Category Archives: Church News

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

 
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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

 
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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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

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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

 
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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.

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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.

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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

 
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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

‘Fired Up Friday’ sparks church revitalization

 

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If you stop by Mt. Lebanon Evangelical Presbyterian Church on the first Friday of the month, you are sure to encounter a lot of commotion…and a building full of kids. Ten years ago, the church began inviting children from the community to an event called “Fired Up Friday.” For two hours, kids move freely between rooms that offer games, prizes, snacks, crafts, and laser tag. The only required activity is a Bible study.

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Ashley Gardner

Ashley Gardner, Mt. Lebanon’s Director of Children’s Ministries, started the program to help a young girl—who was new to the Pittsburgh, Pa., suburb—make friends.

“The family moved here from Minnesota,” Gardner said. “And their daughter, who was in 2nd grade, wasn’t connecting with the other children. So God put it on my heart to host a smaller, more intimate fellowship outside of our regular programming. I wanted it to be a time when the kids could study the Bible but also be able to just hang out together.”

Thirteen kids attended that first event, and Gardner sensed God calling her to continue the ministry. Soon it became a regular monthly event. The numbers grew quickly, and in two years the room where they met was beyond capacity. The activities now take place in much of the church campus and nearly 200 children attend—most of whom are not from families in the church.

“Our ministry team looked around and realized that most of these kids were coming in from the community,” Gardner said. “Less than ten percent were our church kids. About a third of them had no church background at all.”

Carolyn Poteet, Mt. Lebanon’s Lead Pastor, says the church has a long history of outward focus, and Fired Up Friday is helping take the congregation back to its roots.

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Carolyn Poteet

“This church has historically had a vision for reaching people,” Poteet said. “It was founded in 1804, and in 1929 they constructed a beautiful gothic church. The sanctuary was designed to hold 1,000 people, even though the entire population of Mt. Lebanon was around 3,000 at the time.”

The opening of the Liberty Tunnels through Mt. Washington in the mid-1920s provided easy access between Pittsburgh and the Southern Hills suburbs, which caused the population of Mt. Lebanon to explode. With this new growth the church thrived, and soon become one of the largest Presbyterian churches in the region.

But by the time Poteet came to Mt. Lebanon EPC in 2017, the congregation had been shrinking for several decades. With the new leadership came intentional efforts at revitalization. They began to pray, listen, research, and conduct interviews to determine how to better reach their community and reverse the decline. It quickly became evident that children and their families, which included the Fired Up Friday program, would be a key component of the revitalization process.

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Fired Up Friday participants enjoy volleyball in Mt. Lebanon EPC’s Fellowship Hall.

“Once we compiled all our data and prayed and listened more, it became clear which part of God’s mission He was giving to our church,” Poteet noted. “Children needed to hear about Jesus, and we were good at ministering to children. Our new focus became ‘Reaching kids and their families for Jesus.’”

Poteet participates in Fired Up Friday in the “Stump the Pastor” room, in which the children interact with her and are free to ask her anything. No questions are off limits, she said.

“My favorite moment is when a child asks when God was born,” Poteet said. “The idea of infinity blows their mind every time!”

“Some of the kids get really deep and ask great questions,” Gardner said. “One boy, who was not a member of the church, spent an entire evening in that room. Another asked for a Bible at the end of the evening and told me he couldn’t wait to start reading it.”

In January 2019, Mt. Lebanon added a “Family Fired Up Friday” on the third Friday of each month, which is open to parents as well as kids. One year after launching, adult attendance has been as high as 120.

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Matt Dolphi is one of many volunteers who make Fired Up Friday happen each month.

“As Fired Up Friday has grown, we realized that while we were reaching kids, they had a much better chance of growing in faith if we reached their parents too,” Poteet said. “This smaller outreach has given us more time to build relationships with parents. Out of these relationships we are seeing incredible spiritual growth in people who had never even owned a Bible before.”

Nicole Parker, who has four children between the ages of five and ten, has been attending Family Fired Up Friday since it started.

“It’s really nice to be able to invite friends to participate in an event that is free, faith-based, and family-oriented,” Parker said. “Even with a range in ages, everyone can find activities that they enjoy.”

Sam Kudumula and Bindu Nallepogu, another family who regularly attends Family Fired Up Friday, saw the event as an opportunity for personal evangelism. They are originally from India, and have invited their Hindu neighbors to join them on Friday nights.

“They were so interested and touched by the experience,” Nallepogu said. “We were amazed that they showed up to listen to the Bible stories and wanted to come again. Our prayer is that God would open their hearts to the truth. We want to know their needs and minister to them.”

Gardner noted that a key to the success of Fired Up Friday has been the volunteers who give their time to make the program run smoothly and share the love of Christ.

“Without them we could not do this,” she said. “They have really connected with the children and their families, and are so committed to this ministry.”

