Category Archives: Ministers

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.

World Outreach global workers minister, monitor coronavirus locally

 
PhilLinton

Phil Linton

by Phil Linton
Director, EPC World Outreach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
MatthewSullivan

Matthew Sullivan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

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

 
DavidSwanson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had found his calling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why has God taken that away?

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

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

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

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

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

by David Whitley/Orlando Sentinel
Reprinted by permission

EPC pastors, churches in California adapt amid statewide lockdown

 
ShawnRobinsonMensBibleStudy

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

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

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

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

AndrewOng

Andrew Ong

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

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

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

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

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

ScottFarmer

Scott Farmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ShawnRobinson

Shawn Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

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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.

Church Pivot podcast features church planting discussion with Tom Ricks

 
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Tom Ricks

The third episode of Case Thorp’s “Church Pivot” podcast features the Moderator of the 39th General Assembly talking with Tom Ricks, leader of the EPC Church Planting Team.

In their discussion, Ricks reflects on his years in church planting and explains what it takes to plant churches in a connectional denomination like the EPC in the 21st century.

Click below to listen. The 61-minute recording also is available on the EPC’s Podbean channel, or search “Evangelical Presbyterian Church” on Spotify or iTunes.


A veteran EPC church planter, Ricks serves as Lead Pastor of Greentree Community Church in Kirkwood, Mo.

Thorp is a Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean. He serves as Senior Associate Pastor of Evangelism for First Presbyterian Church in Orlando.

“Church Pivot” is a series of articles and audio podcasts in which Thorp focuses on issues of pivoting toward a robust future of ministry, spiritual growth, adult conversion, and more.

Chaplains Work and Care Committee reviews resources, interviews chaplaincy candidates

 

CWCCMeeetingFebruary2020Meeting at the Office of the General Assembly in Orlando February 24-25, the EPC Chaplains Work and Care Committee (CWCC) discussed a variety of topics related to its oversight of the EPC’s chaplaincy ministry. More than 60 EPC-endorsed chaplains currently serve in a variety of military and civilian contexts.

Among other items on its agenda, the CWCC reviewed plans for this year’s Chaplains Workshop, to be held as part of the Leadership Institute at the 40th General Assembly; reviewed several resources provided for EPC chaplains in both the endorsement process and active ministry; and interviewed two candidates for EPC chaplaincy endorsement.

“Ordained, professional chaplains serve in some of the most challenging environments imaginable, such as hostile locations, palliative care for children facing serious or end-of-life conditions, and mass-casualty events,” said Mark Ingles, EPC Chaplain Endorser. “They also provide support in more joyful occasions like baptisms, worship, weddings, organizational invocations, and so much more—not to mention all the care and ministering that volunteer chaplains provide. It is truly an honor and joy to provide the avenue, guidance, support, and care to our chaplains in the field, as well as for those who are seeking to become an EPC chaplain.” Ingles is a Teaching Elder from the Presbytery of the West.

Members of the CWCC are Ted Tromble (Chairman), Teaching Elder from the Presbytery of the Rivers and Lakes; Bruce Alexander, Ruling Elder from the Presbytery of the East; Karen Bolte, Teaching Elder from the Presbytery of the Pacific Southwest; Tim Foster, Teaching Elder from the Presbytery of the Central South; Glen Holman, Ruling Elder from the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic; Jennifer Prechter, Teaching Elder from the Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean; David Snyder, Teaching Elder from the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic; Richard Swedberg, Ruling Elder from the Presbytery of the West; and Brad Yorton, Teaching Elder from the Presbytery of the Pacific Northwest.

For more information on EPC chaplaincy ministries, see www.epc.org/chaplaincy.

16 months post-prison: an interview with Andrew Brunson

 
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Andrew Brunson

In October 2016, Andrew Brunson was arrested by Turkish authorities—along with tens of thousands of Turkish military personnel, civil servants, educators, journalists, and dissidents following a failed coup. Brunson, an EPC pastor of a small Protestant church in Izmir, became a pawn in a geopolitical chess game. He spent two years in a Turkish prison before he was released in October 2018.

