Category Archives: Uncategorized

Memphis Tri-State Defender honors EPC Teaching Elder Tim Russell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hector Reynoso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Walter Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World Outreach Philemon Project GROW Center preschool damaged in Beirut explosion

 

Security camera footage captures the moments that the shock wave from the August 5, 2020, explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, hit the Philemon Project GROW Center.

The Philemon Project GROW Center, an early childhood development center and adult mentoring program in Beirut, Lebanon, was heavily damaged by the explosion that rocked the city on August 5. The center is located approximately two miles from Beirut’s port, where the blast occurred.

The GROW Center is a project of EPC World Outreach and is led by Robert Hamd, a Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of the Central South. Hamd reported by email late August 5 that none of the center’s staff were seriously injured, but one employee’s home was destroyed.

“Our house is completely gone,” said Azig, an Early Development Specialist at the GROW Center. “We gathered clothes, money, and important papers as much as we can. My family will go to my brother’s fiancee’s house. Please mention us in your prayers, I don’t know how we will overcome this.”

Hand reported that “not much is salvageable” at the GROW Center.

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Robert Hamd

“The building has structural damage, stuff is strewn everywhere, windows are broken,” Hamd said. “Thank God no one was in the building when it happened.”

He added that the staff is “traumatized.”

“They’re weeping,” he said. “One told me she cried for three hours straight until she collapsed from exhaustion.”

As of August 6, no major injuries have been reported among the families the GROW Center serves.

“We grieve with the long-suffering people of Beirut in the aftermath of this terrible shaking,” said Phil Linton, Director of World Outreach. “We pray God will comfort them and, through people like the GROW Center staff, give them a foundation that can never be shaken.”

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The blast shattered windows and left the facility littered with broken drywall and other debris.

More than 135 people are confirmed dead from the explosion, with more than 5,000 injured and as many as 300,000 homeless. Officials have said those numbers are likely to climb. Marwan Abboud, Beirut’s Governor, said half the buildings in Beirut are damaged. The explosion was reportedly caused by 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate, which had been stored in a warehouse at the port since 2013.

“Please pray for our work and witness,” Hamd said. “This is a catastrophe of epic proportions.”

The GROW Center provides early childhood development opportunities for at-risk and underserved Lebanese, Syrian refugee, and migrant children and their families in a Christian environment. For more information about the Philemon Project GROW Center, see www.thephilemonproject.org.

To donate to the center’s recovery, go to www.epcwo.org/supportphilemongrow. Hamd noted that all donations given in the near future will go toward “repairing the building, replacing books, toys, kitchen items—basically everything.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

Panelists include:

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

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

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

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

40th General Assembly to be virtual only; on-site participation canceled

 

GA2020ThemeArt-BannerSeptemberVirtualDue to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the EPC’s 40th General Assembly will be virtual only, with no on-site component at Hope Church in Cordova, Tenn. The National Leadership Team (NLT) made the decision in a July 30 meeting.

“I am grateful of the NLT’s careful and prayerful consideration of the questions and concerns my office has received in recent weeks,” said Jeff Jeremiah, Stated Clerk. “While we all have full confidence the ability of Rufus Smith’s team at Hope Church to conduct a safe event, the NLT felt that a cautious approach was wise given the recent surge in positive cases.”

Originally scheduled for June 23-26, the Assembly was rescheduled for September 17-18 in a called meeting held on May 1.

“A key assumption we all had in May when we postponed GA to September was that the COVID-19 shutdown would be over by the fall and life would be returning to some kind of normal,” Jeremiah added. “However, based on the information available to us in late July it looks like a return to ‘normal’ by mid-September is very unlikely.”

Tom Werner, NLT Chairman, said the safety of participants—including Hope Church’s staff and volunteers—was foremost in the groups minds as they discussed the situation.

“Reports I have seen show the middle part of the country starting to see a spike in cases now, like my home state of Missouri, Florida, Texas, and others have in recent weeks,” Werner said. “None of us wanted to put our Commissioners or anyone at Hope Church at risk.”

The virtual event will still be “business only” with no Leadership Institute. Online registration has been paused until Monday, August 3, to allow for programming adjustments.

For more information and regular updates about the 40th General Assembly, see www.epc.org/ga2020.

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

 

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

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

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Lionel Jellins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Doug Ashley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cliff Mansley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eddie Spencer

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

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

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

by Tim Yarbrough
EPConnection correspondent

Church Pivot: Still traveling the ‘Sawdust Trail’

 

CaseThorpChurchPivotby Case Thorp
Moderator of the 39th General Assembly

The sweet fragrance of sawdust simply does not translate online. Sawdust—the wood shavings of my youth, and now my adulthood—were originally an innovative flooring solution for nineteenth century Christians worshipping in open-air pavilions called tabernacles. They needed a way to keep the dirt and dust down during the heat of summer and the heat of religious fervor. The floors in these historic structures christen the path the Sawdust Trail, which itinerant preachers travel as they evangelize at camp after camp. I could not take my annual pilgrimage to camp meeting this year due to the pandemic. I long to feel that holy sawdust under my feet.