FiredUpFridayDThe church is seeing growth in other areas as a result of the Fired Up Friday program.

Gardner recently started a Bible study in her home on Monday evening with some of the mothers. She continues to think about how to build deeper relationships.

“A lot of these families are not comfortable with church and do not have good memories with church,” she said. “We’re breaking down the walls and showing them that church can be fun and can be a safe place to learn about Jesus.”

Poteet and the Mt. Lebanon staff continue to explore ways to reach the community. They are considering a “Theology on Tap” group that would meet at a local restaurant, parenting classes, and a prayer and worship time that parents could attend while their children enjoy Fired Up Friday.

“The outside world is coming to us,” Gardner emphasized. “We’re being called to leave our walls and get to know our community. God is blessing us by bringing families to us, so we’re going to swing the door wide open and welcome them.”

by Kiki Schleiff Cherry
EPConnection correspondent

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Mt. Lebanon’s Associate Pastor, Steve Aguzzi, delivers the message during “Family Club” at Mt. Lebanon’s monthly Family Fired Up Friday event.

Philadelphia-area churches collaborate to relieve medical debt

 

A group of churches in Delaware County, Pa., recently joined forces to provide an extraordinary Christmas gift for their neighbors. Together they raised more than $21,000, and working in partnership with the nonprofit organization RIP Medical Debt, eliminated more than $2.2 million in medical debt for 584 local families.

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Paul Bammel

Paul Bammel, Pastor of Bethany Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and Stefan Bomberger, Pastor of Manoa Community Church, have been the driving force behind the initiative. Both men are relatively new to the area. Bomberger became pastor of Manoa in June of 2018, with Bammel following seven months later to serve at Bethany. About a mile and a half separate the two churches in the western Philadelphia suburb of Havertown.

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Stefan Bomberger

“When I arrived, Pastor Stefan invited me to attend a group of evangelical pastors who regularly meet together for prayer and encouragement,” Bammel said. He had been part of a similar group in Kansas, where he served as Associate Pastor for Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Wichita for nearly eight years. That group had grown from a gathering of church leaders into a citywide prayer movement. “I wondered if the Lord might do something similar here to draw churches together to pray for our city and county.”

Around the same time, a group of churches in the city had decided to come together for a worship gathering they called “Havertown United.” Bammel and Bomberger liked that name and the idea of congregations in Delaware County teaming up for a shared purpose, so they began to call their unified prayer group “Delco United Church.”

The partnership with Delco United Church and RIP Medical Debt came about after Bammel saw a Facebook video, in which a Kansas church held an “RIP Medical Debt campaign for Easter” in lieu of spending money advertising their Easter services. Bammel brought the idea to the Delco United Church prayer group, who enthusiastically embraced it.

“We had been talking about being proactive in our community and looking for opportunities to be the hands and feet of Christ to our neighbors,” Bomberger said. “So often as the church we sit waiting for people to come to us, rather than going out and finding the problems that exist right around us. My hope for my own church was that we could learn to recognize those problems and look for meaningful solutions.”

Bammel called RIP Medical Debt about the possibility of partnering together.

“They told me that here in Delaware County there’s about $500,000 in medical debt that’s available for purchase,” he noted, “and in Philadelphia there’s about 16 or 17 million dollars of medical debt that can be purchased.”

Since 2014, RIP Medical Debt—a New York-based 501(c)(3) founded by two former debt collection executives—has worked with donors to abolish more than $1 billion in medical debt. The organization is able to purchase qualifying medical debts in bundled portfolios for pennies on the dollar, so the philanthropic impact is unparalleled. One dollar donated relieves an average of $100 of medical debt.

Bammel learned that a group or organization would need to contribute at least $15,000 in order to participate. Then a letter would be sent on behalf of those who donated to inform the recipients that their medical debt had been paid in full.

The pastors were excited about the possibility of sending letters to the families who received the gifts.

“We wanted the campaign to have a connection to the gospel,” Bomberger noted. “This was a way for us to demonstrate how Jesus had paid our debt for sin, and as a reflection of that, we were going to pay it forward by canceling their medical debt and relieving them of their burden.”

So on September 20, Manoa Community Church hosted the inaugural Delco United Church worship and prayer gathering. More than 200 people from ten different churches of various denominations attended the service, and Manoa’s deacons served as hosts.

An offering was received for the RIP Debt campaign, and participants gathered into groups to pray for the families whose debt would be relieved. An organization called Chosen People Ministries provided drinks and desserts for a time of fellowship after the worship service.

“The Delco United Gathering was a very special time,” said Dave Woods, who attended the service. “I immediately felt a bond with those in the pews I didn’t know because we share together in God’s grace.”

Bethany member Leslie Rindone said her favorite part of the service “was talking and praying with several Villanova University students sitting behind me. Their enthusiasm was infectious for this kind of community outreach, and they expressed their love in such a joyful way.”

