Category Archives: Ministers

Jacksonville (Ore.) Presbyterian Church opens sanctuary as shelter for wildfire evacuees, seeks prayer

 

Jacksonville Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, Ore., opened its multi-purpose sanctuary for evacuees of the Alameda Fire that has burned 3,200 acres and destroyed at least 600 homes.

As wildfires ravage the West Coast destroying thousands of acres of timberland and homes —including the homes of three of his church families—an EPC pastor in southwest Oregon is requesting “prayer for wisdom and a vision” as the church seeks to minister to those amid the storm.

“It’s pretty overwhelming,” said Dustin Jernigan, Lead Pastor of Jacksonville Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, Ore. “It’s hard not to find somewhere on the Oregon map where a community hasn’t been decimated. There are whole towns that are just gone.”

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 87 large wildfires are burning in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Many residents are under evacuation orders. In Oregon alone—Gov. Kate Brown said the state has never before had so many uncontained fires—more than a million acres have burned. As of September 14, at least 35 people have died as a result of nearly 100 wildfires that have scorched more than 4.7 million acres. At least four people died from the Alameda Fire, which burned 3,200 acres about 10 miles east of Jacksonville between Medford and Ashland, Ore.

Dustin Jernigan

Jernigan reported a “heavy orange haze over Jacksonville and the entire region, causing terrible air quality.” Coupled with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, he noted that residents are weary.

“It feels that we have already been running a marathon, and all of a sudden a bear showed up and is chasing us,” he said. “We are already exhausted. Now we have a whole different problem. Some people don’t have a place to sleep tonight. The main thing we need is prayer for wisdom, a plan, and a vision.”

The church opened its multipurpose sanctuary the weekend of September 11-13 to about a dozen families who either had lost their homes or who were fleeing the devastation of the wildfires. Following the first few days, the number of people utilizing the shelter diminished, after which people were taken into church member’s homes.

Brenda Rosch, one of those who stayed at the church, told the Wall Street Journal that she fled her mobile home near Medford with only the clothes on her back and a tablet computer. The entire mobile home park where her home was located was destroyed.

“I was resting, and the next thing I know the sheriffs are outside, there is dense smoke in the valley, really thick smoke, and the sheriffs are outside saying evacuate now, evacuate now,” Rosch said.

Wildfires have resulted in an orange haze enveloping the region around Jacksonville Presbyterian Church. The church was organized in 1857 and is the oldest Presbyterian congregation in the region.

When the evacuation order went out last week, Jernigan said he drove to the downtown area of Jacksonville to let the police know the church would be opening its doors to the displaced. While there he met a family who had driven three hours south from Eugene to the Medford area in an attempt to get away from the smoke of the fires.

“The irony was that one of our children’s directors had just left our town to drive three hours north to Eugene with the same idea in mind. To me, that is symbolic of the panic that we face. People are driving hours away and to get away from the fires. It’s a statewide problem,” he said.

Richard Evans, who serves the congregation as Associate Pastor for Missions, Discipleship, and Congregational Care, said he sees God at work in the crisis.

“I just see so many ‘God things’ in this,” he said, recounting an experience of one of the families in the church that lost everything.

“The afternoon of the day the fire ripped through—when it was nowhere near them at that point—the member went out for a hair appointment and something told them to take their dog with them. As much as they’ve lost, if they had lost their dog as well it would have been devastating,” Evans said. “It might seem like a small thing, but our lives are about everything, even small things. Yet I know a lot of people who haven’t been able to save their pets.”

Kate Hoskin, who grew up in the church and has a master’s in counseling psychology, addressed the congregation on September 13 at Jernigan’s request.

“She said that if people do not begin processing a crisis like what residents are experiencing, that in 72 hours PDSD (Prolonged Duress Stress Disorder) can set in,” Jernigan said. “But she also said the quicker that people can begin processing their trauma, the better off they are from having longtime effects.”

While the wildfire crisis is the immediate focus, Jernigan added that the pandemic has posed the greater existential threat. The church’s pre-COVID in-person attendance of 400 is now about 200, he said.

“Living here, people have a framework for wildfires. People don’t have a framework for not doing corporate worship for a year and a half. That’s more of, ‘What in the world, how do we continue operating?’”

He said the combination of the pandemic and wildfires has impacted his own family and their 5-year-old special needs son.

“I want to remind other EPC churches that COVID has been especially hard on families with special needs, because they have had to forgo in-person schooling and services like therapies,” he said. “Now for us, it’s even harder because our son can’t even go outside, he can’t go to speech therapy, physical therapy. We don’t do Sunday School like we used to, and we don’t see friends like we used to. I just want to blow that horn and say, ‘Hey pastors, if you have families with kids with special needs, they are a particularly affected group of people right now.’”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

Tim Russell memorial service recording available

 

On September 2, Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tenn., held a memorial service for EPC Teaching Elder Tim Russell. Russell, who served as Assistant Pastor for Middle Adults at Second Presbyterian Church, succumbed to COVID-19 on March 30.

Participating in the service were George Robertson, Senior Pastor of Second Presbyterian Church; Sandy Willson, Pastor Emeritus of Second Presbyterian Church; Richard Allen Farmer, Senior Pastor-Teacher for Crossroads Presbyterian Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.; and Barry Black, 62nd Chaplain of the United States Senate.

Getting to know you: Beth Weaver, wife of EPC Stated Clerk nominee Dean Weaver

 

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The Weaver family, pictured at Christmas. Bottom row, from left: daughter Hannah, daughter Sarah, Beth, daughter Isatu, granddaughter Nora (daughter of Hannah), daughter Rachel. Back row, from left: son Jacob, son Isaac, Dean/Santa, son Tommy, son-in-law John Gourley (husband of Hannah), son-in-law Evan Gourley (husband of Rachel). Not pictured: granddaughters Caroline and Leah.

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Dean Weaver, Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of the Alleghenies, is the Stated Clerk Search Committee’s nominee to succeed Jeff Jeremiah as EPC Stated Clerk. He will be presented at the EPC’s 40th General Assembly for confirmation. Weaver serves as Lead Pastor of Memorial Park Presbyterian Church in Allison Park, Pa., and was Moderator of the EPC’s 37th General Assembly.

He and his wife, Beth, have been married for 32 years. She took time in August to talk about their family and her life walking side-by-side with her husband.

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Beth and Dean at Caesarea Maritima on the shores of the Mediterranean in Israel, 2015.

EPConnection: How did you two meet?

Beth: Dean and I met in my junior year of college; he was my campus minister. I was a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania studying Home Economics and Early Childhood Development. He showed up on my doorstep one day as a new campus minister with CCO (Coalition for Christian Outreach), wanting to meet the students involved with the ministry at his partner church, Graystone Presbyterian Church. I was one of four students who were a part of the leadership team at the time.

Dean was a recent graduate of Grove City College and fresh from the CCO summer training program. We had a brief conversation on my front steps where he introduced himself and mentioned that he hoped I would be a part of the campus ministry program that fall and bring friends. I don’t remember much about the conversation, but when I shut the door I said to my roommate at the time, “I’m going to marry him!” It was not so obvious to Dean right away! It took a few years for him to come around to it, but that’s another longer story!

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Beth (Mimi) with son-in-law John, daughter Hannah, and granddaughters Caroline and Nora.

EPConnection: Tell me about your family.

Beth: We are incredibly blessed to be the parents of seven amazing children. We have three biological children, (oldest to youngest) Hannah, Jacob, and Rachel; and four adopted children, Tommy, Isaac, Sarah, and Isatu. They range in age from 30 to 22.

Hannah and Rachel are married to John and Evan, respectively, who also happen to be brothers. Hannah and John are parents to our three delightful granddaughters, Nora (4), Caroline (2), and Leah (4 months old).

As a side note, we have two pups, Blaze and Saffie, and three grandpups, Maggie, Bella, and Karamel. We love them too, and they are family members!

EPConnection: Talk about the process that led to adopting multiple international children.

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Isaac, Isatu, Beth, and Dean in the siblings’ homeland of Sierra Leone, West Africa.

Beth: As mentioned, four of our children are adopted, and three are international adoptions. Our first adopted daughter, Sarah, came following a mission trip Dean had taken to an island in the Caribbean called St. Vincent. Up to that point, adoption had not been in our minds except for maybe someday down the road. Our biological children were 9, 7, and 5. We had our hands pretty full already! But God had started us down a path.