Due to pandemic quarantine, the Salem Camp Meeting east of Atlanta did not meet. This is the first cancellation since the Civil War, and only the fifth time since its founding in 1828; the other four being during the aforementioned conflict.

Camp meetings are a 200-year-old Christian tradition begun during America’s Second Great Awakening. From the first Cane Ridge Revival in Kentucky in 1801, this method of religious fervor spread quickly in remote Protestant communities. The sawdust trail was well-worn, both by pilgrims like me and famous itinerant preachers like Francis Asbury and later Wilbur Chapman and Billy Sunday.

At a camp meeting, people seek the saving faith of Jesus Christ, spiritual renewal, forgiveness, the sweet spirit of fellowship, and more. Campers gather from all over the country for several days in the heat of summer. The tabernacle is the architectural center of the grounds. A cathedral of oaks and elms shade the nearby fresh-water spring once used to both baptize the converted and refrigerate the eggs and milk.

Part of the appeal of camp meeting are those things that never seem to change. Preachers work up a sweat from the heat in the air and a word of conviction from the Bible. Old ladies and children intermingle in ways rarely seen today. Southern hymnody echoes from the platform as we sing along with pianists Becky Ramsey and Alice Walker. They are twin sisters who wear matching outfits for the thrice-daily worship services. Next year will be their fiftieth anniversary of praising God through song at Salem.

Through the years, however, this historic tradition has no doubt evolved. Tents, the traditional name for rough-hewn cabins encircling the tabernacle, now have plumbing, electricity, and air conditioning. The excitement recently at Salem Campground has been the new wifi and security cameras. We have been mostly United Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists, but today all are welcome. I am still awaiting a reply from the Vatican inviting Pope Francis to be our annual preacher.

In spite of the coronavirus keeping us from gathering, the mission of our camp meeting, and many others, carries on: preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. We zoomed with one another for trivia night, worship, and Bible study. The campground trustees convened to discuss the budget and plan for 2021, and donations are received through electronic means. Through it all we ensure that a 200-year-old unique expression of Christianity continues.

As sawdust was an innovation to keep the dirt and dust down in a hot and humid environment, the internet is now part of the camp meeting experience. I am grateful that the sweet, sweet Spirit will remain in that place, and in our hearts.

Case Thorp is a Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean. He serves as Senior Associate Pastor of Evangelism for First Presbyterian Church in Orlando. He also is a member of the board of trustees for the Salem Campground in Covington, Ga.

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

 

U.S. Supreme Court reaffirms ‘ministerial exception’ in religious employment ruling

 

SupremeCourtIn a 7-2 decision on July 8, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that churches and religious organizations can make employment decisions based on their convictions. The ruling clarified application of the “ministerial exception” doctrine to employment disputes.

The case, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, involved two Catholic elementary school teachers who alleged discrimination and wrongful termination. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in favor of the teachers, refusing to allow the school employers to raise the ministerial exception defense in these employment-related disputes. The Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s decision and held that the schools properly raised the ministerial exception defense in these instances.

“This is one of the pending decisions I referred to in my June ‘Jeremiah Journal,’” said Jeff Jeremiah, EPC Stated Clerk. “I am grateful for the Supreme Court’s decision that upholds the First Amendment protection of religious liberty and slaps back the hand of secular government overreach. While our culture is increasingly antagonistic toward the gospel and those who seek to live by it, inherent in the First Amendment are the rights of religious organizations to employ those who share their beliefs.”

Importantly, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the ministerial exception that was recognized unanimously in its ruling in a 2012 case, Hosanna v. Tabor. The Court clarified in the Guadalupe case that its use of a set of four factors in Hosanna-Tabor were not a checklist that must be met in all cases for the ministerial exception to apply.

“The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority. “Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate.”

The majority opinion further states, “What matters, at bottom, is what an employee does … educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission of a private religious school.”

The seven-justice majority clarified that the use of “minister” or other clerical titles is not necessary for the exception to apply, by stating, “since many religious traditions do not use the title ‘minister,’ it cannot be a necessary requirement.”

A variety of ministry organizations joined an amicus brief in support of the religious schools in the case, including the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), of which the EPC is an Accredited Member.

Justices Stephen Breyer, Neil Gorsuch, Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas, and Chief Justice John Roberts joined Alito in the majority. Dissenting were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

Click here for the Supreme Court’s full opinion.

with additional reporting from the ECFA

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.

TheTable-Denver1Grapengater

Mark Grapengater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pandemic derailed those plans.

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

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

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

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

TheTable-SanFrancisco4LogoSan Francisco, California

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

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

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

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

TheTable-SanFrancisco2Troy

Troy Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

TheTable-SanFrancisco1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TheTable-Dallas2LogoDallas, Texas

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

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

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

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

40th General Assembly registration opens July 15

 

GA2020ThemeArt-BannerSeptemberOnline registration for the 40th General Assembly opens on Wednesday, July 15. The Assembly meets September 17–18 at Hope Church in suburban Memphis, Tenn. The theme of this year’s annual meeting is “Always,” based on the Apostle Paul’s declaration in 2 Corinthians 2:14 that in Jesus, God “always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere.”