The goal for the offering was $15,000, which Bammel and Bomberger hoped would cover the debt relief package for all of Delaware County. But by the time the campaign ended, they had raised more than $21,000—enough to relieve debt in their own county and in a portion of Philadelphia as well.

“As a lifelong Presbyterian, I haven’t seen a whole lot of ‘playing well with others’ among us,” Bammel noted. “But this was a wonderful way for Presbyterians to unite with the capital-C church and do something well together. I loved getting to meet so many brothers and sisters in Christ and I look forward to building those relationships.”

Bammel and Bomberger hope that this is just the beginning for Delco United Church. They are already looking toward having another night of prayer and worship.

“It will be interesting to see where the Lord takes this thing,” Bammel said, “Really, we need to all get on our knees and seek the Lord’s leading.”

They also hope that more churches will follow their example and help their neighbors who suffer under the bondage of medical debt. Information on starting a campaign to eliminate medical debt is available at www.ripmedicaldebt.org/contact. Select “Start a Campaign” to initiate the process.

Daniel Lempert, Director of Communications for RIP Medical Debt, emphasized that debts of necessity, like medical, are plaguing hard-working Americans. “No one chooses to get sick or have an accident,” he said. “This campaign is helping to make things right.”

He added that the most rewarding aspect of the Delco United Church campaign has been “hearing from those whose debts have been relieved about how this act of charity has renewed their faith after years of being hounded by debt collectors.”

“This was a big win for us, and a shot of encouragement for our churches,” Bomberger said. “Instead of just dreaming about possibilities, we came together and actually made it happen.”

by Kiki Schleiff Cherry
EPConnection correspondent

Bellefield Presbyterian Church partners with University of Pittsburgh to feed hungry students

 

BellefieldChurchby Kiki Schleiff Cherry
EPConnection correspondent

When Pastor Josh Brown looks out of the window of his office at Bellefield Presbyterian Church, he can see eight of the dormitories on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, commonly known as Pitt.

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Josh Brown

“I believe that God strategically placed us here to be a light to the college community,” he said. “In fact, even though our church is primarily made up of young professionals and families, many of them are here because someone at Bellefield invested in them when they were in college.”

So in the fall of 2014 when the university’s Dean of Students, Kathy Humphrey, approached Brown with a partnership proposal, he was eager to listen.

“The leadership at Pitt had become aware of a problem with food insecurity among their student population,” Brown said. “Many students were paying for school on their own but still living with parents, so they didn’t qualify for financial assistance.”

That left many of the university’s nearly 34,000 students choosing between paying for books and tuition or buying food—and much of the food that they could afford was lacking in nutritional value.

So Humphrey decided to set up a food pantry through PittServes, the university’s community service arm. That’s when she approached Brown and asked if they could house the pantry in Bellefield’s basement.

“At the time there wasn’t a suitable on-campus space, and retail spaces weren’t economically feasible,” explained Ciara Stehley, who serves as the Pitt Pantry Coordinator. There also was a concern that the stigma of being food insecure might keep students from coming to a location on campus.

Brown took the idea to his congregation, who welcomed the idea with open arms. Church members pitched in to clean out the basement, which was being utilized as a youth space, and Pitt Pantry officially opened during the spring 2015 semester.

At first, the pantry was stocked only with non-perishable items, but soon grew to include meat, dairy, and fresh produce. The university purchases most of the food from the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank, and the rest comes from charitable donations by members of the community.

Pitt Pantry is open Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and Wednesday and Friday afternoons. Appointments also are available every weekday for anyone who cannot get there during its open hours. The pantry is staffed entirely by volunteers, and any Pitt student, staff, or faculty member whose income is less than 150 percent of the poverty line is eligible to shop at the pantry. As many as 80 people visit the pantry each month, which Stehley said was an increase of about 50 percent since the pantry opened in 2015.

Jason Ong, President of the Pitt Pantry Student Executive Board, says that volunteering at the pantry has opened his eyes to a hidden issue on his college campus.

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University of Pittsburgh students collected donations for the Pitt Pantry at the annual “Pitt Make a Difference Day” in October.

“I have learned that food insecurity does not have one face,” he said. “Any individual could face choosing to purchase a mandatory textbook over a meal. Beyond this, I am grateful to have met such a welcoming community at the Pantry.”

Brown occasionally encounters pantry shoppers who are curious about why the church is willing to help.

“I never want anyone to feel like the food comes with strings attached,” Brown said. “When someone inquires why we are doing this, I ask them if they were hungry that morning. And when they tell me they were, I say, ‘Then we want you to have the food you need so you won’t feel that way tomorrow.’”

Students receive food from the pantry with no obligation, though Brown hopes those who participate will recognize that Bellefield is a church that cares about students.

“We post information about our services and let them know that they are always welcome,” Brown said. The church recently added a third worship service at 5:00 p.m. on Sundays with acoustic music and a relaxed, reflective format in hopes that it would be an additional draw for students.

