Category Archives: Small Church

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.

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

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

 

ReopeningTheChurchFifth in a series

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

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

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Lionel Jellins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Doug Ashley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cliff Mansley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eddie Spencer

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

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

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

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

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

 

ReopeningTheChurchFifth in a series

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

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

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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

 

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

 

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

TheTable-LittleRock4LogoLittle Rock, Arkansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Michael Gallup

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

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

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

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

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

TheTable-Denver2LogoDenver, Colorado

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

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

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

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Mark Grapengater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pandemic derailed those plans.

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

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

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

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

TheTable-SanFrancisco4LogoSan Francisco, California

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

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

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

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

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Troy Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

TheTable-SanFrancisco1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TheTable-Dallas2LogoDallas, Texas

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

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

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

TheTable-Dallas1Wahlstedt

Dave Wahlstedt

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

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

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

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

TheTable-Dallas1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TomRicks

Tom Ricks

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

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

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

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

by Kiki Schleiff Cherry
EPConnection correspondent

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

 

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

OnlineGiving-JeffersonEllis

Jefferson Ellis

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

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

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

OnlineGiving-GradyDavidson

Grady Davidson

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

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

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

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

OnlineGiving-BrynMacPhail

Bryn MacPhail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small Church Workshop recordings available

 

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

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

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

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

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

Topics include:

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

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

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.

ChurchesReopening3-Parnell

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.

ChurchesReopening3-Harris

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.”

ChurchesReopening3-Crawford

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.

ChurchesReopening3-Larson

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.

ChurchesReopening3-Weber

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.”

ChurchesReopening3-Morefield

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.”

ChurchesReopening3-Chivers

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

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.

ChurchesReopening2-Brower

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.

ChurchesReopening2-Trafford

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.

ChurchesReopening2-Thornton

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.

ChurchesReopening2-Greenwood

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

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.

ChurchesReopening1-Dawson

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.

ChurchesReopening1-Phelps

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

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

EPC churches using technology, intentionality to minister during coronavirus crisis

 
StowPres

Bob Stanley, Pastor of Stow Presbyterian Church in Stow, Ohio, took advantage of a beautiful spring day in northeast Ohio to deliver his Sunday morning message on March 29 to the church’s website from his back yard.

While the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis has dramatically impacted businesses, state and local governments, the healthcare industry, and the daily lives of all Americans, EPC churches are meeting the challenge of ministering to their congregations and communities in unprecedented circumstances.

Stephen Morefield, pastor of Christ Covenant EPC in Leoti, Kan., wrote that the church is seeing “quite a bit of fruit” from reaching out to its small, rural community of about 100 in a county with a population of 1,500.

StephenMorefield

Stephen Morefield

“Because we are an agriculture-based community, all of our farmers and ranchers are as busy, if not busier, than ever,” Morefield wrote. “We have a few non-essential businesses so while there’s no one out unless they need to be, nearly all businesses are continuing to function. The food supply is as important as it ever will be during times like this.”

He said Christ Covenant has seen an explosion of Facebook use during the crisis.

“We’ve never seen so many people watch Bible devotions or local sermons online,” wrote Morefield. “It’s quite remarkable and we’re praying that it leads to more unchurched visitors after all of this has settled down.”

Engagement on the church’s website and social media platforms has been its largest ever, according to Morefield.

“When your church page has 350 percent more views in a week, reaches 235 percent more people, has 425 percent more engagement and 18,000 more video views, something notable is happening,” Morefield said. “The challenge is using the opportunity faithfully with real biblical context and gospel hope, and then translating this into not more couch-sitting church-goers, but more actual church-goers.”

Bob Stanley, pastor of Stow Presbyterian Church in Stow, Ohio, said he was on vacation when the crisis erupted, and knew he and his staff had to work quickly to respond.

BobStanley

Bob Stanley

“In less than 48 hours we launched a new barebones website and went to a guided worship experience via prerecorded video,” he said. “The plus of all of this is that I can record my message on Thursday and upload it, and have our discipleship guys have it all set to trigger and go live at midnight on the weekend.”

While he considers himself tech-savvy, Stanley said he is amazed at the quality of video tools and resources available—he said the church started broadcasting its services using an iPhone XR.

“We literally did this with everything that we already had,” he said.

Stanley added the community has applauded the way the church has handled the crisis and efforts to stay connected while not gathering in person.

“We’ve received multiple emails or messages to social media thanking us that we have been clear, and that we have been hopeful,” he said. “Our church theme this year is to be servants, the idea that Christ is a servant and came to serve. So the Lord prepared us for that concept. We’ve received a lot of feedback that people appreciate that we have a servant’s heart in how we are approaching this.”

Thousands of miles from northeastern Ohio in downtown San Francisco, Troy Wilson, Pastor at The Table, said the small, “highly relational,” international, and multicultural church is finding ways to keep connected and meet needs. He emphasized that having the entire city and state on mandatory lockdown has presented unique challenges for the church’s congregants—comprised largely of artists, musicians, medical workers, and other professionals.