Our family verse has been Psalm 68:6, “God sets the lonely in families.” Over the years God has brought a number of children to stay in our home for periods of time. Most came and went for various reasons, but God had a plan to add more children who would become our own. Isaac and Isatu, who are biological siblings, came to us at the conclusion of the Blood Diamond war in Sierra Leone during a very desperate time in that country. After their adoptions, God led us to further ministry in Sierra Leone which we continue to be involved with today.

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Tommy’s adoption was finalized in 2018 when he was 24.

The last addition to our family was a domestic adoption of our son Tommy, who interestingly, legally became our son as an adult. He has made up for lost time, living at home for the last year and has blended into the multiethnic mix of our family beautifully.

EPConnection: Is it true what they say about pastor’s kids?

Beth: In a word, yes! But to be fair, the life of a pastor’s kid is not an easy one. All the hours at church, waiting for mom and dad to finish talking with people or finish the many, many activities that are part of a ministry family’s life. We wanted our children to have more positive than negative experiences at church and with the body of Christ, so many of their best friends were kids in families from our churches who we got close to. So they got to see the real Weaver family, both parents and kids!

We always wanted to be sure that our children did not feel pressure to be or behave a certain way because of being the children of the pastor. That wasn’t always easy or perfect, but we hope that it has encouraged them to grow into who God means for them to be and to flourish in a relationship with Him. One thing is for sure, church was a second home to our children all during their growing-up years!

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Granddaughters Nora (4), Caroline (2), and Leah (4 months).

EPConnection: What has been your ministry in the local church?

Beth: I have loved being involved in many different areas of ministry throughout the years, usually related to children’s ministry. I’ve been a volunteer at our church’s summer camp program, Summer Surge, for most of the years we have been here. In recent years my joy has been teaching the 2- and 3-year-old class, and volunteering in the 1-year-old and infant nursery when needed.

EPConnection: What has been the most fulfilling part of being a pastor’s wife?

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Daughter Rachel married Evan Gourley in August 2016. She currently teaches high school English in Philadelphia, Pa. He attends Princeton Theological Seminary and serves in campus ministry with the Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO), a ministry partner of the EPC.

Beth: This might be the most thought-provoking question of all! Being a pastor’s wife is deeply fulfilling in many ways that come to mind, but if I had to pin it down to a specific thing it would have to be seeing the glorious work of God’s Kingdom happening right before my eyes all around the world as it is lived out in His Church, by His people. It has been an incredible honor to be a part of that work, and to support Dean as he has led the churches we have served over the years.

EPConnection: How have you managed the inevitable criticisms directed toward Dean (don’t all pastors face criticism at some point?)?

Beth: Yes, all pastors face criticism at some point, usually many times over the years! It goes with the territory of being a pastor and anyone in ministry will face it. It should not come as a big surprise, but at times it cuts quite deeply. Actually, I sometimes get more upset than Dean does at criticism of him, and I am very quick to be at his defense. But once I get over that part, the first step is really to check ourselves and where we are, and seek the Lord for wisdom. If there is really a correction coming from the Lord that Dean should hear, we both will seek that together. We desire to be totally in the middle of God’s will and God’s call.

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Beth with granddaughter Nora.

Over the years we have worked together to develop discernment that leads us in the right direction, not only for our family but also in ministry. I trust that process, led by God and His Spirit, and have learned to listen to that above and beyond criticisms. But it is definitely my least favorite part of ministry!

EPConnection: What are you most excited about for the next season of life, say over the next 3-5-7 years?

Beth: I am excited to be part of Dean’s new calling and the direction that will take us in. For the next three years I see a time of growth and change for our family. Maybe more additions in grandkids and spouses? Certainly, the joys and challenges of growing into a family with adult children and our last “at home” kids leaving the nest.

I work for the non-profit organization, EduNations, that we started with several other families who had adopted children in Sierra Leone. We have been part of building 16 schools there, and also blessed to see churches grow in the villages we serve. I see that continuing as my work, and as I have for many years you’ll find me at the EduNations table at General Assembly.

I’m excited to travel with Dean and get to know the body of Christ that is the EPC as a whole. I also anticipate seeing the glorious work of God’s Kingdom happening right before my eyes all around the world, lived out in His Church, by His people. I know it will continue to be an incredible honor to be a part of that work and to support Dean and be part of that with him.

EPConnection: Thank you, Beth, for taking time to help the EPC get to know you a little bit.

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The beach has long been a favorite vacation spot for the Weaver family.

California EPC churches minister amid wildfire destruction

 

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The LNU Lightning Complex fire burns vegetation near Vacaville, Calif., on August 19. (photo credit: Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

A wildfire sparked by lightning in northern California has destroyed the property of a Ruling Elder of Covenant Community Church in Vacaville, Calif.

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Julia Leeth

“It has been a very long few days for the residents of Vacaville and surrounding areas,” Julia Leeth, pastor of Covenant Community Church, said by email on August 20. “One of our elders lost their home, barns, and cottage. It’s complete devastation.”

As of August 20, the LNU Lightning Complex Fire has burned more than 131,000 acres and forced thousands of residents in Solano, Sonoma, Napa, Lake, and Yolo counties to evacuate. Authorities are reporting that more than 100 structures have been destroyed, with an additional 30,000 threatened.

“Many of our congregants have been evacuated, but everyone has a place to stay,” Leeth added. “Our church property is intact, and we opened our parking lot and facilities for those who needed it. We are receiving donations to help the family who lost their home. But He is good, and we are hanging in there.”

About 90 miles northeast of Vacaville, the Jones fire forced 16 families of Sierra Presbyterian Church in Nevada City, Calif., to evacuate, said Pastor Mike Griffin.

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Mike Griffin

“The church property is fine so far, and is not in the evacuation area,” Griffin wrote by email on August 19. “We have made sure that church members have found a place to stay who needed to be evacuated. We also have a few families staying in travel trailers or RVs on the church campus.”

Griffin noted that members of the congregation had set up a lemonade stand to serve first responders who are attending to the Jones fire.

EPC Stated Clerk Jeff Jeremiah said he was grateful that the damage was not greater.

“I am inspired by our churches in these fire-prone areas who so many times have put aside their own needs to minister to their communities,” he said. “I also am grateful that because of the generosity of the EPC we have a healthy balance in our Emergency Relief Fund should it be needed.”

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Members of Sierra Presbyterian Church in Nevada City, Calif., set up a lemonade stand to serve first responders attending to the Jones fire, which as of August 20 has charred nearly 1,000 acres in Nevada County, Calif. (photo courtesy of Mike Griffin)

‘Ministry Practices in Racial Justice and Mercy’ online forum recording available

 

RacialMattersWebinarSession2PanelistsOn August 12, a panel of EPC Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders presented part two of a three-part online forum on a proper biblical response to race and justice, “Specific Ministry Practices in Racial Justice and Mercy: Sessions, Staff, Congregation.” The recording of the presentation is available below.

The webinar was hosted by Case Thorp, Moderator of the EPC 39th General Assembly and Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean. Panelists were:

The recording also is posted on the EPC website at www.epc.org/issuesofraceandjustice and on the EPC YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/EPChurch80.

Memphis Tri-State Defender honors EPC Teaching Elder Tim Russell

 

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Civil Rights leader Fred L. Davis (left) and EPC Teaching Elder Tim Russell were longtime friends (photo credit: Tyrone P. Easley/TSD Archives)

In a Father’s Day feature in June, the Memphis, Tenn., Tri-State Defender honored the life and influence of Tim Russell and Fred L. Davis, two leading voices in the area’s African American community. Russell served as Assistant Pastor for Middle Adults at Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis. Davis was a leader in the Civil Rights movement and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in support of sanitation workers in their 1968 strike. He later was a member of the Memphis City Council for 12 years and served in numerous other civic roles.

The two men were longtime friends and died within weeks of each other earlier this year. Russell succumbed to COVID-19 on March 30. Davis died on May 12 at age 86.

Click here to read the Tri-State Defender’s full story.

In February 2018, Russell interviewed Davis as part of a Second Presbyterian Church mid-week series titled “Voices of Memphis.” Click here to listen to their conversation.

Hurricanes Hanna, Isaias affect EPC churches with rain, wind, flooding

 

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The home of a member of Genesis Presbyterian Church in Mercedes, Texas, was heavily damaged by Hurricane Hanna on July 25 (photo credit: Hector Reynoso).

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season—which runs from June 1 to November 30—is the first on record in which nine tropical storms formed before August 1. Two of those storms have affected EPC churches.

On July 25, Hurricane Hanna made landfall in south Texas as a category 1 storm, with maximum sustained winds of 90 mph. As it churned across the southern portion of the state west, it affected a wide area with high winds, heavy rain, and significant flooding.

