Category Archives: People

Small N.C. church opens new building, embraces vision for the future

 

New Covenant EPC in Burgaw, N.C., held their first worship services in their permanent facility—a renovated former dance studio—on August 3. (photos courtesy of New Covenant EPC)

For born-again believers, there is no doubt of God’s providence in every aspect and detail of His creation—and that intricately includes His Church. That truth has vividly played out over the past several years for a small, southeastern North Carolina congregation.

New Covenant Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Burgaw, N.C., began in 1998 in the public library as a church plant of Myrtle Grove Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, about 20 miles to the south.

For its first few months, about 30 people from different denominations attended. A Methodist church in Burgaw then offered its facility on Sunday evening services, which provided space for Sunday School classes and a youth group. More moves followed, with the congregation eventually settling into retail space at a main intersection in Burgaw. At the time, they called themselves Crossroads Community Church.

In 2017 the congregation moved yet again to storefront space in the center of Burgaw, across from the county courthouse. The same year, Duke Lineberry, a Ruling Elder at Myrtle Grove EPC, accepted a call as visiting evangelist.

Duke Lineberry preaches to the New Covenant congregation on October 22, 2020.

While Lineberry admits not much outreach took place the first few years of his tenure, in March 2019 the church made a decision that has placed it “directly in line with His sovereign plan,” Lineberry said.

“We became aware of a small Mexican church that had lost their lease,” he explained. “We felt led to offer them our space for their services and to use opposite our schedule. As God so often does, we began to see some fundamental changes in our church, moving from complacency to a more focused purpose.”

In November 2019, New Covenant purchased a former dance studio and began converting it for church use. On August 2, 2020, the church held its first worship service in its new facility.

Lineberry noted that for the first time in its 22-year history, “our little church has its own premises. With our new location and resources, we believe He is preparing us to be the light in Burgaw.”

Mike and Joy Thurlow, who have attended since the church’s launch in 1998, agree that after many twists and turns along its journey, New Covenant is on a renewed path.

“There is really a new zeal after the move,” said Mike, who has served as an elder since the church started. “People are more excited. While we are still a small fellowship, we are seeing more people coming now since the relocation.”

Joy and Mike Thurlow

Joy said she has seen “God working in people’s lives” over the past several months.

“Broken people are coming into our church,” she said. “People are coming for healing—physical healing, spiritual healing, emotional healing.”

The church is starting to look into ways to better reach Burgaw’s youth, such as by teaching piano, keyboard, and guitar. The “fuel” for attracting young people comes from church member Keith White. He noted that creating an environment where youth can gather and be nurtured is an outgrowth of his experience growing up in a small Baptist congregation.

“We met every Saturday night my whole teenage years,” White said. “We would get together and have some kind of activity or play a game, have a little bit of music, and then a fellow a few years older than me preached for a little bit. I learned more in those six years than any other guidance. If it wasn’t for that six years I wouldn’t be where I’m at today. That guidance sustained me through a whole lot of life.”

He added that sees “a whole lot of young people running around Burgaw. I ask the kids what they do on weekends and they say, ‘I don’t know; nothing.’ So I say, ‘Let’s build the church up with some young people.”

Moving is an adventure

Lineberry said relocating to the new building hasn’t been without its challenges.

“The building was built in 1992 as a dance studio, and virtually every little girl in Burgaw took lessons there,” he said. “Unfortunately, the building sat unused for almost a decade before we purchased it.”

He noted that the building needed a new roof; structural repairs to the walls and floors; and a variety of upgrades to bring it into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Much of the renovation work was performed by volunteers, such as constructing interior walls to separate the entrance from the seating area.

“We purchased and installed carpet, painted the walls from its former hot pink to a warm white, and put up a temporary wall to separate the entrance from the sanctuary area,” Lineberry said, adding that they also removed some trees to make room for parking.

“All of the design, planning, and permitting was done by our leadership, and the work was done by a combination of member volunteer efforts, contract labor, and one member in particular who we paid a much-discounted rate to perform the majority of the carpentry work, rehabilitating the structure, building handicap ramps, and the like.”

As a practicing trial attorney in Wilmington, Lineberry said his time serving the Burgaw congregation as its pastor is not permanent—partially because New Covenant now has a permanent facility.