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Troy Wilson

“We’ve just resorted to using Facebook Live for worship. It’s nothing fancy,” he said. “Our small groups are using Google Hangouts. We can get 12 to 15 folks on there.”

He added that most of the congregation is younger adults.

“I’m one of the older people at the church,” he said. “They are definitely more tech-savvy and social media savvy. But this is all new for us as a church, because we have never relied on the social media platform—good or bad—it’s just not who we are. We’ve wanted people to come and experience us in person.”

Wilson said one of the upsides has been that those who attend The Table are sharing the link with friends who don’t go to church, as well as increased interaction.

“We really do see our community reaching out to one another,” Wilson said, adding another positive is that people not connected with the church are “looking for answers.”

For example, Wilson, who also is a realtor, shared that a real estate colleague recently reached out to him about some challenges going on in his life.

“He wants to talk because he wants to know the faith piece that he’s missing,” Wilson said. “He’s not a Christian and he’s not a person of faith, and he just wants my perspective on what Christianity is, and if the Christian message has anything to say about what he is going through.”

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Doug Resler

Doug Resler, Senior Pastor of Parker Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Parker, Colo., said keeping the congregation “relationally engaged” is essential.

“The biggest takeaway so far is that people are looking for connection and not content,” Resler said by email.

“The most impactful program we’re running is keeping our Early Learning Center open. We are in conversation and coordination with our county health partners, as well as state and local leaders, to provide childcare for up to 12 years of age for the families of those who work in the most critical sectors.”

At Memorial Park Presbyterian Church in Allison Park, Pa., pastoral and volunteer teams have mobilized to care for congregants.

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Kevin Gourley

“We have divided up a list of 170 members over the age of 80 to call within the next week. Next we will divide up those between 70-80 years of age to call,” Kevin Gourley, Minister of Congregational Care, said by email. “The rest of our 1,300-member congregation will be divided up by family units to be called by the six pastors, 15 elders, 36 deacons, and 30 Stephen Ministers on an every-other-week basis until the virus subsides.”

Gourley wrote that a prototypical call includes four questions: 1) How are you and your family doing? 2) Is there anything physically we can do for you? 3) Are you aware of our online services and daily devotions that we are offering and how to access them online? and 4) How can we pray for you?

“Even if we leave messages, all the congregation will know that their church leadership is caring and praying for them in this time of crisis,” he said.

Nadia Stropich, Transitional Pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in Angier, N.C., said the absence of face-to-face contact is a challenge and an opportunity for the Church.

NadiaStropich

Nadia Stropich

“It’s a beautiful time as well,” she said, “because while we many times see the negative side of cyberbullying with people thinking, ‘I can say anything because I’m not there face-to-face.’ On a positive note, we can also say things because we are not there face-to-face, so that intimidation of sharing the gospel goes away—because I just post it on Facebook.”

Stropich recounted a chapel service during her seminary studies at Princeton Theological Seminary the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She said a message from the Book of Ester by the late Thomas W. Gillespie had a deep and lasting impact on her ministry.

“He said, ‘For who knows for such a time you have been called.’ Those in that class didn’t realize the ramifications of what he was saying,” she said. “As an encouragement to pastors right now and even the flock, ‘Who knows for such a time as this you have been chosen.’ God knows what the outcome is. God knew this was coming, and we are to be strong and courageous because we have an opportunity that we have never had before to share the gospel in new ways that are taking everybody out of their comfort zone.”

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

CARES Act provides benefits for churches during coronavirus crisis

 

CaresActCapitolOn March 27, President Donald Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The legislation provides many benefits to individuals and churches. The purpose of this article is to provide information solely about how EPC churches may apply for federally guaranteed loans during the COVID-19 crisis. A subsequent article will address individual benefits.

“Please note that this is our best understanding of the CARES Act on March 30,” said Jeff Jeremiah, EPC Stated Clerk. “The implementation of this program hasn’t been finalized yet, so we will continue to monitor developments related to the CARES Act as they occur and provide updates as quickly as possible.”

Q: How can my church benefit from the CARES Act?

A: The CARES Act allows for any 501(c)(3) organization with 500 or fewer employees that has been substantially affected by COVID-19 to borrow under the Small Business Administration (SBA) 7(a) program—the Paycheck Protection Program Loan. The EPC is a 501(c)(3) organization, which means all EPC churches enjoy this status.

Q: Why are EPC churches eligible for this loan program?

A: The purpose of these loans is to help small businesses to keep their workers employed and compensated through the COVID-19 crisis. This program incentivizes employers to keep their employees instead of laying them off and shutting down their businesses.

Q: When will the SBA begin taking applications for Paycheck Protection Program loans?

