Category Archives: Uncategorized

Commissioner’s Handbook, committee reports available for 40th General Assembly

 

GA40CommissionersHandbookThe 40th General Assembly Commissioner’s Handbook and reports from the EPC’s permanent and interim committees to the Assembly are now available for download in PDF format at www.epc.org/ga2020documents. The Handbook is available in its entirety as well by individual sections.

The Assembly will be held September 17-18. The EPC’s first all-virtual GA convenes at 11:30 a.m. (Eastern) each of the two days from the Office of the General Assembly in Orlando.

“I think our Commissioners will appreciate that this year’s Handbook has been reduced to 49 pages—down from 99 last year,” said Jeff Jeremiah, EPC Stated Clerk. “We wanted to make it as easy as possible to follow the proceedings, and this year’s Handbook has only 18 pages of action items. I hope every Commissioner takes some time between now and the Assembly to familiarize themselves with the business items we will act on.”

Jeremiah noted that because the 40th General Assembly is fully virtual with no on-site activities, the GA app will not be deployed this year.

“While the app has all the action items, committee reports, and other documents Commissioners will need, these files are on our website,” Jeremiah said. “Also, much of the app is designed to help people find their way to the various meetings, lunches, and other activities of a ‘normal’ General Assembly. Since those are on hold this year, we decided to put the app on hold this year also. Everything a Commissioner—or an observer watching the live stream—will need is on the GA documents page of the website.”

In addition to the GA Documents page of the website, all permanent and committee reports for the 2019-2020 ministry year are available at www.epc.org/committees/reports.

#epc2020ga

General Assembly registration ends September 4, Commissioner orientation meetings scheduled

 

GA2020ThemeArt-BannerSeptemberVirtualRegistration for the 40th General Assembly closes on Friday, September 4, at 12:00 p.m. (Eastern). The meeting is the first fully virtual General Assembly in the EPC’s history and will convene from the Office of the General Assembly in Orlando.

“We need to close registration on Friday so we know who should receive the Zoom meeting login credentials,” said Jeff Jeremiah, EPC Stated Clerk. “It also gives our office time to ensure that all Ruling Elder certification forms are in place for those who have registered.”

In addition, two virtual New Commissioners Orientation meetings are scheduled. The identical meetings will be held Tuesday, September 8, from 4:00-5:30 p.m. EDT, and Thursday, September 10, from 7:00-8:30 p.m. EDT.

“Normally, the day General Assembly convenes we hold an orientation for all of our first-time commissioners,” Jeremiah said. “As we thought about it, we realized that all of us will be ‘new Commissioners’ at this virtual General Assembly. This has been confirmed by the many questions my office has received in recent weeks about how we’re going to conduct this meeting.” Registered Commissioners will receive the link to the orientation meetings via email no later than Monday, September 7.

In other GA-related news, final editing of the Commissioner’s Handbook and Committee Reports is nearing completion. These and other Assembly documents will be posted at www.epc.org/ga2020documents.

Online registration is available at www.epc.org/ga2020.

August Jeremiah Journal previews 40th General Assembly

 

In the August 2020 edition of The Jeremiah Journal, EPC Stated Clerk Jeff Jeremiah provides some highlights of the upcoming 40th General Assembly—the EPC’s first all-virtual GA.

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.

Emergency fund launched for Beirut explosion relief

 

BeirutExplosionReliefFundThe EPC has launched an emergency relief fund to help relieve suffering caused by a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, on August 4. The blast killed more than 180 people and injured an additional 6,000. An estimated 300,000 people were left homeless.

Donations to the fund will be sent to the Church of the Nazarene in Beirut and other key ministry partners of EPC World Outreach.

“The Nazarene Church in Lebanon has a long history of work among Lebanon’s poor and refugees, and is very well-positioned to provide emergency help in Christ’s name to victims of the blast,” said Phil Linton, Director of World Outreach. “Many of our Nazarene brothers and sisters there were sharing their meager resources with refugees even before the explosion. Our gifts will be a great encouragement to their faithful and generous outreach, as well as our other partners in Lebanon.”

Click here to donate to the Beirut Explosion Relief Fund. Thank you for providing help to those in need.

California EPC churches minister amid wildfire destruction

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

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

JuliaLeeth

Julia Leeth

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

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

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

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

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Mike Griffin

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

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

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

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

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

July 2020 EPC budget report: Fiscal year 2021 starts on positive note, PMA above budget projection

 

Per Member Asking (PMA) contributions received by the Office of the General Assembly in the first month of the EPC’s new fiscal year (FY21) total $200,725. While the amount is $21,651 less than the $222,376 contributed in the first month of the previous fiscal year (FY20), contributions were nearly 11 percent—$37,580—above the $163,145 budgeted projection to support the EPC’s Collaborative Ministries, Connectional Support, and Custodial Operations. The EPC’s fiscal year runs from July 1 through June 30.

The 12-month rolling average for monthly PMA contributions is $200,128—approximately 1 percent higher than the rolling average as of July 31, 2019.

“I say it every month, but I am grateful that our churches continue to be faithful to Per Member Asking in the midst of so much economic uncertainty surrounding the pandemic,” said Jeff Jeremiah, EPC Stated Clerk.

Of the $200,725 received, $40,145 (20 percent) was contributed to EPC World Outreach.

In addition to PMA contributions, $423,724 in designated gifts were received through July 31. This total was $5774 (1.4 percent) higher than the $418,043 in designated gifts received in the same period in FY20. 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, $421,731 was designated for World Outreach workers and projects, and $1,993 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.

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

 

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

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

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

Memphis Tri-State Defender honors EPC Teaching Elder Tim Russell

 
TimRussellFredDavis

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.

RobertHamd

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.”

PhilemonGrowCenterDamageA

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

 

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

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