“Our congregation has been very supportive of the pantry,” Brown said. “We want to be aware of opportunities to reach out and connect with the community and be sensitive to the Lord’s leading through the channels that He creates.”

Brown believes the Pitt Pantry is one of those channels. He and another Bellefield member serve on Pitt Pantry’s board, and several student leaders in their Cornerstone ministry for college-aged young adults serve as volunteers.

In return, the university has also reached out to Bellefield. A few weeks ago, more than 40 PittServes students showed up at the church for a day of weeding and cleaning.

The Pitt Pantry also has brought regional awareness to the issue of food insecurity and prompted other universities to begin similar programs for their students. Stehley emphasized that being able to influence others is an exciting part of her work.

“Getting to share our successes and challenges at conferences across the country and support other schools as they improve the food needs of their students is one of my favorite things about my role,” she said. “As we move toward a holistic and proactive approach to supporting our students, we’re proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish. But we realize that we have a continued responsibility to strive for creative and systems-focused solutions.”

Brown hopes that Bellefield will continue to play a significant part in helping to find those solutions. He said the partnership with Pitt has enabled them to meet the needs of their community more effectively together than either could have done individually.

“I believe it’s a blessing for those around us to see a local congregation and a large university working together like this,” Brown said. “Our hope going forward is that we can continue to find ways to partner with the university to care for students in ways that reflect the love of Christ and model an effective, collaborative partnership.”

Redeemer Presbyterian Church (Erie, Pa.) launches ministry relationship in Monterrey, Mexico

 

Through the EPC’s fraternal relationship with the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico (INPM), Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Erie, Pa., has formed a ministry relationship with Iglesia Nacional Presbiteriana El Buen Pastor (Good Shepherd National Presbyterian Church) in Monterrey, Mexico. The northeastern Mexican city of more than 4.5 million residents is about 200 miles west of Brownsville, Texas.

The seeds of the relationship were planted in November 2018, when Redeemer Pastor Douglas Kortyna and his wife, Sara, were visiting Monterrey.

“We wanted to worship with fellow Presbyterians while we were down there visiting family,” Douglas said. “We found El Buen Pastor and connected with their pastor, David Cruz.”

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From left, Douglas Kortyna (Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Erie, Pa.), David Cruz (Pastor of Iglesia Nacional Presbiteriana El Buen Pastor in Monterrey, Mexico), and Jim Moelk (retired Presbyterian pastor from Erie, Pa.). 

Through their new-found friendship with Cruz, the Kortynas began a dialogue about potential future mission trips to Mexico. After discussing a variety of possible ministry opportunities, the pastors agreed that the best fit for a first mission trip would be theological education.

“It is a universal truth that Presbyterians throughout the world love their theological education!” Douglas exclaimed.

In November 2019, the Kortynas and a retired Presbyterian pastor from the Erie area, Jim Moelk, and his wife, Jaye, traveled to Monterrey and taught on a variety of topics.

“I taught on trinitarian worship and Reformed sacraments,” Douglas said. “Jim taught through the pastoral epistles with special attention to ‘guarding your conscience,’ while Sara taught the woman’s group at El Buen Pastor on the topic of trinitarian prayer.”

In addition, the group from Redeemer learned how their Mexican counterparts were engaged in church planting.

“The church has started what they call ‘five in five,’” Douglas said. “They are working toward planting five churches within a five-year time period.”

Cruz led the Pennsylvania contigent on tours of three of the Monterrey congregation’s five current church plants.

“We were blown away,” Douglas said. “What church plants five churches in five years? Yet every time El Buen Pastor hits a certain threshold of members, they plant a church, commission the team they establish, and commit to supporting them financially.”

He explained that the El Buen Pastor congregation has “a Kingdom focus and is not interested in just building up one congregation. I couldn’t help but think we should host pastors from Mexico to help teach future EPC church planters some of their strategies!”

Kortyna hopes the November trip is just the start of a fruitful partnership.

“We would love to host a team from El Buen Pastor,” he said. “There is much to learn from our Mexican brothers and sisters in Christ while mutually serving one another, and I firmly believe we should participate with them in the missional work of church planting in Monterrey. Anyone interested in joining us is welcome to contact me at pastor_kortyna@rpcerie.org.”

Caldwell (Idaho) EPC celebrates new home, personal revitalization

 
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Caldwell Evangelical Presbyterian Church’s new property is a formerly neglected recreation center the congregation purchased from the local Roman Catholic diocese in 2019.

On November 22, Caldwell Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Caldwell, Idaho, will hold a dedication and celebration service for its new building. The church had been renting a series of locations since joining the EPC in 2013, and purchased a former Roman Catholic property earlier this year. Yet the celebration is about much more than a building—it is a celebration of God’s faithfulness, truth, and power for personal spiritual revitalization.