A: On March 29, Larry Kudlow, Director of the United States National Economic Council, announced that the SBA would begin taking applications on Friday, April 3. This date may change given the fluidity of the impact of COVID-19.

Q: What is the duration of the Paycheck Protection Program?

A: The Paycheck Protection Program covers the period beginning February 15, 2020 and ending on June 30, 2020 (the “Covered Period”).

Q: What is the loan amount a church may apply for?

A: That amount is determined by the church’s payroll and related employee expenses for the period February 15 through June 30, 2020.

Q: How much can a church or ministry borrow?

A: The amount that may be borrowed is the total average monthly payroll costs for the preceding 12 months (March 2019 through February 2020), multiplied by a factor of 2.5. For example, if the average payroll costs for the preceding twelve months were $20,000, the maximum amount of the loan would be $20,000 times 2.5 for a total of $50,000. The maximum amount available for a Payroll Protection Loan is $10,000,000.

Q: What costs are considered payroll costs?

A: Salary or wages, payments of a cash tip, vacation, parental, family, medical, or sick leave, health benefits, retirement benefits, and state and local taxes.

Q: Is there a salary maximum that the loan can cover?

A: Yes. Salary expenses above $100,000 per employee are not eligible for consideration as payroll costs. Loan proceeds may not be used to pay salaries above $100,000 per employee.

Q: Is the pastor’s housing allowance included in the computation of payroll costs?

A: The SBA needs to issue guidance on how housing allowance will factor into the payroll cost calculations.

Q: Are there any other ways in which this loan may be used?

A: The loan proceeds may also be used to pay mortgage interest (not principal) payments, rent payments, utilities, or interest on other loans outstanding at the time of the pandemic. As stated above, the total amount of the loan can be up to 2.5 times the average monthly payroll costs for the one-year period preceding the date of the loan. However, the only amount eligible for forgiveness is the total spent during the eight-week period beginning on the date of the loan on payroll costs including benefits (except for staff with salaries over $100,000), mortgage interest payments (not principal), rent, and utilities.

Q: How will the church need to document how its Paycheck Protection Program loan is used?

A: The church is required to make a “good faith certification” that the loan is necessary due to economic conditions caused by COVID-19. The church will need to demonstrate that the loan was used to retain employees, maintain payroll, and pay rent and utilities.

Q: How soon must the church, ministry, or pastor repay the loan?

A: A Paycheck Protection Program loan may include a term of up to 10 years from the date of application.

Q: What is the interest rate for a Paycheck Protection Program loan?

A: The maximum interest rate for this loan is 4 percent per year.

Q: May payments under the loan be deferred?

A: Yes, for a period not less than six months but not to exceed more than one year from the date of the loan.

Q: May all or part of the Paycheck Protection Program loan be forgiven?

A: Yes, the program is designed to encourage employers to retain employees and loan forgiveness is a key feature of these loans. A church under a covered loan can have all or a portion of the principal of the loan forgiven in an amount equal to payroll costs, mortgage interest, rent, or utility costs during the eight-week period following the origination of the loan. The forgiven amount, however, may be reduced based on a formula that compares the ministry’s employment in prior pre-COVID periods with the number of employees and each employee’s wage or salary in the eight-week period following the origination of the loan.

Q: How does my church apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan?

A: Churches will apply for this loan through an approved SBA lender, which includes most local banks.

Q: What can the church do immediately to prepare to apply for a loan?

  • Confirm the church’s bank is an approved SBA lender. If it is, inform it that the church wants to apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan ASAP. Ask the bank to provide the church with loan document documentation requirements. The bank will assist the church in completing the application.
  • Take whatever action is required for the church to apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan (Session and/or congregational approval). Depending on local social distancing or meeting limitation regulations, this meeting may need to be virtual.
  • Ensure the church’s 2019 financial statements are complete and first quarter 2020 financial statements are prepared ASAP.

 

Information is gleaned with appreciation from Batts, Morrison, Wales & Lee (the audit firm of the EPC), the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), Horizons Stewardship, and Baptist Press of the Southern Baptist Convention, which utilized a Q&A approach in its report.

Caldwell (Idaho) EPC celebrates new home, personal revitalization

 
Caldwell-Worship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scott and Connie Hoover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott Hoover agreed.

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

2019 Leadership Institute: Serving Jesus in the Ordinary (Small) Church Context

 

GA2019LI7-OrdinaryContextIn the 2019 Leadership Institute seminar Serving Jesus in the Ordinary (Small) Church Context, Roy Yanke had attendees divide into cohorts and discuss challenges they continually face in their ministries.

Yanke’s session was part of the Leadership Institute “Congregational Ministry” track. He serves as Executive Director of Pastor-in-Residence (PIR) Ministries in Farmington Hills, Michigan. PIR is an commended resource of the EPC Ministerial Vocation Committee.

#epc2019ga