“The leadership is sincerely seeking the Lord on hiring an ordained pastor,” he said. “I’ve been asked to stand again for Session at Myrtle Grove, and the leadership at New Covenant is supportive. At this stage, I can’t see leaving New Covenant any time soon, as I know the Lord placed me there for His purposes. I plan on remaining there to support and assist the pastor the Lord has for this special little family of God in Burgaw.”

Looking back to his arrival at New Covenant in 2017, Lineberry said he was concerned then about the church’s future.

“My fear was that she would simply spend up her money and eventually close the doors,” he reflected. “Thanks be to God, a remnant handful of people have been faithful to stay, pray, and serve. Now, it seems as if New Covenant is on the cusp of something new for herself and the Burgaw community.”

Instead of being tucked in a retail space between Food Lion and Subway, the church is now on the main road into Burgaw, across from the Pender Co. Department of Social Services and down the street from many local government service offices.

Lineberry sees the church as strategically poised to minister to the sizable Spanish-speaking population in the community.

“We need only look directly across the street at DSS for innumerable mission opportunities,” Lineberry said. “The Mexican church came to us and we obeyed, and as a result God made a way for New Covenant that she’s never had before. Our prayer now is for the Lord to point us in the direction He wants us to go. With the current heart of the church, I expect we will respond rightly.”

Lineberry noted that New Covenant is not a wealthy congregation, but it is a faithful one.

“Our seniors are retirees, and our younger families struggle with hourly wages and expenses. Many others are self-employed and hurting financially from COVID. But the Lord has provided, and we anticipate that He will continue to provide for us,” Lineberry said. “We will continue to be open to any outreach the Lord will show us.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

Church Revitalization Workshop to feature monthly helps

 

Beginning Wednesday, October 28, a panel of EPC pastors who have led church revitalization efforts will host a monthly virtual Church Revitalization Workshop. The content for the series was originally developed for the 2020 Leadership Institute, which was cancelled due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“Church revitalization is a real need in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church,” said Jerry Iamurri, Assistant Stated Clerk. “According to our annual church report, over 80 percent of our churches are struggling to grow. And many of those have not experienced an adult profession of faith in the last 12 months.”

Facilitators of the workshop include John Mabray, Associate Pastor for Covenant Presbyterian Church in Monroe, La.; Bryn MacPhail, Senior Pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk in Nassau, Bahamas; Doug Resler, Senior Pastor of Parker Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Parker, Colo.; and Mike Wright, Pastor of Littleton Christian Church in Littleton, Colo.

Iamurri noted that the facilitators represent “a wide spectrum of church size, geographical context, and life experience. All are currently engaged in the work of church revitalization and have experienced some measure of success.”

Under the leadership of Mabray—who until September 2020 was Senior Pastor of Covenant—and MacPhail, each of those congregations received the EPC’s Bart Hess Award for church vitality. Resler’s pastoral ministry has been characterized by helping struggling churches of all sizes revitalize by applying a systems theory approach. Wright has led his congregation as a replant following a church split.

Resler said each month’s workshop will focus on one or more of three general categories: the revitalized pastor, the revitalized session/leadership, and the revitalized congregation. He added that depending on the number of participants, the meeting may include breakout rooms in which participants can receive coaching applicable for their personal ministry context.

The workshops will be held from 4:00-6:00 p.m. (Eastern) on October 28, November 25, January 27, February 24, March 24, April 28, and May 26. There is no cost to register, and the workshops are open to both Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders. For more information, see www.epc.org/churchrevitalizationworkshop.

40th General Assembly worship service recordings available

 

Video recordings of the 40th General Assembly worship service messages are now available. The speakers are Case Thorp, Moderator of the 39th General Assembly, and Carolyn Poteet, Lead Pastor of Mt. Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pa.

The messages are available below, on the EPC website at www.epc.org/ga2020recordings, and on the EPC’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/user/EPChurch80 in the “40th General Assembly” playlist. Audio recordings of the messages are available in podcast form on Spotify and iTunes—search for “Evangelical Presbyterian Church.”

Thorp preached from 2 Kings 25:1-10 and Revelation 21:1-7. Poteet preached from 2 Corinthians 2:12-17 and Mark 8:31-17.

#epc2020ga

Louisiana, Texas brace for Hurricane Delta as EPC churches continue cleanup effort from Hurricane Laura

 

Blue tarps on homes in Lake Charles, La., indicate the extent of damage left by Hurricane Laura as Hurricane Delta takes aim at the region. (photo credit: Erik Stratton, KPEL965.com)

As Hurricane Delta bears down on the northern Gulf Coast, volunteers from numerous EPC churches expect to ramp up their ongoing recovery efforts since Hurricane Laura swept through southwest Louisiana in late August. Delta is expected to strengthen by the time it makes landfall on October 9.

