Category Archives: Ministers

Reopening the church: doors continue to open despite restrictions

 

ReopeningTheChurchFourth in a series

As protests and more violent demonstrations continue across the U.S.—potentially hindering economic and social recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic—a nation desperately in need of spiritual direction is seeing churches slowly reopen their doors to worshipers. In that context, EPC congregations are balancing local, state, and federal guidelines to protect parishioners who choose to return to on-campus worship services and other activities.

Chris Parnell, Pastor of Bishopville Presbyterian Church in Bishopville, S.C., said in-person worship services resumed on May 3 following a unanimous vote by the session. He reported about half of their normal Sunday attendance of 70 were present for the first service.

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Chris Parnell

“For those in attendance, and the elders, the mood was quite positive,” Parnell said. “We’d been closed except for online worship services from mid-March through April—including Easter—and the elders and I felt a positive, uplifting response to our meeting again in-person.”

He said that neither his state nor local authorities had issued any guidelines on churches reopening, “so we looked at the CDC recommendations for guidance,” he said. “We are also blessed to have several healthcare workers and doctors in our congregation to give us local guidance.”

Parnell said other activities continue to be closed—such as choir practice, on-site Bible studies, Sunday School classes, and other gatherings—and looks forward to fully reopening. He explained that navigating ministry during the pandemic included conducting a graveside-only funeral service.

“Other than the family and me, the funeral home sent two facilitators and a local musician who played and sang the Lord’s Prayer,” he said.

Following 14 years as Associate Pastor, Joyce Harris was installed as Lead Pastor of First Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Kokomo, Ind., on March 8 as the first cases of COVID-19 began to sweep across the nation.

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Joyce Harris

“This season has been very overwhelming to learn new ways, and the brunt of the responsibility for assuring conditions are met are on the church, session, and pastor,” she said. “We were able to meet March 15 because the state had a limit of 250 at that time, and then on the following Tuesday, we were shut down. We were not streaming before that time; we did our first live video stream on March 29.”

The church resumed in-person worship services on May 10, with attendance and social distancing restrictions as recommended by Gov. Eric J. Holcomb’s “Back on Track Indiana” guidelines.

About 60 of the regular 175 congregants attended the May 10 service, with everyone doing their part to social distance and sanitize, Harris said.

“A large part of our congregation is over 60,” she said. “I still am trying to walk the balance of respecting the choices of when someone will return, with a lot of grace and truth. It’s hard when you know someone goes to the local store, or now gym, but is not in church. And I have to be OK with that, and yet pray. The work of discipleship needs to continue in order that others may see the work of the church is essential in their life.”

Harris said the decision to reopen has been well-received.

“I’ve not been told that we were crazy to reopen,” she said. “A longtime member and doctor who has worked in Indianapolis with infectious disease and control for over 12 years was part of our session meeting, and has been available to me throughout our decision-making process. Right after announcing, people agreed that it was a reasonable plan, which gave people choices. It’s been affirming because even as I’ve seen other churches larger than us open up after us, they have basically used similar types of things.”

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Bill Crawford

Bill Crawford, pastor of two congregations in Louisiana—First Presbyterian Church of Thibodaux and First Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Houma—said services at the Houma location resumed on May 17, with 25 percent capacity per state guidelines. The two churches are about 30 miles apart.

“Twenty mostly young families and some widows attended,” Crawford noted, adding the pre-shutdown attendance was about 60 for both churches.

“The mood was somber, but it lifted as we continued,” he said. “We asked participants to wear a mask and to be seated by ushers, and installed UVC lighting in the air return.”

Crawford said feedback on the reopening has been mixed, ranging from “‘I won’t come to church until masks are given out,’ to ‘This is a government conspiracy,’ to ‘Thank you, I’m coming no matter what!’”

In Ohio, where churches were exempted from Gov. Mike DeWine’s order for non-essential businesses to close, Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Lebanon reopened May 24 after relying on live streaming its worship service for eight weeks.

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Peter Larson

Senior Pastor Peter Larson said in the county where the church is located has had 340 confirmed cases and 21 deaths—but no confirmed cases in the congregation.

For the church with a typical worship attendance of 380, the plan is to reopen in phases in order to provide a safe worship environment.

“Due to social distancing, our capacity is limited to 80 people at each service,” Larsen said. “For that reason, we have encouraged people to stay home and continue to watch the livestream unless they have an urgent need to be in the church building. On the day we re-opened we had a total of 65 people in the first service and 35 at the second.”