Due to changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Assembly will be “business only” and convene on Thursday, September 17, at 10:30 a.m. and conclude on Friday afternoon. Among the business items to be considered are election of a new Stated Clerk and numerous recommendations from the EPC’s permanent committees.

Worship service speakers include Case Thorp, Moderator of the 39th General Assembly, and Carolyn Poteet, Lead Pastor of Mt. Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pa. In addition, D.A. Carson, noted theologian and co-founder of The Gospel Coalition, will speak following the on-site dinner on Thursday.

For complete information, see www.epc.org/ga2020.

Monthly EPC budget report: FY20 PMA contributions rebound from April dip, end year only 3.4 percent behind projected budget

 

At the June 30 close of the EPC’s fiscal year, Per Member Asking (PMA) contributions to the EPC totaled $2,391,871. The amount is $84,629 (3.4 percent) below the projected operating budget of $2,476,500 for supporting the EPC’s Collaborative Ministries, Connectional Support, and Custodial Operations.

Despite the deficit to the budget, PMA support in fiscal year 2020 (FY20) ended $5,042 higher than the previous fiscal year’s total of $2,386,829. The EPC’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30.

“It’s hard to describe how grateful I am for God’s amazing goodness and our churches’ faithfulness as we close the fiscal year,” said Stated Clerk Jeff Jeremiah. “When April contributions were 26 percent less than we anticipated, we hoped then that we would get to this point, look back, and call it a one-month blip. Praise the Lord that turned out to be the case. We praise Him for the great recovery we’ve enjoyed in the past two months—not just for EPC budget, but because it means that people remained faithful in their giving to the local church, who in turn did not have to sacrifice PMA support in their own budgets.”

Of the $2,391,871 received, $478,392 (20 percent) was contributed to EPC World Outreach.

In addition to PMA contributions, the Office of the General Assembly received $5,949,369 in designated gifts in FY20. This total was $731,977 (14 percent) higher than the $5,217,392 in designated gifts received in FY19. Designated gifts include support for World Outreach global workers and projects, and contributions to EPC Special Projects such as Emergency Relief, church planting and revitalization initiatives, and the EPC’s holiday offerings.

Of the total, $5,198,551 was designated for World Outreach workers and projects, and $750,818 was designated for EPC projects. These amounts only reflect gifts received and distributed by the Office of the General Assembly, and do not reflect donations given directly to WO global workers or other projects.

“In spite of all the challenges we’ve faced this year, total giving to our global workers is up between January and June in 2020 over the same period in 2019,” Jeremiah said. “In fact, giving to these precious workers on the front line for the gospel increased by 17.6 percent over the first six months of 2019. I am so thankful for how God has blessed people financially to support these workers.”

July Jeremiah Journal reports on close of EPC fiscal year 2020

 

In the July 2020 edition of The Jeremiah Journal, EPC Stated Clerk Jeff Jeremiah presents a report on the close of the EPC’s fiscal year, including contributions to Per Member Asking, support of World Outreach global workers, premium payments to the EPC medical plan, and contributions to the EPC’s 403(b)(9) retirement plan. The EPC’s fiscal year 2020 ended on June 30.

The Jeremiah Journal is a monthly video blog hosted on the EPC’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/EPChurch80. Each month’s update also is posted to EPConnection and the EPC’s Facebook page and Twitter feed.

For a transcript of this month’s edition in printable pdf format, click here.

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

 

Part 1 of 2

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

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

EPConnection: How did you come to the Lord?

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

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

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

EPConnection: Tell me about it.

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

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

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

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

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

EPConnection: So how do you define “ministry”?

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

EPConnection: How do you define “leadership”?

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

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

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

EPConnection: Who is your favorite theologian?

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

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

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

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

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

EPConnection: How would you describe your personal devotional time?

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

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

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

EPConnection: What in ministry are you most passionate about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dean: How much time do you have?

EPConnection: As much as you need!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
DavidSwanson

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

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

Read the full story: Orlando Sentinel

EPC Benefit Resources, Inc., and Fidelity present online financial planning workshop for EPC church employees

 

2020FidelityManageUnexpectedEventsWebinarFlierEPC Benefit Resources, Inc., (BRI) has partnered with Fidelity Investments to provide free quarterly interactive financial planning webinars. The next web workshop, titled “Manage Unexpected Events and Expenses” is Tuesday, June 30, at 10:00 a.m. (Eastern). The webinar will cover topics including:

  • How to assess your spending and take control of your budget.
  • Considerations for taking money from your workplace retirement plan.
  • Ways Fidelity can support you.

“With so much change around us this year and its impact on our economic climate, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and wonder if you should take any action with your retirement savings,” said Bart Francescone, BRI Executive Director. “This webinar is designed to provide answers to important financial questions when the unexpected occurs.”

Francescone added that the webinar will offer opportunity for interactive Q-and-A on retirement planning topics. Although designed for participants in the EPC’s 403(b)(9) Retirement Plan, anyone interested is welcome to register.

To more information and to register, see www.epc.org/2020fidelitymanageunexpectedeventswebinar.

To learn more about the EPC’s 403(b)(9) Retirement Plan, see www.epc.org/benefits/retirement.