When the Presbyterian Church in Caldwell, Idaho, began to discuss leaving the mainline denomination in 2012, Scott and Connie Hoover weren’t quite sure what to believe. They had been members of the congregation for more than 40 years and as a result had deep relationships in both the church and the community. Yet they knew there were rumblings among many in the church about their denomination.

“When the issues started coming out, I was on Session,” Connie said. “In the first meeting where we addressed the concerns, I agreed more with my friends who were in favor of gay ordination and that kind of thing. I was on that side of the issue, and others were on the other side.”

For his part, Scott was concerned about what he thought were the mainline denomination’s “unbiblical political stances.”

“I was wondering, ‘do I really want to belong to the Presbyterian church?’” he said. “But when the issue of same-sex ordination came up, I started reading the Bible more and realized I was as much a cultural Christian as I was a believer all these years.”

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Scott and Connie Hoover

Connie noted that her walk with Christ to that point largely mirrored that of her husband’s.

“I was an active church participant, but I wouldn’t say I had a deep walk with Christ,” she confessed. The Hoovers realized that the decision facing the congregation was bringing Scott and her to a personal turning point.

“Through that whole situation I realized that the basic issue was the truth of the Bible, and some of my opinions had to change to line up with biblical truth,” she said. “I remember praying that this decision had to be made by His will and His Word, not the opinions of me and my friends.”

The Hoovers—and the Session—soon realized that the congregation needed to leave its denomination. The transition to a new home would not be easy.

“The more we as a Session prayed that we would align with biblical truth, the more we were criticized,” Connie recalled. “And the more we were criticized, the more I relied on Him and strengthened my relationship with Him. And I was not alone—God drew a lot of us to Him.”

When the congregation cast its vote, 75 percent chose to depart and join the EPC. The 25 percent who voted against the disaffiliation left and began meeting elsewhere. However, they soon filed a lawsuit to gain possession of the church property they had vacated. After more than a year in the courts, followed by a negotiated settlement, the EPC congregation left the property and began renting space from the local Seventh-Day Adventist church.

“I can’t say enough about how gracious the Adventists were,” Connie noted. “And the rent we paid them helped them pay off some debt, so it was good for everyone. They were so kind and encouraging to us, even across some pretty substantial theological divisions.”

Aaron Beaty was the pastor during the congregation’s transition to the EPC.

“I witnessed nothing short of the miraculous work the Holy Spirit in uniting what had previously been a congregation of varied convictions and backgrounds,” said Beaty, who now serves as pastor of Peace Memorial EPC in Klamath Falls, Ore. “The unity was in the Word, the Spirit, and the Body. Ultimately this unity in Christ was expressed when the fellowship chose to turn the building and $300,000 of investments over to their former denomination instead of engaging in a lengthy court battle and appeals process. For a congregation that was deeply rooted in that place, the move demonstrated the work God’s Spirit had done in them.”

Later, the congregation began renting the neglected gym and educational annex of a church property owned by the local Roman Catholic diocese. With the approval of their landlords, members of the congregation began gutting and renovating. They held their first services in the facility in early 2017.

“The Catholic ladies who saw how we fixed it up started crying at how good it looked, and that was still going to be used as a church,” Scott said.

“The Lord activated the gifts of many of our members,” Beaty recalled. “The congregation came together and spent five to six nights a week transforming a musty, run-down education hall into a fresh, roomy worship center with fellowship, office, and classroom space.”

Caldwell EPC ultimately negotiated with the diocese to purchase the property.

“I remember praying, ‘God, this is a great place to preach the Word and minister to the world,’” Beaty recalled. “God said to me, ‘Not for you.’ While shocking, I didn’t take it as a rebuke but as an assurance—that my pastorate had come to an end and God had prepared another for their next stage.”

Following Beaty’s departure to Peace Memorial EPC in 2017, Ehud Garcia served as Transitional Pastor for Caldwell EPC until Dave Moody was installed as pastor in April 2017.

“Ehud and his wife, Neiva, were significant in the life of the church,” Moody said. “For nearly two years he faithfully preached God’s Word, helped the church set up a pastoral search committee, and walked with the congregation through the decision to purchase the building.”

Through the entire process, the congregation came to understand that the church is not bricks and mortar.

“Due to God’s leading them through difficult and refining times,” Moody said, “they understand the church is the people, not the building, and He has brought them here for a revitalized faithfulness to Jesus and His mission.”

Scott Hoover agreed.

“What opened our eyes through the whole thing was that the building really wasn’t important,” he said. “It’s a tool, but it’s not the church. It’s simply a place to expand out from. The whole experience also showed me that I had to understand what the Bible says and I needed to align myself with it. It pushed me to think about what I believed, and to read the Bible—which I really hadn’t done since I was a kid.”

A turnaround story: Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church

 

ChapelHillASpencer Hutchins is 33 now, but he was three years old when he first met Mark Toone, Senior Pastor of Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church in Gig Harbor, Wash. Hutchins grew up in the church, and now he’s helping to lead it as chair of the elder board.