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Mercedes, Texas, received significant flooding from Hurricane Hanna (photo credit: Hector Reynoso).

Genesis Presbyterian Church in Mercedes, Texas, is located in the Rio Grande Valley along the Mexican border, approximately 100 miles southwest of where Hanna came ashore. Pastor Hector Reynoso reported that seven families from the congregation suffered wind and water damage to their homes, including flooding; roof and ceiling damage; soaked drywall and insulation; and ruined furniture, appliances, and other belongings. In addition, the storm damaged the roof of Reynoso’s home.

In response to the need, the EPC wired nearly $30,000 from the Emergency Relief Fund to the church.

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Hector Reynoso

“Thank you on behalf of Genesis Presbyterian Church and its session for your caring and prompt response,” Reynoso said by email. “We have helped a total of 13 families—11 from Genesis and two from the community. Hurricane Hanna has caused a lot of damage to the Rio Grande Valley.”

As Hanna spun west into Mexico, Hurricane Isaias formed in the Caribbean and passed Puerto Rico on July 31, causing flooding in the western and southern parts of the island.

“In our city of Mayagüez there were severe flooding,” reported Abraham Montes, Pastor of Iglesia Presbiteriana Evangélica Mayagüez (Mayagüez Evangelical Presbyterian Church). “By the grace of God, our church was not affected.”

Isaias then brushed the Bahamas, where Bryn MacPhail, Senior Pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk in Nassau, reported that “all is good. My back fence and a tree were knocked down, but the church did not sustain any damage.”

Ken Lane, Pastor of Lucaya Presbyterian Church in Freeport, said they did not receive any negative effects.

“After Dorian last year, this one was more like a summer storm,” he said.

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A home in Oak Island, N.C., on August 4 near Hurricane Isaias’ landfall. (Photo credit: Ken Blevins, Wilmington, N.C., Star News)

Following a northerly turn and a slow trek off the coasts of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, Isaias made landfall late on August 3 in southeastern North Carolina as a category 1 hurricane. The eye of the storm came ashore approximately 15 miles west of Oak Island, N.C., where Walter Taylor serves as Pastor of Oak Island Presbyterian Church.

“Church members were affected,” Taylor said by email on August 4. “Some flooded cars and property on the island, trees down everywhere. We ourselves are well, however.”

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Walter Taylor

Other EPC pastors in the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic reported uprooted trees, power outages, and other effects from the storm.

“We have a lot of tree limbs down on the church property, but there doesn’t appear to be any real damage,” said Stacey Miller, Pastor of Myrtle Grove EPC in Wilmington, N.C. “We haven’t heard of any major impacts to members of our congregation either. Walter’s congregation down at Oak Island drew the short straw this time around.”

Keith Cobb, Pastor of Hollywood EPC in Greenville, N.C, also reported fallen tree limbs as well “some siding off houses” in the area.

“Wind blew rain in through the steeple of our church and did slight damage to the sanctuary ceiling, but probably not enough to file a claim,” he said. “One member, a farmer, lost corn to wind and some other crops are soggy. But all in all, we’ve seen worse.”

Further north, Isaias caused widespread flooding and power outages in the Northeast.

Lanah Hamrick, Assistant Stated Clerk for the Presbytery of the East (POTE), said 13 churches in the presbytery had reported power outages, downed limbs and trees, and flash flooding. Churches in New Jersey and the Philadelphia area reported the most significant effects from the storm.

Valdir Reis, Pastor of Closer to God EPC in Kearny, N.J., said several members of the congregation experienced minor damage to their homes.

“Everyone that we know of so far is doing OK,” he said. “The church building, unfortunately, did suffer damage, especially in the region of the tower. We will see about fixing the issues and getting everything up to code again, but thankfully everyone is OK and healthy.”

Barry Case, Clerk of Session for Manoa Community Church in Havertown, Pa., said the primary issue in the Philadelphia area was widespread, ongoing power outages.

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Torrential rains from Hurricane Isaias caused the Darby Creek in Delaware County, Pa., to overflow its banks. The creek is about two miles from two EPC churches in Havertown, Pa.: Bethany EPC and Manoa Community Church (photo credit: CBS3, Philadelphia).

“We had a session meeting last night, and five of the eight people present had basement water problems earlier in the day,” he said. “Most of the water issues are one-day nuisances, but one family had a malfunctioning sump pump and 10 inches of water.”

Bob Thompson, Clerk of Session for Bethany EPC in Havertown said the church facility had “some water in the lower level, but not too serious,” he said. “At present we are not aware of any other issues.”

Other POTE church leaders reported similar impact and expressed gratitude for prayers and support as they assess damage among their congregations and communities.

EPC Stated Clerk Jeff Jeremiah said he was thankful for the ability to respond to storm-related financial needs quickly.

“The generosity of our EPC churches and their members over the past several years had given us a healthy balance in our Emergency Relief Fund,” Jeremiah said. “Because we have the staff and tools in place to respond quickly, we have been able to help meet identified needs efficiently and effectively. I am very grateful to be able to tell our folks in need that help is on the way.”

August 12 webinar to explore racial justice/mercy ministry practices for staff, session, congregation

 

RacialMattersWebinarSession2PanelistsThe second in series of three video conference presentations on racial justice and mercy ministries is scheduled for Wednesday, August 12, at 4:00 p.m. (Eastern). The discussion will address the topic, “Specific Ministry Practices in Racial Justice and Mercy: Sessions, Staff, Congregation.”

The 90-minute forum is a follow-up to the EPC’s June 10 webinar, “Leading EPC Sessions and Congregations in Issues of Race and Justice: An Online Seminar on These Times and a Biblical Response.”

The webinar will be hosted by Case Thorp, Moderator of the EPC 39th General Assembly and Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean.

“I hope this series of presentations both encourages and helps equip our EPC Teaching Elders and Sessions to consider speaking for justice and equality, and against racism, injustice, and inequality,” Thorp said. “I also hope we all will work to arrest the origins of civil unrest—namely poverty, racial separation, immorality, and a lack of radical love.”

Panelists include:

Following 45 minutes of discussion led by the panelists, participants will spend 30 minutes in Breakout Room dialogue specific to church staff, session, or congregational contexts.

Breakout Room hosts include the three panelists and Thorp, plus EPC Stated Clerk Jeff Jeremiah; Rufus Smith, Senior Pastor of Hope Church in Cordova, Tenn.; and Dean Weaver, Lead Pastor of Memorial Park Presbyterian Church in Allison Park, Pa.

The final installment of the series, “Evangelism via Justice and Mercy Ministries: Moving from Charity to Connection,” is scheduled for September 9.

For more information and to register, go to www.epc.org/issuesofraceandjustice.

Reopening the church: COVID-19 surge continues to impact churches in southern-tier hotspots

 

ReopeningTheChurchFifth in a series

As the number of positive COVID-19 cases continues to surge across the U.S., EPC congregations in the hotspot states of Texas, Arizona, and Florida are adjusting to the realities of how, when, and if they will be able to reopen their doors.

“We are allowed to reopen by the state, but have not,” said Lionel R. Jellins, elder and Interim Moderator at City of Refuge Church in Houston—which is located in Harris County where nearly 60,000 of the state’s 361,000 cases have been identified.

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Lionel Jellins

“We could allow our small groups to meet in person, in small groups, but have not recommended this,” he added. “Our church has a large number of medical center workers and several infectious disease doctors that we seek for counsel. They have advised us not to re-open. We will not re-open until the cases are relatively low and stable. The recent spike has materially delayed re-opening.”

Jellins said the church originally targeted June 7 as its date to reopen after closing following the onset of the pandemic, but plans to reopen currently are on hold.

“Increasing cases in Houston caused us to delay,” he said, adding that City of Refuge continues to consult their medical advisors to determine an eventual date.

Pre-closure attendance at the church was 180, and now about 85 families view the church’s live stream each week.

“We are relatively close to our pre-shutdown attendance,” Jellins said.

Doug Ashley, Lead Pastor of Longview Evangelical Presbyterian Church said East Texas has experienced a gradual uptick in cases as well—though not to the same degree that the more populous areas of the state have.

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Doug Ashley

“We are starting the see the cases rise significantly over the last few weeks,” Ashley said. “We have not had a lot of deaths so far and our recovery rate is good, but increased hospitalization could be an issue for us in the coming weeks.”

Longview EPC cautiously reopened in-person worship services on June 14—which the church dubbed The Comeback—and has remained open with social distancing and face coverings.