After his release, Brunson became the focus of worldwide media attention. He was honored at the White House and invited to the United Nations when President Donald Trump delivered a speech on religious freedom. Brunson has written a book about his ordeal, God’s Hostage, (Baker Books) that was published in late 2019. In this interview conducted by EPConnection correspondent Peter Larson, Brunson reflects on his life and ministry in the 16 months since leaving Turkey.

First of all, how are you and Norine doing?

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Andrew and Norine Brunson participate in a question-and-answer session at the 39th General Assembly, held June 2019 at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church in suburban Denver.

To be free is just amazing. It’s the small things that I missed while I was in prison—just normal life. Things like having breakfast with my wife or being able to sit on a park bench. It’s been good to see my children. My first grandchild was just born, and my son just graduated from basic training in the Army. It was a miracle just to be there for that!

Have you been able to heal since your time in prison?

Actually, a lot of the healing took place while I was in prison, when I was able to surrender fully to that. I went through a period when I had a lot of nightmares. I had a psychiatrist examine me who has worked with the U.S. State Department on a lot of trauma cases. He said I had Post Traumatic Stress, but not a disorder. Writing the book was cathartic, going through the pain and hardship again. There was a healing process in that.

In your book you are very honest about the faith struggles you experienced in prison. It was really a “dark night of the soul.”

The missionary biographies that I had read did not prepare me for the experience of imprisonment. Many of them are triumphalist and focus mainly on victory. Prison was a lot tougher than I expected. It really broke me. I prayed, “Lord, if I get out of this I pledge to be very open about this.” The encouragement I want to give people is to keep going in spite of your discouragement and trust in the Lord.

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At the invitation of North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis (left), Brunson delivered the opening prayer for the United States Senate in Washington, D.C., on October 15, 2019.

You grew up in Black Mountain, N.C. Are you living there now?

Actually, I’ve been traveling a lot this year. We’ve been in Kansas City, but most of the time we’ve been living out of suitcases. Because of our high profile, we cannot do the kind of work we used to do. We cannot establish ourselves in a Muslim country and do church-planting work. So, in this season the Lord is going to use us in a different way.

One thing we want is some continuity in our lives. We want to have a home base we can work out of and establish a normal life.

What is the focus of your ministry now?

Our focus is still on the Muslim world and we have a number of trips ahead related to that. In the old Ottoman Empire—the Balkans, North Africa, and the Middle East. Our desire is to see church planting in those places. We want to help the next generation to go into those places and equip local believers. For example, in March we’re going to be at a meeting in the Middle East with Muslim-background believes from many countries. Out of that we may be able to visit some of those places to train leaders, but we cannot live there long-term; they would probably kick us out or attack us.

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Upon Andrew’s release from prison in October 2018, he returned to his apartment in Izmir for a few hours before leaving the country.

How is your church in Izmir doing?

There’s really been a change in Turkey right now, a lot of oppression and missionaries being kicked out. But also, there is a growing interest in Christianity. People are coming to our church and asking questions. We are handing out 1,500 New Testaments every month. Younger people are being turned off by Islam. A lot of people are saying, “I don’t know what I believe anymore, but I don’t want to be a Muslim!”

Why do you think this change is happening?

Before I went to prison, I felt the Lord was telling me to prepare for the harvest. When I was in prison, I felt that assignment had been cancelled. Then, I began to realize that my imprisonment was an assignment from God. I was like a magnet that was drawing prayers to that part of the world.

So you are feeling hopeful about the church in Turkey?

What we need is a wave of the Holy Spirit to sweep through Turkey and the Middle East. In Iran, this has been happening for years—ever since the Islamic revolution. Any place where there are Iranians, they are coming to faith. I believe God is setting things in place for that to also happen in Turkey. In two of our locations in Turkey, they are maxing the building out.

What are some of your other ministry goals right now?

We are feeling a real burden to strengthen the next generation of Christians in the United States. There is increasing hostility in our nation to the Christian faith, and we are really not prepared for this. So when we have the opportunity to speak at colleges or conferences, we want them to be ready to stand firm, because it will be costly to be a Christian.

You are also engaged in ministry to the persecuted church, is that correct?