“It says a great deal about Mark that he trusts me, a child of the church he knew as a toddler, with this position of authority,” Hutchins says. “At Chapel Hill, we are blessed with a senior pastor who both leads and follows. He acts with humility and respect for our church governance. Our pastor takes very seriously the burden of responsibility on him but knows he does not carry it alone.”

Toone’s humility and his close relationship with church elders (and the rest of the congregation) have been on full display the past year and a half or so, as the church has doubled down on reversing a 14-year-old trend of declining membership. In March 2018, the church hired Tony Morgan of The Unstuck Group to help them rearticulate their ministry and realign their structures.

“It was a point of existential crisis for me,” Toone says. “I reached the point where I felt we either had to find a way, by God’s grace, to turn this around, or I needed to take early retirement and see if someone else could do something. I had 30 years of accumulated chips, and I decided I would push all of them onto the table. Hard decisions that might wound me could kill my successor, but I wanted to do everything I could to prepare Chapel Hill for a future even greater than its past.”

Because Toone had so much relational equity with church members, he was able to implement some risky changes.

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Associate Pastor Ellis White (left) and Ruling Elder David Derr administer the sacrament of baptism at Chapel Hill’s annual outdoor “Harbor Baptisms” service each summer.

“We began thinking about worship services as our front door rather than our living room, which changed the way we planned, aimed, talked, decorated, and followed up,” Toone says.

Perhaps that was most obvious in a simple but important decision that turned out to be symbolic of all the sacrificial change (and resulting growth) the church has seen in the past year: closing the balcony during all services. Prior to that, many people preferred to worship from the balcony, leaving the main floor feeling uncomfortably empty for visitors. That decision, Toone says, not only set off the most grumbling, but it coincided with a positive turnaround in attendance.

“I’ve never had more complaints about a single issue in my 30 years of ministry than we did over closing the stupid balcony,” Toone says. “Frankly, the more it went on, the more I was determined we wouldn’t open that balcony if it killed me, because I felt like there was a spiritual issue at play. It became almost a parable of the journey of change we were engaged in, where we were calling on people to sacrifice comfort and preference for the sake of the greater good of the body and of those who had yet to walk through our doors.”

Focusing on the unchurched was a huge shift for Chapel Hill.

“Our mission statement had to do with presenting everyone mature in Christ, and, in a sense, we had accomplished that,” Toone says. “But in the process, we had begun to close the door to the outsider. So we became more intentional about our worship services not just being a training time for seasoned veterans but really a welcoming, open front door for [newcomers].”

That not only meant introducing a contemporary service in addition to the long-standing traditional one, but also having a much clearer discipleship plan in place for new believers.

“Instead of weekends just being about putting together a great worship service, we were far more intentional about equipping our members to invite their friends,” Associate Pastor Ellis White says, “and then creating an experience for those people that’s engaging, where they feel welcomed, where they have the opportunity to profess faith, and where they can then be baptized and make a concrete next step in their faith.”

Above all of these things, though, the greatest catalyst for growth has been the Holy Spirit, Hutchins says.

“We do not seek increased attendance as an end in and of itself,” he says. “We desire to grow, both in numbers and in faith, as an expression of the vibrancy of the Holy Spirit in and among us.”

Toone echoes that sentiment.

“I love the fact that the Lord has seen fit to entrust more people to us,” Toone says. “This is a movement of the Spirit.”

 

Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church was named to the “Outreach 100” list for 2019 of the fastest-growing churches in the United States. Article reprinted courtesy of Outreach magazine. ©2019 Outreach Inc. Photos courtesy of Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church.

www.OutreachMagazine.com

https://outreachmagazine.com/ideas/church-profiles/45842-a-turnaround-story-chapel-hill-presbyterian-church.html

Lake Forest Church (N.C.) launches Spanish-language church through Mexico partnership

 
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Victor Leal, Pastor of El Buen Samaritano, preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan at the congregation’s launch service on September 8, 2019 (Photos courtesy of Lake Forest Church).

The EPC’s newest Spanish-speaking congregation launched in Huntersville, N.C., on Sunday, September 8. Iglesia Lake Forest: El Buen Samaritano is a plant of the Lake Forest family of churches and is led by Victor Leal and his wife, Rosmi.

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Rosmi and Victor Leal

The congregation, whose name translates to “Lake Forest Church: The Good Samaritan” is fruit of the partnership between the EPC and the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico (La Iglesia Nacional Presbiteriana de México or INPM), and a financial church-planting partnership between Lake Forest Church and the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic.

“We consider El Buen Samaritano an example of the EPC’s ‘Revelation 7:9’ vision for serving every tribe and language in our own country with the gospel of Jesus Christ,” said Mike Moses, Lead Pastor of Lake Forest Church-Huntersville and Moderator of the EPC’s 35th General Assembly.