Members of First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge, La., and First Presbyterian Church in Ocean Springs, Miss., have traveled to the heaviest-hit areas in the weeks since the category 4 storm made landfall August 27, causing extensive damage in Lake Charles and the surrounding area. Additional damage from Delta could further complicate what is a serious situation, according to relief effort leaders for the EPC’s Presbytery of the Gulf South.

Whitney Alexander

Whitney Alexander, Associate Pastor of Missions for First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge, said recovery efforts have focused largely on removing debris from wind damage and flooding. Alexander and Kory Duncan, Associate Pastor of Missions at First Presbyterian Church in Ocean Springs, are coordinating EPC relief efforts in the region.

“The wind damage was unbelievable,” Alexander said. “More than 50 percent of trees have been knocked over or damaged for the entire western side of Louisiana. Thousands of power lines were snapped or leaning over, with 80,000-plus roofs in these three communities damaged or destroyed. In some cases, the entire home has been leveled by trees falling.”

He noted that relief efforts were underway quickly after the storm moved out of the area. Members of First Presbyterian Church in Vicksburg, Miss., joined the teams from Baton Rouge and Ocean Springs with chainsaws and other tools in Alexandria, La., on September 4 and 5. The groups removed limbs from homes of members of Grace Presbyterian Church in Alexandria—approximately 100 miles north-northeast of Lake Charles and the nearest EPC congregation to Laura’s path of destruction. The following weekend, another group of 15 volunteers continued debris cleanup work in Alexandria.

Teams from Baton Rouge have continued to work in Lake Charles on Wednesdays and Saturdays, sawing downed trees and moving the debris to the curb.

“I just returned from my 12th trip,” Alexander said.

Kory Duncan (left) and volunteers from First Presbyterian Church in Ocean Springs, Miss., drove four hours to Alexandria, La., to help cleanup efforts following Hurricane Laura. (photo credit: Kory Duncan)

Duncan said students from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge joined the church teams to help clear debris in Alexandria.

“When trees fall in your yard, your insurance will cover it to get it off your house or to get it off your driveway or to get it off of any outbuildings, but the stuff that’s just lying in your yard, it’s on you,” Duncan said. “We spent an entire day working with a 90-year-old man. He was working when we got there and was working when we left—the whole time on one tree that had fallen that was probably 40 inches in diameter. We helped him—and we helped him a lot—but he still had more to do when we left.”

Alexander said he is praying there are no more injuries or property damage with Hurricane Delta.

“People are desperate,” he said. “My job is to continue loving people—that’s what I do. I’m going to continue to go to Lake Charles for a long time. We don’t need resources. We just need prayers. The supplies will be tripled and quadrupled. I’ll be there until next March, that’s how bad it is.”

He added that the 80,000 damaged and destroyed homes in the region will be rebuilt, but it will likely take several years.

“My heart hurts for those people,” Alexander said. “We’ve been through this in 2005, 2008, and 2016. Baton Rouge has been through it. I know how hard it is for these people. Gratefully, the Lord has spared us in Baton Rouge this time.”

He said his prayer for Hurricane Delta—the 25th named hurricane of the Atlantic season—is that “somehow the Holy Spirit and His mighty strength can dissipate that storm from 100 mph to like 50 when it gets on land. We know it is going to hit somebody, but we don’t want it to slam in as the last one did. The last one just annihilated everything.”

Duncan said his prayer is for more EPC churches to organize together or with other groups to train and prepare in advance to respond to future disasters.

“Thank goodness for organizations here and for the church,” Alexander said. “Without the church, I promise you they wouldn’t be this far in recovery efforts.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

Dean Weaver elected fourth EPC Stated Clerk

 

Dean Weaver (right), Lead Pastor of Memorial Park Presbyterian Church in suburban Pittsburgh, speaks to the 40th General Assembly via video conference following his election as the EPC’s fourth Stated Clerk on September 17. At left is Glenn Meyers, Moderator of the 40th General Assembly. (photo credit: Jeff Guetzloe)

Commissioners to the EPC’s 40th General Assembly elected Dean Weaver, Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of the Alleghenies, as the denomination’s fourth Stated Clerk. He currently serves as Lead Pastor of Memorial Park Presbyterian Church in Allison Park, Pa., and was the Moderator of the 37th General Assembly. Weaver will be installed at the 41st General Assembly in June 2021.