The overall mood of the first on-campus service was “very positive and joyful, but also kind of strange,” he said. “The pews are divided by duct tape to provide social distancing. Also, the live streaming equipment stands directly in front of the pulpit for now until we can install it permanently. Clearly, these things were awkward and distracting. Nevertheless, it was great to gather in worship and to preach to actual people instead of preaching into the cold lens of a camera.”

At Rivermont Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Lynchburg, Va., almost every member of the church has told their pastor they are eager to get back to an in-person worship services, Senior Pastor David Weber told the Lynchburg News & Advance.

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David Weber

They got their wish on May 24, as the church reopened for two services on campus: an 8:00 a.m. service requiring face coverings and an 11:00 a.m. service that didn’t require masks. The sanctuary was limited to 150 people in spaced-out seating arrangements, and a pamphlet from the church lists other measures taken—such as limited singing and removal of pew hymnals and Bibles.

“Our expectation is that we’ll see a slow start to people coming back,” Weber said. “People are kind of waiting it out and seeing how it goes and slowly re-engaging.”

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Stephen Morefield

Stephen Morefield, pastor of Christ Covenant Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Leoti, Kan., said the church returned to indoor worship on May 31 with about 80 percent of its regular attendance of 115 after conducting outdoor services the previous four weeks.

He described the return to in-person worship as “jubilant and enthusiastic,” with the congregation being understanding of special considerations that had to be taken.

“Because we haven’t had a case in the county, our challenge was getting folks to take reasonable precautions, especially to honor those in the body who were deeply concerned,” Moorefield said. “We had painted boxes for family units on the church lawn, moved an offering box, and practiced communion with pre-packaged elements handed out by gloved elders.”

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Ken Chivers

Lighthouse Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Mooresville, N.C., reopened on May 17 with an outdoor service following social distancing guidelines.

Pastor Ken Chivers said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper continues to recommend that churches don’t meet inside yet, in spite of a federal judge’s ruling that churches could worship as they chose.

“Everyone understands the situation, so they were good with them for the most part,” Chivers said. “Not everyone wore masks, but most people followed our recommendations. About 60 people—roughly 75 percent of the church’s regular attendees—were at the May 17 service.

“We were very joyful and thankful,” Chivers said. “I teared up with joy when we all started saying the Lord’s Prayer together.”

by Tim Yarbrough,
EPConnection correspondent
with additional
reporting by Rachel Mahoney, The Lynchburg (Va.) News & Advance

‘Leading EPC Sessions and Congregations in Issues of Race and Justice’ webinar recording available

 

On June 10, a diverse panel of EPC Teaching Elders and other leaders presented a 60-minute webinar, “Leading EPC Sessions and Congregations in Issues of Race and Justice: An Online Seminar on These Times and a Biblical Response.” The recording of the presentation is available below.

The webinar was hosted by Case Thorp, Moderator of the 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.

Church Pivot: The coronavirus crisis and opportunity for the church

 

CaseThorpChurchPivotby Case Thorp
Moderator of the 39th General Assembly

Last month, pastors of Romanian heritage in Illinois declared they will begin gathering for corporate worship despite the governor’s orders. Meanwhile, they filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the orders in defense of religious liberty. Some Presbyterian pastors in my own denomination share similar convictions, while others have said they will delay reconstituting on Sundays for worship. Motives range from fear of the coronavirus’ advance to being blamed for its spread. One mother in my own congregation shared another valid take concerning coming back to corporate worship: “We do not want our four-year-old son to have to wear a mask or see his little friends or their parents hidden behind masks for the sobering image it would see her into his memory.”

Whatever practice a church embraces for restarting Sunday morning worship, this global pandemic will be a turning point for the future of Christianity.

Pastor Chad Scruggs at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Nashville recently reminded his congregation that when it comes to opening up for Sunday worship they have a “fixed theology, but flexible methodology.” Pastor Scruggs recognizes disruptive events like this one challenge methodologies, but do not change the core beliefs and convictions of Christians. As seen in history, individual churches either died out or shifted and thrived through such calamities as the black plague, enemy invasions, or governmental oppression.

Yet, the methodology of most American churches is an epidemic of its own. For the last generation, scholars and a minority of practitioners have questioned the amount of energy and resources that go into Sunday morning worship. Too many churches operate, so they think, as an attraction among many in a community. Rather than the beach, a theme park, your backyard, or little league baseball game, if church is an entertaining enough experience, you’ll come.

