickest. The ironic result is that the mortality rate of Christians was significantly lower because their care for one another gave a chance for the measles sufferer to recuperate, whereas those who isolated would inevitably perish from neglect even if they survived the ravages of the disease. Because they did not fear death, the Christians lived.

Are Christians responding any differently to the news of coronavirus than the average person? If Costco is any indication, then the Christian fears death as much as anybody else does nowadays. Where is our peace? Where is our selflessness? Have we no assurance in the face of the unknown?

I am not advocating we abandon common sense. Obviously, as you see in our list of ways we are addressing the coronavirus below, we will do what we should to halt the spread of disease. But I am asking you to give yourself a gut check. If you call yourself a follower of Jesus and COVID-19 strikes fear in your heart, ask yourself why? What does that say about your perspective on life and its purpose? What does that say about where you place your hope and assurance?

For the early Christians, Jesus loomed large in their vision. They trusted that Jesus embraced them in love, even as they suffered. They loved others and embraced them in love, even as they suffered. They trusted that Jesus is King and thus no twist and turn of history was a surprise to him. They trusted that death did not have the last word because Jesus had defeated it, and that their destiny was with him eternally. If Jesus, in all his beauty, wisdom, and grace, does not capture our hearts like he did theirs, then our hearts will be captured by fear.

The annals of history show, time and again, that the way of Jesus, of self-giving and sacrifice, is not a pie-in-the-sky philosophy that has no bearing in life. It’s actually the best, most practical way to live. Society functions best when we consider the needs of others above our own; it unravels when we seek first our needs. We only need to look at the example of our early brothers and sisters to see this.

I pray that the coronavirus advances no further, but should it continue its advance will Christians differentiate ourselves from the rest of the world in our response? Will we be the voice of peace in the midst of panic? Will we be the ones who serve one another and share resources, or will we horde and isolate? Will we have hope when others despair? Our response will not only be a matter of the soul, it may very well be what makes a difference in our communities.

How we’re addressing the coronavirus outbreak

Some of you have been asking about Chapel Hill’s plans in light of the recent news about coronavirus (or COVID-19). We wanted to share with you that we are taking great care to keep our congregation safe.

We are following guidelines recommended by the State and County Health Departments here at Chapel Hill:

  • If you are sick and have experienced symptoms such as a fever, cough, or body aches in the past 48 hours, we ask that you please stay home. Take care of your health (and the health of those around you) by resting and recovering until you are symptom-free.
  • Prevention is the best medicine! Practice good personal habits, such as washing hands frequently; avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth; covering coughs and sneezes; and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces.
  • We are taking extra caution and care in keeping our facilities clean and disinfected. Our building surfaces are cleaned daily and we are committed to keeping high-touch surfaces sanitized. Additionally, you will find hand sanitizing stations placed around the facilities for your use.
  • We are closely monitoring the CDC, DOH, and Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department sites and will follow their lead should further steps need to be taken. The DOH has not advised taking any special precautions beyond what is normally recommended at this time.

These are a lot of common-sense measures we can take that go a long way toward preventing the spread of disease. As things develop, we’re also considering how we do things like greeting and communion in ways that don’t hinder our worship, but still keep us healthy. We’ll continue to keep you informed if there are any significant changes.

 

This article was originally posted on March 3 on the blog of Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church at www.chapelhillpc.org/chapel-hill-blog/pastoral-response-to-the-coronavirus.

Guidelines for a Coronavirus Communications Plan for churches is available at www.epc.org/files/coronaviruscommunicationsplanguidelines