Bill Dudley, Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of the Southeast and Chairman of the Stated Clerk Search Committee, said Weaver has “a devotion to the church” and “has demonstrated what sacrificial leadership looks like” over the years.

“He is a man with a mission for God on his mind in every aspect in the life of the Church,” Dudley said. “He is that one who has taken the blend of being young enough to see visions—still—and yet he is also one who, like an experienced older man of wisdom, can still now dream dreams.”

Upon his election, Weaver said he was deeply honored and “greatly humbled that you would entrust such a stewardship to me to be the fourth elected Stated Clerk of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, following Ed Davis, Mike Glodo, and Jeff Jeremiah. I walk in the footsteps of giants; shoes the likes of which I could never hope to fill. I am the inheritor of that legacy for which I am deeply grateful, and am profoundly dependent upon you for your prayers, your support, and your love.”

Weaver noted that the 40th General Assembly has been “a surreal Assembly in so many ways, and this moment perhaps the most surreal for me in 34 years of ministry. It is overwhelming.”

He said he believes that the EPC’s best days are still ahead, echoing Dudley’s comments of dreams and vision.

“One of those dreams and visions is of a promised land that God yet has for us,” Weaver said. “Our best days are not behind us. Jeff has led us through unprecedented times with incredible courage and great faith and stamina. I am proud to be his friend, and quite frankly a little overwhelmed to follow him. But at the same time, I honestly believe that God is going to lead us through the wilderness wanderings of the coronavirus pandemic into a promised land—a time for us to inherit a Kingdom that cannot be shaken.”

Though he acknowledged the tension between contemporary culture and “measuring all by the Scripture—the inerrant, infallible, inspired Word of God,” Weaver declared that the EPC will faithfully go forward.

“Pray for your ‘Levitical leaders’—our beloved men and women who serve the Lord in ministry,” he said. “Pray that they would have the fortitude and the courage to step out with the presence of God and go into that place that God has for them. It may be overwhelming, but it is the place of promise.”

Weaver noted that “the way we have understood church over these last number of years” may be different going forward.

“That may mean we have to walk around the walls of the great city and blow our trumpets and do other things that seem to make virtually no sense,” he said. “Yet I am confident that this Kingdom that cannot be shaken, that God has called us to together, that God is going to do exceedingly abundantly more than you and I could ever ask or imagine.”

He added that he believes “the way before us is not going to be easy.”

“But I am even more confident that our God is so very good. He leads us, and He has been—and will be—faithful. I am honored to serve you in this way, and ask you to pray for me, for Beth, and for our family as we seek to serve the Lord through the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.”

He and his wife, Beth, have been married for 32 years and have seven children (three natural born and four adopted—two from Sierra Leone, one from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and one in the U.S.) and two grandchildren.

Weaver holds a Bachelor of Arts in History and Religion from Grove City College; a Master of Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary; and Master of Theology and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

The Stated Clerk Search Committee was appointed by the 39th General Assembly and consisted of fifteen members representing each of the EPC’s 14 presbyteries, plus one member of the National Leadership Team.

Jeremiah has served as the denomination’s Stated Clerk since 2006. When re-elected to a fifth three-year term in 2018, he announced that it would be his final term and he would step down in June 2021.

New Hope EPC (Fort Myers, Fla.) volunteers live Matthew 25:36 for juvenile detention center despite COVID restrictions

 

New Hope Presbyterian Church members (from left) Cathy Fox, Helen Clapp, Eleanor Blitzer, Candy Engleman, and Gin Fisher) outside the Southwest Florida Juvenile Detention Center in Fort Myers, Fla.

“Do you wanna go to jail with me today?” Not your typical question. Then again, Candy Engleman is not your typical church lady. She is a member of the “Juvie Jail” ministry of New Hope Presbyterian Church (EPC) in Fort Myers, Fla., and her mission is to glorify God while sharing the gospel with the girls who are residents of a juvenile detention center.

The Juvie Jail ministry, as it is informally called, began in 2009 as part of a larger ministry for teenage girls. Every Monday afternoon, a group of volunteers from New Hope arrives at the Southwest Florida Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Fort Myers with homemade cookies, lemonade, Bible lessons, and love. The volunteers spend an hour and a half each week with the girls. They share snacks, play games, read the Bible, teach a lesson on a Bible verse or story, take prayer requests, and lead the girls in prayer. And they hug, too. Big circle hugs.