Certainly, gathered worship on the day of Christ’s resurrection is central to the Christian experience since the first century, and will be theologically important into the future. Yet, in many churches who thought they were evolving well with the times, Sunday morning corporate worship has become an overproduced performance mimicking the cultural attention we place on lights, cameras, and action. The Sunday event has become an expensive, less-than-average vehicle for discipleship, and a lightning rod for criticism as pastors are seen in slick, overproduced settings following more the ways of the famous than Jesus. Take this away, and many pastors feel naked and out of the driver’s seat. It reveals a reality many church leaders have forgotten: there is more to the church than going to church.

The scale at which the Sunday morning worship service dominates a church’s methodology is being radically disrupted with stay-at-home orders. Pastors are flummoxed with next steps in reopening, thinking that it’s the only move they have. But is it? Is returning to the event-driven, performance-esque Sunday morning corporate worship service the best way to be the body of Christ in this pandemic—and in the 21st century?

Allen Hirsh, an Australian theologian and leading missiologist, recently compared this moment for churches to the game of chess. He provides what he calls a working parable in which the sermon, the very center of the Sunday event, to the queen on a chessboard. We think she is an all-powerful gamepiece and the best reason the game is won. Hirsch says too many churches have over-relied for too long on their queen, and due to lockdown, “now the queen is taken out. They don’t know what the other pieces can do.”

Here he brings the parable full circle with both a vision and a challenge for how churches use this global disruption to reconstitute themselves in a much more effective way. Chess masters will coach new students to play chess without the queen so that they learn the power and potential of all the other chess pieces. Hirsch suggests taking away our queen as Christians is the best thing that could have happened to the church because it will force the issue of effective discipleship, transformative mission, and intimate, authentic outreach. He concludes, “What you were going to do is you’re going to learn what all the other elements of the chess table can do on the chessboard, and then you put the queen back in. At that point you’ve actually learned to become a champion without over-relying on a singular function.”

The opportunity before the leaders of the church offered by coronavirus is to learn to play the game relying on the other moves on the board: effective conveyance of the faith from one person to another, truly teaching biblical literacy rather than ethical vignettes, sound and clear theology, spiritual habits that shape the rhythm of a flourishing life, transformative works of benevolence in a community that last and they are witness to God’s common grace, and a worship expression build not on performance and production, but on intimacy and confession. May church leaders not waste the opportunity of this crisis, and perhaps usher in yet another great reformation of the church.

Case 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.

Reopening the church: pastors, congregations take cautious early steps

 

ReopeningTheChurchThird in a series.

As the country slowly reopens following a three-month onslaught of the COVID-19 virus, EPC congregations are cautiously resuming corporate worship and other on-campus activities.

Middle Smithfield Evangelical Presbyterian Church in East Stroudsburg, Pa., lost the husband of an elder and son of a deacon to the virus. Despite the tragic death of a beloved member, Pastor Jeff Brower reported that they reopened public worship on May 15.

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Jeff Brower

“We announced the re-opening on May 8 with very little fanfare on our live feed and via email—we just said the doors will be open if you’d like to come back, but we were sure to make it as low-pressure as possible,” Brewer said. “We said, ‘Come if you want, but continue to watch the live stream if you’d prefer.’”

He said the church’s leadership prepared 13 policies for re-opening, and about 10 people in a congregation of 200 attended the first week—which included Brower and the praise team.

“I roped off every other pew so there would be no mistakes, and we provided masks for anyone who forgot theirs.”

He said attendance at the May 24 service doubled to about 20, including several from a nearby Reformed congregation that they participate in many activities with.

“The mood of the people here was great,” Brower said. “Everyone was very excited to be able to worship together, but also disappointed that we can’t stay and fellowship afterward. We normally have a small meal every Sunday after church and a big meal once a month—we’re very big on fellowship here.”

In Texas, Covenant EPC in Lake Jackson used a “soft opening” on May 10 to “iron out procedures,” said Senior Pastor Alan Trafford. He noted that they followed suggested guidelines such as maintaining social distance, providing hand sanitizer, encouraging worshipers to wear masks, and not to serve food.

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Alan Trafford

Though Gov. Greg Abbott did not require churches in Texas to close, Trafford said they held online-only services for seven weeks as a precaution, so the first service was “emotional and that of relief” for the congregation of about 200.