“Our plans have remained stable as we have had good cooperation of people attending to do so safely,” he said, adding that the Session continues to monitor the situation weekly. “We believe we still have a safe gathering space with the number of people attending services in person at this time.”

Ashley noted that their pre-shutdown attendance of between 125-170 (depending on the season) has not been greatly impacted, and the church continues to live-stream its Sunday morning service.

“We have been fortunate in that this has not significantly affected members of our congregation at this point,” he said. “But that could change any day.”

In the desert Southwest, Arizona is another COVID-19 hotspot. Grace Community Church in Surprise, Ariz., is about 45 minutes from Phoenix in Maricopa County—where 102,000 COVID cases have been identified.

Pastor Cliff Mansley quipped that the virus “has actually been good for us” despite the impact on the overall community.

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Cliff Mansley

“When things first went down we decided that we would do one of those crazy outdoor services until it got oppressively hot—and we grew during that time,” he said. “We have had 40 or so visitors, people sitting on the curb listening in and people leaning over their fences wanting to find out what is going on. We had lots of visitors come into the parking lot who had never darkened the door of the church.”

Mansley said when the church reopened its doors in early June the people who visited during the outdoor services came inside.

“You know, there is such a wonderful spirit” he said. “Right now we are just within the margin of attendance. You are allowed to have 50 people in attendance, so we are watching that carefully.”

While the number of people attending is down from the church’s pre-shutdown attendance of 150, Mansley believes a combination of creatively connecting with members of the congregation and guests via podcasts—as well as posting worship services on YouTube—has kept connectivity strong. Among the podcasts Mansley started during the shutdown are Bible studies on Gospel of John, Habakkuk, and Nehemiah.

Another podcast is “Cliff Talk,” a folksy program in which Mansley discusses a range of topics including snowbirds, the Arizona heat, wearing masks, and “becoming a bit cranky” during the crisis due to isolation before sharing spiritual truths from the Bible.

“The most fun that we’re having is called Goodness Gracious, which is anytime I can interview someone from the congregation and find out about their life,” Mansley said. “I do that for 15 to 20 minutes, which allows people who are feeling homebound to tune and learn about somebody else’s life. So our congregation is growing together in spite of it all. I think it really has helped encourage people to stay connected and to stay positive, and I think it has encouraged people to be generous in their giving.”

Despite the lower attendance numbers, Manley said giving to the church is actually ahead of last year’s pace.

“We’re tracking above all of our projections from the beginning of the year,” he said.

In Florida, which now has more than 400,000 confirmed cases, New Hope Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers reopened for public worship on June 25 with in-person services on both Thursday evening and Sunday morning.

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Eddie Spencer

Senior Pastor Eddie Spencer said the recent surge in cases will likely delay plans to restart on-campus elementary and youth ministry activities. But many positives remain, he said, including members of the congregation who continue to minister and serve despite the challenges of the pandemic.

“For years, one of our ladies has led a team of women who have weekly ministered in a local women’s jail,” he said. “Although the team cannot see the girls or fully enter the facility, the volunteers continue to visit the facility each week to drop off discipleship lessons and sit together in the car and pray for the young women.”

Spencer also noted that giving to the church “has remained excellent. I am pleased that we have been able to maintain our commitment to our employees, as well as all of our mission partners.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

Reopening the church: Florida EPC congregations face statewide COVID-19 surge

 

ReopeningTheChurchFifth in a series

A recent spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in Florida has failed to deter EPC congregations in the Sunshine State from “doing church,” albeit in unconventional ways.

City Church in Homestead, which is in the epicenter of the Miami-Dade County pandemic, suspended in-person worship services in March. Pastor Chris Coppolo said they “came close” to reopening in early June when restaurants and beaches resumed operation, but decided to continue virtual services when the number of cases began to rise again. He said that the latest spike has meant “church as unusual.”

Florida-ChrisCoppolo

Chris Coppolo

“It’s just me sharing the Word,” he said. “We really don’t have the capability to do music virtually, but our Facebook Live continues to be strong.”

Coppolo also leads a weekly virtual Wednesday evening devotional. Additionally, spontaneous virtual meetings among church groups and friends help the members of the congregation stay connected.

Despite being in a hotspot, Coppolo said no one in the church—which had a pre-shutdown average worship attendance of about 230—has contracted the virus. He said other area pastors he has talked to have reported no cases in their congregations either.

About 50 miles north of Homestead in Pembroke Pines, Pastor Evelio Vilches at Faith Presbyterian Church also continues to provide virtual worship services through the HighNote Meeting app.

FaithPembrokePines

Faith Presbyterian Church in Pembroke Pines, Fla.

“We have about the same number meeting online that we had in person,” said Clerk of Session Jane Bodden, which is between 17 and 25.

Though Broward County has the second-largest number of new COVID-19 cases in Florida, Bodden said no members of the congregation have been affected.

“We’ve talked about reopening in August, but it will really depend upon how things are in our county,” she said.

Another 25 miles north in Pompano Beach, New Covenant Church—which also is in Broward County—reopened on-site worship on June 14.

Florida-AdamGreenfield

Adam Greenfield

“The recent spike has not impacted our plans,” said Lead Pastor Adam Greenfield. “We continue to meet with very specific safety measures. We are taking it week-by-week, and have considered if we should remain open. However, we do not have any plans to stop meeting at this point. The spike has certainly caused us to carefully monitor the situation.”

Greenfield said about 90 people attend campus worship, which is down from a pre-pandemic attendance of 250.

“Those who are coming onsite to worship are really thankful that we’re meeting,” he said. “It’s a mix of old and young. People need to gather in the community. Even though it looks and feels very different because of the safety measures we are taking, they need a corporate worship experience.”

For those not comfortable attending in person, “they are communicating gratitude for the ability to worship through our live stream,” Greenfield said. “We are working on ways for those at home to feel connected to the live experience. For example, we had one of our members read the sermon text via video. That way people at home still feel like they have a voice and presence.”

About 20 miles east of Tampa, GracePoint Plant City reopened June 7 but continues to maintain a policy of social distancing and wearing masks.

Senior Pastor Robert Olszewski said the pandemic has impacted the Plant City community in several ways.

Florida-RobertOlszewski

Robert Olszewski

“Mostly small businesses and new job hirings have declined,” he said. “Protests have been minimal, and the community is united with churches to address local issues such as with food.”

He added that COVID-19 has impacted other plans, such as Vacation Bible School.

“We are changing our planned VBS to either simply a night out event, or we will cancel it altogether.”

Despite the changes wrought by the situation, Olszewski said God continues to bless the congregation of about 160 people.

“God has been very faithful in encouraging our body and growing us deeper in Him while sharing the love of Christ with our neighbors,” he said. “We did an online benefit concert for our local food bank and raised over $6,000. It was a great opportunity for our congregation to invite friends and we had over 5,000 views and over 300 active viewers during the concert.”

GraceLeesburg

Grace EPC in Leesburg, Fla.

About 70 miles north in Leesburg, the numerous retirement communities in the immediate vicinity of Grace Evangelical Presbyterian Church have prompted the church to “practice an abundance of caution to protect each other,” said Mandy Klee, Administrative Assistant at the church where Dave Dorst serves as Lead Pastor.

Since reopening on June 7, Grace’s leadership has continued to monitor the spike in COVID cases and taking extra precautions such as rearranging seating to ensure social distancing and having hand sanitizer and masks available.

“We are using only paper bulletins with hymn lyrics and Scripture verses, and have removed all hymnals for the time being,” Klee said. “We have been very blessed with God’s protection that our congregation has been safe and healthy throughout this challenging time.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

 

EPC churches set ‘The Table’ for worship, ministry, community

 

What’s in a name? For many, a story. Which is why four young EPC congregations, unbeknownst to one another, all ended up calling their churches “The Table.”

TheTable-LittleRock4LogoLittle Rock, Arkansas

Michael Gallup, pastor of The Table in Little Rock, Ark., said that he had no idea there were other congregations who shared the name until after they had chosen it for their church plant.

“What’s great about it is that we can have humility and learn from one another,” Gallup said. “While there are some common themes there are also some unique perspectives for each context that can help inform each other as we live into this more faithfully.”

TheTable-LittleRock1

Prior to suspending in-person worship due to the coronavirus pandemic, The Table in Little Rock, Ark., met at a local events venue.

Gallup’s church, the youngest of the four, is very much centered on the idea of hospitality. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting nationwide shutdown, Gallup said one of their primary ministry efforts was to “throw parties in our home and invite people over.”