The Leals came to Lake Forest in 2016 from Seminario Teológico Presbiteriano de México (the Presbyterian Theological Seminary of Mexico) in Mexico City.

“They have been living in the fast-growing Latino immigrant community of north Charlotte for more than a year, building relationships and leading the ministry of the resource center that our Lake Forest opened in 2017 in the key neighborhood of this population,” Moses noted. “The resource center—Centro de Recursos—is a platform for tutoring ministries, immigration law counseling, community police meetings, and much more. Victor and Rosmi have built trust in the neighborhood by actively caring for the physical and social needs of local families, and now they are trusted to lead people spiritually.”

On Launch Sunday, Rosmi led worship and Victor preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10.

“The theme was powerful,” Moses said. “Like the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable, the immigrant community in the U.S. today may feel as though they are suspect and objects of disrespect. However, Jesus emphasized that they are in fact as capable as anyone of exemplifying God’s Kingdom and God’s will by reaching out to serve others. And of course, Victor spoke the gospel—that Jesus is all of our ‘Good Samaritan’ who meets our deepest needs and pays the price for our healing through the cross and the resurrection.”

El Buen Samaritano is the fourth member of the Lake Forest family of churches, which includes congregations in Davidson, Huntersville, and Westlake, N.C. Lake Forest seeks to plant one new congregation every two to three years.

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Outreach Magazine names three EPC churches to “Outreach 100” list

 

Outreach100-2019Outreach Magazine has recognized Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church in Gig Harbor, Wash.; Cherry Hills Community Church in Highlands Ranch, Colo.; and Hope Presbyterian Church in Cordova, Tenn., in its annual feature on the largest and fastest-growing churches in the United States.

Among the fastest-growing churches, Chapel Hill was a newcomer to the list this year. The congregation led by Pastor Mark Toone ranked 92nd, with 17 percent growth over the past year to an average attendance of 1,319.

Hope Church also made the fastest-growing list in 100th place, with six percent growth (417 new attenders) to a current average attendance of 6,815. This is the first year Hope has landed on the Outreach list of fastest-growing congregations.

Hope Church also is ranked in the Largest Churches category at 65th, and appears on the Outreach list for fifth consecutive year. The congregation was ranked 83rd in 2015, 69th in 2016, 79th in 2017, and 80th in 2018. Rufus Smith is the Senior Pastor.

Cherry Hills also appears on list of largest churches for the fifth year. Led by Senior Pastor Shane Farmer, the congregation was ranked 95th this year, with an average attendance of 4,707. Cherry Hills has been on Outreach’s list of largest congregations every year since 2015.

The Outreach 100—a ranking of the 100 largest, fastest-growing, and reproducing  churches in the United States—is an annual collaboration between Outreach Magazine, Lifeway Research, and Exponential. While not exhaustive, the list is based on self-reported surveys from about 30,000 congregations that were contacted for participation. For more information, see www.outreach100.com/about.

Bart Hess Award presented to Covenant EPC of Monroe, La.

 
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Jeff Jeremiah presents the 2019 Bart Hess Award to John Mabray, Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Monroe, La., on June 20 at the 2019 General Assembly. To Mabray’s right are Associate Pastor Jonathan Wagner and Ruling Elder Wayne Smith.

Covenant Presbyterian Church (EPC) of Monroe, La., is the recipient of the 2019 Bartlett L. Hess Award for church revitalization. The award was presented to the congregation on August 18.

“The revitalization of Covenant Monroe is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes,” Pastor John Mabray told the 39th General Assembly when the award was announced on June 20.

EPC Stated Clerk Jeff Jeremiah said Covenant EPC received the 2019 award “because of its outstanding work in church revitalization.”

The Hess Award is given annually to the EPC church that has demonstrated the most innovative approach to church growth or revitalization. Church growth—in both its spiritual and numerical aspects—is an essential part of the mission of the church. The award provides a vehicle by which positive, reproducible innovation is encouraged and shared with others in the EPC. It is named for Bart Hess, founding pastor of Ward Church in suburban Detroit, who was instrumental in the establishment of the EPC in 1981.

EPC hurricane relief efforts in Bahamas underway as casualties reported

 
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The Bahamas are home to three EPC churches; two of which were in the path of Hurricane Dorian (noted with red line).

Among the reported casualties in Marsh Harbor, Bahamas, as a result of Hurricane Dorian are two individuals connected to EPC churches. Bryn MacPhail, Pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk in Nassau, reported that a member of Kirk of the Pines in Marsh Harbor and a cousin of a St. Andrews Ruling Elder are among the casualties.

As of September 9, more than 40 deaths in the Bahamas have been attributed to the storm, with hundreds of people still missing.