“The call to worship was from Psalm 84, ‘How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty.’ The praise team led with ‘Praise Belongs to You’ followed by a traditional hymn on the organ, ‘Come, We that Love the Lord.’ There was barely a dry eye in the place.”

He said 66 people attended the first service, and attendance has grown steadily in the weeks since.

“We can only get about 70 in our sanctuary with social distancing, so we are live streaming to our multi-purpose building,” Trafford noted. “Some have chosen to worship there since distancing is easier in the gym.”

He also said Covenant continues to stream its worship service on the church website, Facebook, YouTube, and a local cable TV station.

In Florida, Faith Community Church in Seminole also reopened on May 10 after Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed retail and restaurants to reopen at 25 percent capacity.

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Dillon Thornton

“When that happened, we followed suit,” said Lead Pastor Dillon Thornton. “Our thinking was that most people spend at least 45 minutes in a restaurant, so offering a worship service of 45 minutes or so is consistent with the governor’s permission.”

He said they marked the pews with tape so that social distancing could be easily practiced and made face coverings optional.

He said the reopening of in-person gatherings has been met with “only positive feedback. I suspect this is because we have taken a hybrid approach—we offer both an online gathering and two in-person gatherings—and we have encouraged all gospel partners (how Faith refers to its members) to return in person whenever they feel ready to do so. No pressure.”

Worship attendance has ranged from 95 the first week to 108 on May 24. Prior to the shelter-in-place orders, the congregation had an average worship attendance of about 300.

“The majority of our gospel partners are not yet ready to return to in-person gatherings, so they join us online each week,” Thornton said. “Additionally, we’ve seen significant growth in online viewers.”

Thornton added that current services are abbreviated in length, and include prayer, praise, and communion.

“We intentionally made the first week back concise, and only the sanctuary is open at this stage,” he said. “Families worship together, but there are no children’s or student activities yet.”

Forest Hills Presbyterian Church in Wilson, N.C, resumed public worship with outdoor services on May 17 and worship in the Sanctuary on May 24.

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Chris Greenwood

Pastor Chris Greenwood said the services have been well received, with more than 60 attending the outside service and 30 attending the first inside service. He said average attendance prior to the shutdown was 60 to 70—which has increased from about 35 just a few years ago.

“We spaced the chairs for social distancing and asked people to arrive in masks through the end of the musical worship time,” he said. “We then suggested they remove them for the sermon and put them back on from the benediction until they depart.”

Greenwood said the impact of COVID-19 on the Wilson area—about 50 miles east of Raleigh in the eastern North Carolina—has not been widespread. As a result, he hopes the church can soon return to some semblance of normalcy.

Back in Pennsylvania, Brower said the impact in East Stroudsburg has been much greater so returning to how things were before the coronavirus took hold may prove more difficult.

“We are in the Pocono Mountains just across the river from New Jersey, so we’re a vacation destination for folks from New Jersey and New York—and many of our parishioners commute to both,” he said. “The member of our church who died lived in New Jersey, and a couple with three small children tested positive but have recovered. Overall, our area has been relatively hard-hit.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

June 10 webinar to explore biblical, congregational response to racial injustice

 

June10WebinarPanelistsOn Wednesday, June 10, at 4:00 p.m. EDT, a racially diverse panel of EPC Teaching Elders and other leaders will present a 60-minute 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.

“Several EPC Teaching Elders of color and the Co-Chairmen of the EPC’s Revelation 7:9 Task Force will discuss racial injustices, congregational leadership, and a Reformed and biblical response,” Thorp said. “Our panelists will discuss these timely topics, and there will opportunity for question-and-answer.”

Panelists include:

For more information and to register, go to www.epc.org/june10webinar.

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

 

ReopeningTheChurch

Second in a series.

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

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

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

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

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

The Hope Church Creative Team produced the video.

 

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

 

ReopeningTheChurch

First in a series.

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

Some churches have already started holding in-person services.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gerrit Dawson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dan Phelps

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

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

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

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

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

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David Pleuss

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

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

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

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

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

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Tony Myers

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

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

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

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

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Rob Hock

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

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

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

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

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Anne Horton

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

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

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

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

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

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

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

 

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

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

MasksForHamtramck

Paula Creamer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creamer has seen the same thing at Grace Community Church.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Kiki Schleiff Cherry
EPConnection correspondent

EPC Teaching Elder elected to Belhaven University Board of Trustees

 
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Scott Castleman

Scott Castleman, Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Ocean Springs, Miss., was elected to the Board of Trustees for Belhaven University in April. Castleman is a Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of the Gulf South.