Yes, we want to highlight the persecution of Christians in the Muslim world. Some of them are historically Christian groups that have been decimated. Some of these churches have not done a lot of evangelism; they are just trying to survive. This summer, we will be doing something with Open Doors. We have also worked with Voice of the Martyrs and groups like that. Recently, an Egyptian brother asked us to help him minister to Arab communities in Spain. There are so many opportunities and doors God has opened to us.

After your release from prison, the EPC launched a financial support fund to help with your transition back to the United States. How did that bless you?

The churches of the EPC contributed more than $150,000 to help us, and it came in very quickly. Jeff Jeremiah led that and there was a tremendous outpouring. We are so grateful for that. It helped us during the transition so I didn’t have to go out and raise support.

For 23 years you were an unknown missionary serving in Turkey. Now, your name is known worldwide. How does that feel?

I believe the Lord has kept us hidden this past year to a high degree. We were at the White House and the United Nations, but the rest of the time we were hidden away. We don’t feel like celebrities at all. It’s more that when we meet people who prayed for us, we are deeply grateful. Obviously, the Lord was using that prayer to sustain me, but He was doing so much more than that. I believe there will be a massive movement of God in the Muslim world. I think God is setting things in place for that.

If churches or individuals want to be involved in your ministry, how can they help?

We are setting up a 501(c)(3) non-profit for our ministry. People can contact me at andrewnorine@yahoo.com if they’d like to know more.

Andrew, thank you for taking time to update all of us on what you are doing. May God richly bless you, your family, and your future ministry!

Thank you very much.

by Peter Larson
EPConnection correspondent
Larson serves pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Lebanon, Ohio

‘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.

Networking, sharing best practices highlight EPC pastors gathering

 

500-999Pastors2020Fifteen pastors of EPC churches with membership of 500-1000 discussed a variety of topics relevant to their ministries and settings at their annual gathering, held January 15-17 at the Office of the General Assembly in Orlando. The group meets each year for networking, fellowship, community, and sharing best practices.

Evangelism in a post-Christian culture, campus security, church planting, adult spiritual formation, worship design and staffing, self- and staff care, and a variety of other topics stimulated healthy discussion.

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Michael Flake

Michael Flake, Pastor of Lake Forest Church in Davidson, N.C., attended the meeting for the first time and said the peer group provided “a lot of encouragement.”

“We brought our questions and batted them around together,” he said. “I leave here with a lot of great ideas to be more effective in ministry.”

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Carolyn Poteet

Carolyn Poteet, Pastor of Mt. Lebanon EPC in Pittsburgh, Pa., said the gathering is a “high priority” on her annual calendar.

“I always get great advice, but more than that it’s a community that’s supportive and prayerful and intentionally seeking to help the Church flourish and to help each other flourish,” she said.

Others attending were Jeff Chandler, First Presbyterian Church in Bakersfield, Calif.; Scott Farmer, Community Presbyterian Church in Danville, Calif.; Mark Fuller, Trinity Church in Plymouth, Mich.; Bryan Gregory, Knox Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Mich.; David Henderson, Covenant Church in West Lafayette, Ind.; Rob Hock, Southport Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, Ind.; Scott Koenigsaecker, Sequim Community Church in Sequim, Wash.; Peter Larson, Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Lebanon, Ohio; Tony Myers, St. Paul’s EPC in Somerset, Pa.; Doug Resler, Parker EPC in Parker, Colo.; Tom Ricks, Greentree Community Church in Kirkwood, Mo.; Jeremy Vaccaro, First Presbyterian Church in Fresno, Calif.; and Richard White, Christ Community Church in Montreat, N.C.

Colorado Springs media help EPC Chaplain Endorser spread Christmas cheer for local food bank

 

For the sixth consecutive year, EPC Chaplain Endorser Mark Ingles has leveraged his home Christmas display to benefit the Care and Share Food Bank of Southern Colorado. Local media outlets have taken notice. KOAA News5, KKTV 11 News, and Fox21 News all broadcast Ingles’ efforts, and he will appear live on Fox21’s “Living Local” program on December 26 at 9:00 a.m. MST.

To watch “Living Local” online, go to http://www.fox21news.com/live.

Ingles’ initiative to help local families through the food bank has grown significantly—in his first year of collecting non-perishable food in 2014, 165 pounds were dropped off. By 2018, the haul was nearly 1,650 pounds. His goal this year is 2,000 pounds.

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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