“We have a lot of shared meals with an open table,” he said. “People understand that metaphor. It’s familiar and comforting, and points to what type of congregation we are and aspire to be.”

Gallup also believes that fellowship around a table reflects his own understanding of discipleship, approach to mission, and sacramental theology. Every time the church comes together for worship, they partake in a meal together and also observe the Lord’s Supper.

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Michael Gallup

“I began to see the ways in which the tables that we sit at and fellowship around point to the Lord’s table,” he said. “It gives a sense of belonging, brings life and joy, speaks to the nature of what God is doing, and is a reflection of the gospel.”

Because radical hospitality is so much the core of The Table, it informs every aspect of their ministry.

“Everything we do is filtered through that lens. We do a broad swath of ministry—homeless ministry, culinary classes—but it’s all filtered through hospitality. It’s not just a transactional experience.”

Earlier this year, before shelter-in-place orders forced many churches to rethink how to reach their communities, The Table rented a Venezuelan food truck as a way to provide an enriching experience for the church and support their neighbors. The family who owned the truck shared unique food from their country and told the story of their immigration to the United States.

“Our name is a very relatable, accurate way to inform those both inside and outside the church what we’re all about,” Gallup said. “We want people to know they are welcome here.”

TheTable-Denver2LogoDenver, Colorado

Almost 1,000 miles away at the foot of the Rocky Mountains is another EPC church plant, The Table Project, led by Mark Grapengater.

Mark and his wife, Stacey, learned in September 2017 that they had been approved to plant a church. Eleven months later they packed up and moved from Atlanta, Ga., to Denver, Colo.

Both had previously worked in the hospitality industry, so they decided to name their new church “The Table Project.” The imagery of Jesus sitting and eating with people kept coming up in their personal Bible study, and that idea seemed like a natural fit.

TheTable-Denver1Grapengater

Mark Grapengater

“As Christians, we want to be known as the best party throwers out there,” Mark said. “So that’s kind of what we’ve tried to do. We have big letters on our wall that say ‘feast.’ We believe that the last image we have of the end of the story is a wedding banquet where Jesus invites everyone to the wedding banquet of the Lamb.”

However, he is quick to point out that they are not a dinner church. While they want to have a warm, welcoming atmosphere, the end goal is still to start a regular Sunday morning worship service.

“Our hope is that people will take the liturgical practices and apply them throughout the week in their everyday lives,” he noted. “When we celebrate communion, we are taking a meal with Jesus. Now go out and do that with your neighbors throughout the week. And community groups should be a place where people can go deep in relationships with one another, but also feed on the Word and get into the truth of the gospel.”

The Grapengaters have based their lives on this principle, inviting neighbors over regularly. Last fall they hosted a Labor Day party, “Friendsgiving,” and a Christmas celebration in their home.

It has not always been easy. While the Grapengaters have hosted numerous friends, few have reciprocated. Mark said people in that region tend to keep to themselves, and of course plans sometimes go awry. Prior to hosting the Thanksgiving party, their three-year-old daughter clogged the toilet, causing it to overflow. So they welcomed their guests into their home through an entryway that was being repaired due to the water damage. The renovations were still in process a few weeks later when they hosted the Christmas party.

“We’re learning to be comfortable with that,” Mark said. “We want to invite people into the mess of our lives, too, because life is just messy sometimes, right?”

One place where they have been able to make some new friends is the local elementary school that their son attends.

“We befriended some of the other parents on the auction committee, and traditionally, they give a party as the raffle prize,” Mark said. “This year they asked if we would host the party. Only God could set that up so perfectly.”

They have considered asking if their church might meet at the school. Since they will have children in there for the next ten years, it would be a perfect location for “The Table Project.”

As the calendar turned from 2019 to 2020, the Grapengaters’ hope was to continue to build relationships with neighbors with a goal of launching public worship services by February 2021.

The pandemic derailed those plans.

They held their last in-person Bible study at the end of February. The Table Project then took what was supposed to be a brief hiatus as Stacey gave birth to their third child, Joshua David, on March 12. They came home from the hospital to a stay-at-home order throughout Colorado.

Mark has transitioned to holding midday prayer times through the week on Facebook Live. They also have been connecting with their neighbors on a family-by-family basis.  On Cinco de Mayo, they delivered palomas, chips, and salsa to 16 neighboring families, and they held a baptismal service in their backyard later in May with a small gathering from the community.

The Grapengaters have come to realize that a February 2021 launch may not happen, but they are still hopeful. With changes brought about by COVID-19, they have not been able to make any concrete plans but hope to know more in September. When they do begin their Sunday services, Grapengater says that they will incorporate many of the traditional aspects of worship.

“It will be liturgical,” Mark said. “With communion, confession, assurance, and modern worship music. In the area where we live, there is only one church for every 10,000 people so this is very much needed.”

TheTable-SanFrancisco4LogoSan Francisco, California

Six years ago, Troy Wilson and his family returned to the United States from Thailand, where they had been missionaries for six years. He wanted to plant a church in a non-Christian, liberal, multicultural area, so they moved to San Francisco, Calif.

Two other families felt called to join them, so together with their friends—and with the support of their mother church, Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, Calif.—they stepped out and launched The Table in downtown San Francisco.

“It was a bit challenging,” Wilson said. “It’s easier to find work in San Francisco than it is a place to live.”

But soon they were able to settle in and started meeting people through the course of their everyday lives. They invited neighbors over for dinner and social gatherings and grew to know and love the community around them.

TheTable-SanFrancisco2Troy

Troy Wilson

“Hospitality was something that was very important to my mother, and she passed her heart for people on to me,” Wilson said. “As a child, I remember our backyard being a place where everyone was loved and welcome and safe. It was okay to be yourself there. That’s how I wanted our church to feel.”

As this community of friends grew, so did the desire to continue doing life together. When the time came for the group to give this budding church a name, “The Table” seemed to be a natural choice.

“For one thing, it just fits with the culture here,” Wilson noted. “San Franciscans are a bunch of foodies. Everyone can relate to the imagery of the table—Christians, non-Christians, people from various cultures and backgrounds. A table is a place of intimacy, of friendship. It’s where people come together to be filled and satisfied, and then go out to fellowship with others. At the table, all are included and welcome.”

The Table meets in the Kanbar Performing Arts Center, home of the San Francisco Girls Chorus. Wilson found the location through a running buddy, and it is the church’s second location. The Table originally launched in an art gallery, but the property was sold to a buyer who did not want the church in the facility.

“This new location is perfect for us,” Wilson said. “It’s the Table we all envisioned. It sits on the corner of three or four different neighborhoods, with very diverse populations. It’s a very multicultural area, with rich and poor, believers and non-believers, and people from all walks of life.”

TheTable-SanFrancisco1

Community Groups are a key avenue for ministry, discipleship, and outreach for The Table in San Francisco. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these groups currently meet virtually via video conference.

There also is a thriving community of artists in the area, and Wilson has connected with many of them.

“The San Francisco Conservatory of Music is just two blocks from where the church started,” Wilson said. “One day I was on my way to an appointment at a coffee shop, when I heard this amazing violin music and decided to follow it. The young man playing, whose name is Otis, was a graduate of the conservatory. After he finished his set and I threw the tip in, we just started chatting for a while. I asked him to consider coming to play for our church.”

Otis admitted that church had not really been “his thing,” and wondered if he might be disqualified. Wilson assured him that he was welcome, and Otis began attending regularly. Wilson said that Otis is still on the journey of discovering his faith and has not yet expressed faith in Christ.

“I told him he is absolutely welcome here,’ Wilson said. “He still comes and plays and is a wonderful person in our church community.”

Otis has introduced Wilson to several other musicians, many of whom have found their way to the church. Rhonel, an artist and musician who was already a believer, is one—and he has brought a gospel sound to The Table’s worship.

“Our connection with the arts community has been this fluid and organic thing,” Wilson said. “One day I started chatting with a gentleman I met in a coffee shop, and he asked me if I liked music. I told him I had just seen an amazing band called the Afro Cuban All-Stars. It turns out he was with the band and had been on stage!”

That musician ended up coming to the church and introduced Wilson to several of his friends, including Juan Perez, who now serves as the worship leader for The Table.

Wilson also works as a real estate agent in the city, and he says that being bi-vocational gives him additional touchpoints for connection in the community. But he quickly adds that he is first and foremost a missionary.

“Psalm 81:10 is a verse I keep returning to,” Wilson said. “Scripture says, ‘Open your mouth, and I will fill it.’ San Franciscans are spiritually hungry, and I know the One who can fill them.”