The girls are not required to participate, but Monday has become a highly anticipated day in the center for everyone. Frelicia Davis, Facility Training Coordinator for the Center, explains how important the ministry is in the lives of the girls.

“These kids go through their crises during the week, but on Mondays they light up and this helps them calm down,” Davis said. “They know these ladies are coming with their hearts—not just coming to be coming.”

Typically, a girl is housed in the facility for three weeks awaiting her appearance in court.  During their first week, Davis says the girls are hesitant to participate because they want to “save face.” In the second week, the girls begin to open up and interact more within the group. By the third week, they begin praying and reaching out with questions and prayer requests. Some of these girls have never seen a Bible or started a prayer, but on Mondays they impatiently wait for the ladies from New Hope to arrive.

“We call them our ‘Jesus Christ Golden Girls!’” Davis exclaimed. “Everyone loves them. The girls love them. The staff loves them. These ladies have hearts of gold. Rain or shine, holidays…giving these girls hope.”

Ann Anderson has been involved since 2012, and noted that jail ministry is not always easy.

“You have to love the Lord,” she said. “These girls are needy, and some don’t know anything about God. Some are curious. We have to share God’s Word with them.”

Engleman agrees. While she jokes about asking people if they want to come to jail with her, the joking stops there.

“It is a blessing to be in this ministry,” she said. “It is a privilege for us to be able to do this and we want people who want to come and receive the blessing that it is.”

Permanent volunteers have to go through a detailed vetting process that includes fingerprinting and background checks. Engleman appreciates the requirements, because she only wants volunteers who are serious about serving.

“We see these girls as daughters, granddaughters, and nieces,” she explained. “We are terribly aware that we are sinners too, and so we are shoulder-to-shoulder with them and not standing in judgment.”

For privacy reasons, the volunteers are only given the girls’ first names. They also never know what offense a girl has committed. Some girls are repeat offenders. Some are runaways. Most come from dysfunctional families or foster homes. One girl was a repeat offender because being in the system was better than the alternative. A few of the girls have children of their own, despite their young ages. Sometimes their families don’t want them back. Drugs and alcohol are common threads woven into their stories. Sometimes a girl goes right back to a pimp upon release.

Engleman said the inability to follow up with girls after their release is the ministry’s only downside.

“Our job is to deliver the gospel,” she said. “Beyond that, God has not given us the okay to follow through with the girls. We share the gospel and we share our love. That is all we have been told by God to do at this point.”

The detention center leadership fully supports the ladies’ work.

“We have the utmost respect for this group, and for the church itself,” Davis said. “The love from the church—the entire church—is represented in this ministry.”

The girls aren’t the only ones being ministered to. The guards share prayer requests, ask for Bibles, grab cookies, and sometimes stay for the Bible lesson.

“Sometimes we do plays, like a Christmas pageant, and the guards take part,” Anderson noted. “They play the Wise Men or the shepherds. We try to make it fun for everyone. God is a joyful God and we want everyone to see this.”

Visitation restrictions are in place currently due to COVID-19, so the ladies have not been able to meet with the girls face-to-face. But they have not stopped going. Every week the ladies collect items and take them to the lobby to be delivered to the girls. Devotionals, word search books, adult coloring pages, and felt tip markers are passed along by the guards. The most important item the girls receive is a prayer request card. All of these cards are collected by the ministry and a volunteer sends out a visit report to more than 100 people who pray over each request every week.

Eddie Spencer, New Hope’s Senior Pastor, said the pandemic has barely slowed the ladies down.

“They cannot see the girls or fully enter the facility, but continue to visit each week to drop off discipleship lessons and sit together in the car and pray for the young women,” he said.

One of New Hope’s core values is living out the gospel by “reaching out to hurt and marginalized people.” The Juvie Jail Ministry demonstrates this by extending grace to all who live and work at the detention center. Engleman gives all the credit to God.

“God has allowed us to continue our ministry at the center despite COVID,” she said. “God is reaching out to many people there and we are privileged to be a part of His work.”

Even if it means going to jail.

by Kelli Lambert Gilbreath
EPConnection correspondent

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

 

WeaverFamilyA

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.

Part 2 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 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.

WeaverFamilyB

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!

WeaverFamilyE

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

 

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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