Of the three EPC churches in the Bahamas, two are located in areas directly affected by the storm: Kirk of the Pines (Abaco), and Lucaya Presbyterian Church in Freeport (Grand Bahama). Nassau received little effect from the storm, so St. Andrew’s is the staging point for the EPC’s relief work in Marsh Harbor.

In response to the storm’s destructive impact on Abaco and Grand Bahama islands, more than $73,000 has been donated to the EPC Emergency Relief Fund as of September 9. The request for donations was issued on September 2.

Jeff Jeremiah, EPC Stated Clerk, said that he has been in daily contact with MacPhail and Gabe Swing, Pastor of Kirk of the Pines in Marsh Harbor.

“Gabe and his family were in Tennessee when Dorian made landfall in the Bahamas,” Jeremiah noted. “His return has been delayed twice, but he hopes to arrive in Nassau this Wednesday. The challenge the Swings face when they return to Marsh Harbor is that their home has been described as unlivable.”

Lack of power and wifi connectivity in Freeport since the storm prevented contact with Ken Lane, Pastor of Lucaya Presbyterian Church, until Saturday, September 7.

“Ken reports that the island of Grand Bahama also received significant wind and flooding, although not as extensive and devastating as on Abaco,” Jeremiah said. “The good news is that the Lucaya building did not endure flooding and suffered only minor exterior damage. When the banks in Freeport re-open in the coming week, EPC emergency relief funds will be sent as requested from Ken, who is still assessing the needs this weekend with his leadership.”

MacPhail reported that the recently constructed Kirk of the Pines building received minor damage, but is “standing strong on the main road” of Marsh Harbor—one of only a few structures in Marsh Harbor still intact. An estimated 13,000 homes in the immediate area of the church have been destroyed, including the homes of many Kirk of the Pines families.

Initially planned as a center for EPC relief efforts in Marsh Harbor, MacPhail noted that a pending mandatory evacuation order has put those plans for the Kirk of the Pines facility on hold.

“Sending supplies to Marsh Harbor appears to no longer be prudent at the moment,” MacPhail said via email. “Receiving teams to help rebuild also seems like something that will need to wait until we hear what the government intends for the city.”

MacPhail also noted that many of those evacuees are coming to Nassau.

“Two of our Sunday School classrooms have been converted into temporary lodging. Bedding, towels, and other necessities have been purchased and church members have supplied groceries.” At least eleven Marsh Harbor evacuees will be housed in this space, MacPhail said.

Jeremiah described three specific areas for prayer focus:

“First, pray for Gabe Swing as he returns. With the evacuations to Nassau, there are now more members of Kirk of the Pines in Nassau than there are in Marsh Harbor, so pray for Gabe as he ministers to his dislocated flock.”

The second prayer request is for a mental health team that MacPhail’s wife, Allie, serves with.

“She is a certified therapist and part of a mental health team with the Family Medicine Center in Nassau. They have been at the Nassau airports to provide evacuees with what has been termed, ‘Psychological First Aid.’ Pray for this team as they perform this incredibly important ministry.”

The third prayer request is for protection against looting.

“Looting is already a major problem in Abaco and Freeport,” he said. “Pray for the protection of those supplies, the safety of those protecting them, and of course, the recipients of that help.”

MacPhail requested prayer for the St. Andrew’s congregation and leadership as they assess the best way to meet needs in both their community and among evacuees from Abaco and Grand Bahama.

“I sense that we are being forced to wait before we get a clearer sense of where, and how, to best assist,” he wrote via email on September 8. “Our elders meet on Wednesday evening. Please pray for us as we meet and attempt to discern the best way forward with relief assistance.”

Donations to EPC relief efforts can be made at www.epc.org/donate/emergencyrelief. Contributions are sent directly to EPC churches in the affected areas for needs they identify in their local communities.

 

Relief funds sought for Hurricane Dorian relief

 

HurricaneDorianEmergencyReliefIn response to devastation wrought on the northern Bahamas by Hurricane Dorian, and in anticipation of potential further effects of the storm, the EPC is seeking donations to its Emergency Relief Fund.

“While Puerto Rico was only grazed by the storm and our church in Nassau fared well, it is sadly a very different story for our church at Marsh Harbor, Abaco—Kirk of the Pines, led by Gabe Swing,” said Jeff Jeremiah, EPC Stated Clerk. “Dorian made landfall there with record winds in excess of 180 mph, accompanied by a tremendous storm surge. We are still awaiting reports from church leaders and members, but news reports and social media show devastating damage.”

A third EPC congregation in the Bahamas, Lucaya Presbyterian Church, is located in suburban Freeport on the island of Grand Bahama. As of late afternoon on September 2, Dorian had largely stalled with its center located about 25 miles northeast of Freeport. Damage is expected “to be severe” in that community, Jeremiah said.

Click here to donate to the Emergency Relief Fund, or go to www.epc.org/donate/emergencyrelief.

Contributions are tax-deductible, and any donations that exceed directly related disbursements will be held for future emergency relief needs.