The Table is small numerically, but it is dynamic in what God is doing in their midst in the dry spiritual climate that is San Francisco. The Table was one of several evangelical church plants featured in a 2015 article in The Guardian, “Hipster churches in Silicon Valley: evangelicalism’s unlikely new home.”

And while some people have shown interest in the church, hundreds walk by every day and barely seem to notice. But Wilson knows that God has called him to keep setting the table and inviting his neighbors in.

“I’ll be honest. This has not been easy,” he said. “We are praying for more partners in this work. Anyone who loves San Francisco and wants to come be a bi-vocational missionary, we could certainly use them!”

California was one of the first states to issue broad shelter-in-place orders due to COVID-19, and as result The Table held its last public gathering on March 8. But Wilson and his team have been ministering virtually through daily FaceTime, Zoom, and Google Meet connections, and weekly churchwide prayer gatherings, group Bible studies, and worship services via Zoom and the church’s YouTube channel and Facebook page.

Church members have been volunteering on Fridays to deliver food to the elderly and others in the community. They also have participated in peaceful demonstrations in small groups while wearing masks and practicing social distancing.

Wilson said the immediate future looks much like the present, since San Francisco has been very cautious in plans to reopen businesses. A date to resume public worship services has not been set, but they are working with the Kanbar Performing Arts Center and hope to be able to welcome area residents back to The Table as soon as possible.

TheTable-Dallas2LogoDallas, Texas

The Table in Dallas, Texas, is the only one of the four “Tables” that did not start as an EPC church plant. Pastor Dave Wahlstedt said the congregation was originally a Pentecostal church and came into the EPC during the Willow Creek era of church growth.

“A few years ago we decided to make a missional move away from a brick and mortar church, so we sold the building and moved into a performing arts venue,” Wahlstedt said, noting that the move opened up the church to a whole new segment of the community since the building was used by artists, filmmakers, and musicians.

“We ended up needing to move from that venue, which drove us to look at what we could do with limited space. We spent weeks fasting and praying and looking at the community around us to determine what church should look like in our context,” Wahlstedt said. “We realized that there was a huge shift in the number of young professionals who had moved in from other states, and the demographic we were encountering was not interested in the established, ‘tall steeple’ kind of church. They were looking for something communal that had vitality and an inner-directed core.”

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Dave Wahlstedt

Through personality assessment tools, Wahlstedt realized that the people who were coming valued authenticity, community, self-exploration, and were comfortable with paradox. That’s when the concept of The Table began to take shape. Visitors are invited to “come hungry,” and the welcome page of their website states that “there is more to food than simply fueling our bodies. We feed our mind, body, and soul as we experience community around the table.”

The church is organized in groups of 20-25 people, each of which meets during the week or on the weekend for a shared meal and to worship, engage Scripture in an interactive way, and partake in sacraments together.

In the fourth week of each month, the entire congregation meets in a local indoor/outdoor event space called The Mill House in Lewisville, a suburb about 25 miles from downtown Dallas. The area is filled with millennials and young professionals, and they gather in the Mill House dining room, kitchen, and outdoor area in a very fluid and informal way.

As shelter-in-place orders took effect in Dallas in March, Wahlstedt transitioned to online services on March 14. The following Sunday the men’s and women’s groups and midweek service also went virtual.

TheTable-Dallas1

Like the other The Table congregations, The Table in Dallas, Texas, met for worship in a public event space prior to the COVID-19 shutdown forced a transition to online worship gatherings.

In-person gatherings resumed on June 7 but went back to virtual following a July 2 executive order from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott that prohibits outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people.

Despite the challenges that the church has faced during the prolonged coronavirus pandemic, Wahlstedt noted that the consistency and commitment of the group have been really strong.

“I believe it’s because they have a voice and ownership in the church,” he said. “I serve as more of a facilitator, or as I like to call it, ‘a holy instigator.’”

When not suspended due to COVID-19, the church also has a “Family Waffle Table” where parents are invited to participate alongside their children.

“I wanted to equip them to learn for themselves and model how they could be spiritual leaders at home,” Wahlstedt said. “God loves the sounds of families in worship.”

One of the challenges that The Table faces is that it is located in a somewhat transient area where people move in and out frequently. Partially because of that, the church does not use a traditional method of partnership or membership. At the beginning of the year, they take a pledge together and renew their commitment to one another and the church. There are presently around 75 congregants, with a core group of middle-aged attendees and a large influx of young professionals and families.

“I have learned to be comfortable with having them for a season,” Wahlstedt said. “God is transforming lives, and it’s rewarding to witness the spiritual growth.”

Tom Ricks, who leads the EPC’s church planting efforts, said he believes each of the four pastors selected “The Table” as the name for their church because they recognize the longing for friendship and community that exists in our culture.

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Tom Ricks

“They are innovators, genuine, and they love Jesus,” Ricks said. “They appreciate our ancient traditions but also look for ways to make honest connections with people. I love their heart for the lost as well as their willingness to try a variety of approaches.”

Ricks said he has devoted his ministry to investing in church planting because he wants to walk with fellow disciples who care about their neighborhoods, schools, and local businesses.

“So much of life is on the run, and we often feel like our hair is on fire,” he said. “A community church is hopefully a place of respite and worship where we connect with God and with one another.”

Ricks added that there is always room for more at the table. Or as he put it, “more The Tables,” and anyone sensing a call to engage in church planting should contact him at tom@greentreechurch.com.

by Kiki Schleiff Cherry
EPConnection correspondent

Getting to know you: Dean Weaver, nominee for EPC Stated Clerk

 

Part 1 of 2

Dean Weaver, Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of the Alleghenies, is the Stated Clerk Search Committee’s nominee to succeed Jeff Jeremiah as EPC Stated Clerk. He serves as Lead Pastor of Memorial Park Presbyterian Church in Allison Park, Pa., and was Moderator of the EPC’s 37th General Assembly.

Weaver will be presented at the EPC’s 40th General Assembly for confirmation. In this wide-ranging interview, he talks about his walk with Christ and some of the challenges and victories from a life in ministry.

EPConnection: How did you come to the Lord?

DeanWeaverZoom1Dean: Although I grew up in the church, Christ brought me to Himself when I was 14 years old at summer camp. The guy who led me to Christ was a Young Life volunteer.

EPConnection: When did you realize you were called to ministry, and why as a pastor or leader?

Dean: I was called to the ministry my freshman year in college. I started college studying electrical engineering. One Sunday at church, the pastor preached a sermon that God used to call me into the ministry. It’s a long—but very cool—story.

EPConnection: Tell me about it.

Dean: Before I left home for Grove City College, the seminary intern from my home church literally grabbed me by both arms and said, “Dean, God often speaks through the voices of other people, and I am telling you He is speaking through me. You are called to the ministry! And you will be unhappy and miserable and find no peace until you submit to His call.”

So I went off to college with this echoing in my mind and soul, which was very disturbing. It wasn’t too long before I realized how much I hated physics, chemistry, and calculus—and was doing very poorly in my studies. I realized I was only studying electrical engineering because my guidance counselor had said that was where the good paying jobs were.

After about two and a half months of being miserable, I visited a friend one weekend at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, which is about 70 miles from Grove City. We went to Graystone Presbyterian Church (which is now EPC) for worship. The pastor began his sermon by saying, “I have never done this before, and I can’t believe I am doing this today, but I believe God spoke to me this morning and told me that someone would be here today, they would come from some distance, and they have been running away from God’s call in their life. They are unhappy, miserable, and will find no peace until they submit to God’s call. Whoever you are, this sermon is for you.”

After worship, I went up to the pastor to see if anyone had approached him to own up as the person he mentioned at the beginning of his message. When he said nobody had, I looked around the sanctuary and my friend and I were the only people left. I knew it was me. I told him that I was that person. He put his hands on my shoulder and said, “Young man, I don’t know who you are, but God has something very special in store for your life.” I went back to Grove City and on Monday morning changed my major to History/Religion (which is now called Biblical Studies) and began the long road of preparation for full-time pastoral ministry.

I have since come to refer to this as the “Dear Dean, … Love, God” sermon.

EPConnection: So how do you define “ministry”?

DeanWeaverZoom2Dean: In the pursuit of Jesus, ministry happens. Ministry is what happens when a disciple of Jesus follows the Savior in every aspect and area of his or her life.

EPConnection: How do you define “leadership”?

Dean: Considering the needs of others more important than your own. Leadership is helping other people and organizations faithfully follow the Savior by using the gifts God has bestowed upon them with a full reliance of the Holy Spirt who dwells within them.