He noted that when he entered Belhaven as a student in 1994, he was not a Christian.

“It was the gospel-centered environment of Belhaven that God used to bring me into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ,” Castleman said. “As a student I was discipled by Belhaven faculty members, and the biblical and theological education I received prepared me well for my calling into pastoral ministry. To serve Belhaven as it continues this essential work is a great privilege.”

He graduated from Belhaven in 1998 with a Bachelor of Arts in Biblical Studies. He later earned a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and currently is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree from Reformed Theological Seminary.

Castleman has served the Ocean Springs congregation since 2009. He and his wife, Rebecca, have a daughter and two sons.

A Christian liberal arts college in Jackson, Miss., Belhaven enrolls 1,000 traditional-age students from 42 states and 22 different countries. In total, the university serves 4,400 students including in-residence, online, graduate, and adult degree programs.

EPC Home Missionary John Bueno releases Spring 2020 newsletter 

 

LatinsUnited202001John Bueno, EPC Home Missionary serving with Latins United Christian Ministries (LUCM), has published his Spring 2020 newsletter, in which he discusses Latin cross-cultural ministries in the EPC. Among the highlights are challenges faced by churches in Colombia due to the coronavirus pandemic, a variety of reports on ministry efforts in 2019, and a significant praise report on an ongoing personal health issue.

Click here to download the Spring 2020 edition in PDF format.

For more information about LUCM, contact Bueno at johnbknox@yahoo.com or 402-350-3815.

EPC Smaller Church Network to present series of live webinars for the “ordinary” church practitioner

 

SmallChurchWorkshopOn four consecutive Thursdays beginning May 21, the EPC Smaller Church Network will present “The Ordinary Church in Extraordinary Times” in a series of 90-minute webinars. The webinars begin at 7:00 p.m. EDT, and there is no cost to register.

“More than 80 percent of churches in America today have an average worship attendance of fewer than 200 people,” said Roy Yanke, who is coordinating the webinars. He serves as Executive Director of PIR Ministries and is a Ruling Elder for Grace Chapel EPC in Farmington Hills, Mich. “When this year’s Leadership Institute had to be canceled, 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.”

Other speakers are Zack Eswine, Lead Pastor of Riverside Church in Webster Groves, Mo.; Josh Modrzynski, Pastor of Riceville Community Church in Asheville, N.C.; and Doug Walker, Pastor of River City Church in DeBary, Fla.

Yanke said the content of the series will address the significance of the small church.

“Each of the 90-minute webinars will focus on a key challenge faced by leaders of smaller churches, and how each could become an opportunity for greater ministry impact,” he said.

Topics include:

  • A Pastoral Approach to Re-connecting (May 21)
  • The Life of the Church—Inside and Out! (May 28)
  • Facing the Financial Impact (June 4)
  • The Tech Challenge—Its Use, Purpose, and Value for the Future (June 11)

“We will examine the spiritual, emotional, and financial impact of the pandemic on our people, on us as leaders, and the teaching opportunities this presents,” Yanke noted. “We also will address such questions as ‘Has the value of meeting physically become more apparent?’ ‘Where have we seen opportunities beyond our walls to impact our communities?’ and ‘Has our sense of doing important and significant work increased?’”

Each of the four sessions will conclude with a time for Q&A.

For more information and to register, see www.epc.org/smallchurchworkshop.

SmallChurchWorkshopSpeakers

Nebraska church planting pastor seeks city council seat

 
JeffRyanCityCouncil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

Jerry Iamurri reappointed as EPC Assistant Stated Clerk

 
JerryIamurri

Rev. Dr. Jerry Iamurri

The National Leadership Team (NLT) has reappointed Assistant Stated Clerk Jerry Iamurri to a second three-year term in the role. His new term runs from July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2023. The NLT made the appointment unanimously during its April 30 virtual meeting. Iamurri is a Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean.

“I am grateful for the past three years working with Jeff Jeremiah and the staff of the Office of the General Assembly,” Iamurri said. “I look forward to three more years and am extremely thankful to be able to serve the EPC in this way.”