EPConnection: What Christian leaders/pastors do you read, listen to, or follow?

Dean: I read and follow all things Tim Keller (I am reading Uncommon Ground at the moment) and pay close attention to things that come out of The Gospel Coalition. I am also working through Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise and appreciate anything from Max DePree or John Kotter when it comes to leadership. I also love the podcast “This Cultural Moment” with Mark Sayers and John Mark Comer.

EPConnection: Who is your favorite theologian?

DeanWeaverZoom3Dean: It might sound obvious, but Calvin is my favorite theologian from church history. Right now, I am reading and working to understand the differences between Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. I am currently reading Bavinck’s The Sacrifice of Praise.

EPConnection: When did you realize the EPC was the best fit for you and your church?

Dean: I worked for renewal in the PC(USA) for years at every level of the denomination, which ultimately led me to help found and lead the New Wineskins Association of Churches (NWAC). I helped lead 180 congregations of the NWAC into the EPC, starting with my own congregation—Memorial Park—in 2006 through 2008. It was at my first EPC General Assembly that I realized that I was “home.” The sweet and generous spirit of biblical hospitality and family that characterized the EPC was what we had longed to be a part of for years.

EPConnection: How would you describe your God-given “hard wiring” and how it contributes to your strengths and weaknesses?

Dean: I am “hard-wired” to do the right thing. I can see what is needed or required to lead in all types of circumstances and will bring all my gifts, energy, and abilities to the situation with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. As a visionary leader, I can help others pursue the future God is calling us to, but I can also be impatient about getting there.

EPConnection: How would you describe your personal devotional time?

DeanWeaverZoom4Dean: My conversation with the Lord is woven throughout the day. Typically, most days involve time in the Psalms, reading the chapter of Proverbs for that day of the month and spending the majority of my “devotional time” reflecting and praying over the preaching text for that week. Most days I also read Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest and sometimes John Baillie’s A Dairy of Private Prayer.

EPConnection: How do you balance the needs of your family (and yourself) in your ministry?

Dean: My kids range in age from 31 to 21 (I have seven kids and three grandkids). Three of our adult children are still living at home, and there is balance of time spent together with them and our other adult kids living nearby on a regular rhythm—especially gathering for family birthdays, holidays, and Steelers games! Beth and I spend good time together, both at home and with family and traveling. I don’t really think of it as a matter of “balance” but whole-life and healthy integration. We work, rest, and play. The key for us over the years, in terms of being healthy, is faithful practice of the Sabbath weekly and taking our vacation and study leave—and living into our love language of “quality time.”

EPConnection: What in ministry are you most passionate about?

DeanWeaverZoom5Dean: I’m passionate about helping churches exegete the culture and reach out with the gospel in their Jerusalem, Judea/Samaria, and the ends of the Earth—with a focus on reaching the fullness of all the ta ethne; that is, ethnicities within their spheres of influence.

EPConnection: Can you recall a tragic situation that has directly (or perhaps indirectly) affected how you fulfill your calling?

Dean: Early in my ministry, an African-American pastor friend’s lovely wife was pulled over by the police on her way home from a fitness center with her girlfriends. She was cited for having “a taillight out.” She was taken into custody, and her car impounded—leaving her friends on the curb. And this was during the winter.

My friend called me in deep frustration, and I called an attorney from my congregation who intervened. In the pursuit of justice, I learned that this local municipality had a long history of targeting blacks who passed through their community with overly aggressive and hostile policing behavior. Seeing such injustice up close as experienced by a good and godly friend would influence my family, relationships, ministry, and my work toward biblical justice for people who are victimized because of the color of their skin and ethnicity.

EPConnection: When you have felt pushed beyond your capabilities as a leader, and how did you manage it?

DeanWeaverZoom6Dean: I can think of a number of times that has been the case. But the COVID-19 quarantine combination of closing church and migrating to digital ministry, as well as the tensions in our community, nation, and world around racial injustice—all happening as I transition out of 14-plus years as the Lead Pastor for Memorial Park, conclude my season as Interim Chaplain at Grove City College, and begin preparing to take on the new role within the EPC—has tested me as a leader like I have never been tested before.

To endure and preserve in such times I have leaned into the Lord like never before, praying and in the Word. I’ve also been depending on friends and family for counsel, support, and encouragement—and being intentional about healthy habits like rest, eating well, and taking breaks from endless Zoom meetings. Knowing my limits, and knowing when to throttle back and step away, has been key!

EPConnection: What is your approach to reflecting Christ’s love to people who do not (and have said they will not) attend church?

DeanWeaverZoom9Dean: I find that I am more patient with people who have never been “church people” than those who were in the church and have fallen away. I have a very high ecclesiology. After all, the church is the Bride of Christ. Being a member of His body, joined with Him as one as John 17 describes, I can’t fathom being a follower of Jesus and not being joined to His body, the Church.

With those who did not grow up in the church, I listen, hear their concerns, and invite them to become a part of something much bigger and greater than themselves. I find that people have a strong need for community “hard-wired” into them, and the invitation to become part of the Body of Christ is an invitation to Christ Himself.

For those who have fallen away from the Church, I am patient and empathetic with those who have suffered trauma or abuse, but I can be impatient with those for whom “hypocrisy” has become a convenient excuse. Pastors need to be patient and comforting, but we also need to be persistent and prophetic. The word I have been reflecting on related to this tension is “contending.” As a pastor, I contend with people for the gospel and the fullness of its implications on all of their lives.

EPConnection: Do you have a go-to “God story” that you tell in order to encourage others?

Dean: How much time do you have?

EPConnection: As much as you need!

DeanWeaverZoom8Dean: In 2002, I visited the West African nation of Sierra Leone for the first time. This was about three months after the official end of the 11-year civil war that had ravaged the country. “Blood diamonds” were involved and as many as 300,000 people were killed. Millions were displaced. It was horrendous. I went to help secure land and build an orphanage. To make a long story short, my wife, Beth, and I ended up adopting a brother and sister from that orphanage. We later helped start a ministry called EduNations that builds and operates what is now 16 schools, as well as planting six congregations of what has become the EPC-Sierra Leone.

On my first trip “up-country” into the rural northern providences 16 years ago, I visited a graveyard of some of the first missionaries to Sierra Leone. Each time I return to Sierra Leone—especially with a team—we visit that graveyard. I tell my friends about the history of missions in that nation and that particular community where we have since built three schools and planted a church.

Last summer, Beth and I took our two Sierra Leonean children (now ages 21 and 25) back to their home village. We stopped at this missionary graveyard (as I always do) to tell them the history of the gospel work in Sierra Leone before going on to visit our schools in that community. It was then, after 16 years of visiting this graveyard, that I noticed the grave of Anna-Marie Stephens, a Wesleyan missionary who had died there in 1904. My heart raced with the possibilities because of the familiarity of that name. When I returned home, I dug deeply into my mother’s family history to confirm that Anna-Marie was my great grandfather’s first cousin!

Here’s the bottom line of this “God-story:” 115 years before I would ever set foot in the village of Maipinda or adopt our children, my cousin had given her life for the gospel and was buried in the very same village in Sierra Leone where I would later return to build Christian schools and plant churches among the Muslim peoples there. Long before I had children from Sierra Leone, my very blood was in the soil of Sierra Leone. If that is not the providence of God, I don’t know what is.

EPConnection: Thank you, Dean, for taking this time. In part 2 of this series, we will get to know Dean’s wife, Beth, and their family.

First Presbyterian Church of Orlando makes largest-ever donation for local COVID relief efforts

 

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David Swanson, Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Fla. (photo credit: David Whitley/Orlando Sentinel)

First Presbyterian Church of Orlando (FPCO), hoping to ease some of the pain of COVID-19′s economic devastation, has made a historic donation of more than $500,000 to non-profit agencies in Central Florida, individual families, and worldwide mission efforts. The church pooled the money from virtual collection plates, leftover funds of a capital campaign, bequests, and an annual missions drive after leaders started seeing a dramatic uptick in pleas for help.

Read the full story: Orlando Sentinel

More than $73,000 donated to EPC churches through online giving provided by Office of the General Assembly

 

As churches began to suspend in-person worship services this spring as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, 32 EPC churches inaugurated an online giving option provided by the Office of the General Assembly. As of June 24, parishioners have made 381 donations through the EPC’s platform totaling $73,080.59.

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Jefferson Ellis

Jefferson Ellis, Pastor of Hanover Presbyterian Church in Clinton, Pa., said the church has received online contributions “almost every week since we put it on our website. We even have some folks giving from other parts of the country who had roots or family in our church. It has been a positive thing for our small congregation.”