As the EPC’s Chief Constitutional Officer and legal counsel, Iamurri helps facilitate the work of the Ministerial Vocation Committee and the Permanent Judicial Commission as that body addresses polity and other concerns related to the EPC’s Book of Government. In addition, he oversees the strategic priorities of Global Movement and Effective Biblical Leadership and works closely with the Stated Clerk on Church Revitalization and Church Planting.

“Jerry’s command of the Book of Order has allowed us to swiftly navigate a wide variety of situations,” said Jeff Jeremiah, EPC Stated Clerk. “But more than his technical knowledge and skill, he consistently demonstrates a high level of integrity and sensitivity. I am especially grateful for how he oversees the Leadership Institute at our General Assembly each year. His steady hand will be invaluable as I pass the Stated Clerk baton to Dean Weaver in 2021.”

EPC Chaplain Endorser honors first responders with home light display

 

InglesBlueLights1EPC Chaplain Endorser Mark Ingles has washed his home in Colorado Springs, Colo., in blue light to honor first responders during the COVID-19 crisis. Ingles is a Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of the West and a retired U.S. Air Force Chaplain.

InglesBlueLights2“It’s simply a show of support for everyone from local first responders to teachers, doctors, nurses, truckers, churches, food banks, members of the Corona Virus Task Force, and others for their incredibly hard work during this difficult time,” Ingles said. “I wanted to honor the wonderful people doing amazing things to keep us safe, supported, our kids taught, food brought to our stores, and so much more.”

Ingles noted that the LED lights consume the equivalent of a single 150-watt light bulb.

Former Director of EPC World Outreach Dick Oestreicher and wife, Bobbi, succumb to COVID-19

 
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Dick and Bobbi Oestreicher

Richard George “Dick” Oestreicher (born June 20, 1934) and Roberta Belle “Bobbi” Oestreicher (nee Bradley, born September 12, 1936) were married on August 30, 1958, at Grace Bible Church in Ann Arbor, Mich. They enjoyed 61 years together and went home to be with the Lord on April 17 and 14, 2020, respectively.

Red dots on a wall map in their home marked all the places they had been, including Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Russia, and Ukraine just after the wall came down. Dick and Bobbi were some of the best traveled home missionaries you could ever meet. Their work was always personal, as together they shared the love they had experienced in Jesus with the wider world.

Graduates of the University of Michigan, the Oestreichers bled maize and blue for the rest of their lives. Active members at Ward Church, they were friends to all they met and faithful servants of the Lord. Missionaries at heart, they served in a host of mission fields over the course of their life together.

A consummate preschool teacher even beyond Montessori school walls, Bobbi loved to engage young children at their level. Through SEND International and as Director of EPC World Outreach, Dick resourced international church planting with innovative leadership. Spiritual mentors for more than six decades, Dick and Bobbi were an inspiration to many.

The family home was perhaps their greatest mission field, where they lovingly raised their children, established a legacy of faith for generations after them to follow, and extended hospitality far beyond the normal bonds of family. Compassionate, humble, and genuinely loving, the Oestreichers always had an extra place at the table. Faithful and welcoming, frugal yet generous, they held themselves to the highest Christian ideals while extending love and grace freely to everyone around them. Their lives bore unmistakable evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work over the decades.

When their love on earth was spent, and their love of God made perfect, the Oestreichers died well—Dick having fought the good fight and Bobbi having embraced the peace of God which passes understanding. Billy Graham once said, “Someday you will read or hear that I am dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.” The Oestreichers, spiritual giants in their own humble way, changed their address this past week. We grieve, we mourn, but we do so in the sure and certain hope of resurrection, which is offered to all who trust in Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Dick and Bobbi are survived by children Lori (Joe), Lisa (Rod), and Mark (Jeannie), grandchildren Zack (Rachael), Kirsten (Geoff), Rachel (Dan), Shana (Anthony), Jake (Kristin), Rachel (Isaac), Riley, Wade, Vance (Alyssa), Max (Bailey), and Shelby, by 12 great-grandchildren, Dick’s sisters Ruth and Carol (Jim), Bobbi’s sisters Kay (Bruce) and Kathy (Jim), and a host of nieces, nephews, and dear friends. Bobbi was preceded in death by her sister, Bonnie (Terry).

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

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

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

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

EasterTornado-MichaelAllen

Michael Allen

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

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

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

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

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

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Dane Deatherage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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