Oak Island Presbyterian Church in Oak Island, N.C., reopened for in-person worship services on June 14. David Paxton, Ruling Elder and Finance Committee Chairman, said providing online giving in the months that they were not able to meet was very helpful.

“Many of our congregants are retired,” Paxton said. “During this difficult period, we have been blessed by contributions exceeding our expenses. Thank you for providing this service to us.”

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Grady Davidson

Lookout Valley Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., has been holding drive-in services for several weeks, and the opportunity for people to give online has been “a great success.”

“Each Sunday there are a few people who make an offering which probably would not have been given without it,” said Pastor Grady Davidson. “Thank you so much.”

For many of these churches, the EPC’s platform—provided at no cost to churches—was their first time they offered online giving to their congregation.

“We have considered this in the past, but we were not motivated—primarily due to the size of our congregation,” said Bryan Little, Treasurer and Elder for Evangelical Presbyterian Stone Church in Caledonia, N.Y. “Online giving has allowed us to accept donations that would probably not be received otherwise. Members are pleased to have this option and have said the process is very easy.”

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Bryn MacPhail

Bryn MacPhail, Senior Pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk in Nassau, Bahamas, noted that “the mechanisms for online giving are not as user-friendly” in the Bahamas.

“This extended period of not gathering in person has challenged us in a number of ways,” he said. “Even more challenging is trying to receive contributions in a foreign currency. Once again, the EPC has come through for us with a helpful remedy. We are so grateful for this practical help and the ongoing support we receive from our denominational office.”

Some of the 32 churches had offered online giving previously, but with mixed results.

OnlineGiving-Guinston“Guinston had previously offered online giving through a company specializing in this type of service,” said Arlina Yates, Treasurer for Guinston Presbyterian Church in Airville, Pa. “Setting it up was laborious and communication after setup was difficult, so we decided to discontinue our contract. Because of that experience, I was hesitant to take up the offer of the EPC online giving tool, but I have found working with the EPC to be a delightful experience. The setup was so easy that I thought I must have missed some steps. Since day one, communication has been prompt, helpful, and kind. You’ve made a difference. Give yourselves a pat on the back, you deserve it and much more!”

Pat Coelho, EPC Chief Financial Officer, said the program will continue as long as it is needed.

“I know a big obstacle for many churches is trying to figure out how to choose an online giving solution and deploy it well,” Coelho said. “It feels good to be able to help like this.”

He noted that all donations are forwarded directly to the church each week.

“The Office of the General Assembly has not kept any of these funds,” Coelho added.

Stated Clerk Jeff Jeremiah noted that many churches faced unprecedented financial pressures as shelter-in-place orders became commonplace.

“When the shutdown started in March, none of us knew how long we would be unable to hold public worship services,” he said. “I recall many thinking we would be back by Easter, but of course that did not happen. I am thankful that we have been able to provide this financial lifeline for our churches, many of which are among our smallest congregations.”

Churches that requested the service received a page on the EPC website that included the form to make a secure donation, said Brian Smith, EPC Director of Communications.

“They can add a ‘Donate’ button to their website that links to this page,” he said. “For churches that do not have a website, they can share the address of the page on the EPC site with their congregants in all the usual ways they keep their attendees informed.”

EPC churches interested in more information about using the denomination’s online giving platform are encouraged to contact Smith at brian.smith@epc.org.

Small Church Workshop recordings available

 

SmallChurchWorkshopRecordingsIn May and June, the EPC Smaller Church Network presented a four-part series of webinars, “The Ordinary Church in Extraordinary Times.” Each week’s presentation focused on a key challenge that leaders of smaller churches faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how these could become an opportunity for greater ministry impact.

Recordings are available at www.epc.org/smallchurchworkshop. Also included are handouts, notes, and other materials.

Speakers were Zach Eswine, Lead Pastor of Riverside Church in Webster Groves, Mo.; Josh Modrzynski, Pastor of Riceville Community Church in Asheville, N.C.; Doug Walker, Pastor of River City Church in DeBary, Fla.; and Roy Yanke, Executive Director of PIR Ministries and a Ruling Elder for Grace Chapel EPC in Farmington Hills, Mich.

Yanke noted that the inspiration for the workshop was the forced cancellation of the EPC’s 2020 Leadership Institute.

“We thought it could be useful to explore and share what many of us in small—what I call ‘ordinary’—churches are learning about ourselves and our churches during this unprecedented time,” Yanke said.

Topics include:

  • A Pastoral Approach to Reconnecting
  • The Life of the Church—Inside and Out!
  • Facing the Financial impact
  • The Tech Challenge—Its Use, Purpose, and Value for the Future

The recordings also are posted on the EPC YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/EPChurch80.

Memphis EPC churches gather for service of lament, prayer walk

 

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Members of The Avenue Community Church and Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis participated in a prayer walk on June 10 in the neighborhood near The Collegiate School of Memphis, where The Avenue meets for Sunday morning worship.

In response to the EPC’s call to observe June 8 as a Day of Lament, Fasting, and Prayer, several EPC churches in Memphis, Tenn., gathered for a public service of lament followed by a prayer walk through the adjoining area on June 10.

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Tim Johnson

Tim Johnson, Lead Pastor of The Avenue Community Church facilitated the service. Also participating were Lee Adams, a volunteer leader at The Avenue; Barton Kimbro, Assistant Pastor of Young Adults at Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis; and Denny Catalano, Regional Director of Campus Outreach Memphis.

“Lord, we acknowledge that we are fallen and that we are led astray by our own desires,” Adams prayed. “Even our pursuit for justice can be shortsighted, but Lord, give us your eyes to help us to stay fixed on you. And Lord, give us your heart, so as we cry, ‘How long,’ that we are not forsaken.”

In addition to his prayer, Adams read passages from Habakkuk 1, Psalm 113 and Psalm 143.

Catalano prayed that God would heal broken hearts and bind up their wounds, provide comfort to the families of those who have died in recent weeks, and “bring conviction and courage to our non-African-American brothers and sisters to enter into the fight and speak truth in love and to promote unity in the family of God.”

Kimbro reminded those gathered that “only the Lord is big enough, good enough, wise enough and powerful enough to do anything about what ails people in this world.”

“Oh Lord, we long for the day to come for the new heavens and the new earth,” Kimbro prayed. “We pray for your deliverance from evil around us, particularly racism, bigotry, and systematic injustice.”

At the close of the service, Johnson asked the congregation to stand, raise their hands, and clap.

“He’s worthy of our praise!” Johnson exclaimed. “He is to be trusted. He is the solid Rock on which we stand. All other ground is sinking sand. And I’m not worshipping the God of woke-ism, I’m not worshipping the God of patriotism—I’m worshipping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who’s coming to get me!”

The prayer walk was originally scheduled for immediately after the service but was delayed two days by rainy weather. It was designed to demonstrate love and understanding for the community amid the racial unrest of the past several weeks.

“The indictment against the Church is that they don’t care, that their love does not have feet, and that whatever they talk about—whatever they do—has no tangible impact on the world around us,” Johnson said. “The indictment is so bad, especially for me being an African-American pastor and a person of color.”

He described the part of Memphis in which The Avenue meets as an “edge” neighborhood. The area is located between Highland Terrace—which has some of most expensive real estate in the city—and a district dubbed “The Nations,” which includes the highest concentration of Hispanics, refugees, and low-income black and white families in Memphis.

“The nations are there,” Johnson said. “Our church sits in the middle of that, so we aren’t necessarily out to be a niche church for multi-ethnicity. Rather, we believe that if we preach the gospel indiscriminately up and down the street without skipping over people, that we will be diverse.”

He said the prayer walk in the neighborhood represented that belief.

“For me, the Church has got to step up and demonstrate—even if they don’t understand—that it does care about the anguish and the grief of society.”

Rob Liddon, a Ruling Elder for Second Presbyterian Church and member of the EPC National Leadership Team, said the service of lament helped meet an important need.

“For some time I have felt we need to learn to lament all that is happening, and especially so after these killings,” he said. “Our worship services are ordinarily joyful—rightfully so—but we need to do a better job of weeping with those who weep.”

During the week following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, Johnson said he had reminded the church of its core values, where the church sits in the Memphis community, and how the people who make up The Avenue could be the catalyst to bring together divided communities.

“Jesus prays for us to be one as He and the Father is one,” Johnson said during the prayer service. “We need to pursue that like never before. It’s the biggest apologetic to the world. We have to get to know people, allow ourselves to be known, and pull together and not fracture into several different groups.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent