Parking Lot Service Brings Conway Community TogetherGrace UMC holds weekly worship service in outside the church walls

Parking Lot Service Brings Conway Community Together
Grace UMC holds weekly worship service in outside the church walls

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

As the Arkansas Conference moves into Stage 2 of the COVID-19 reopening plan, many churches have chosen to remain physically distanced and continue online services to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

One church that has found success not just online, but in a modified in-person worship experience, is Grace United Methodist Church in Conway, Arkansas.

Grace UMC’s senior pastor the Rev. Herschel Richardson said that his church’s Parking Lot Service has seen widespread acceptance and success, not just from his congregation but from the community of Conway as well.

“At one of our staff meetings, I shared that I thought it would be a great opportunity if we moved outside for our service. Because it would help our congregation meet the need of having a more visual type of worship service outside of online worship,” Richardson said.

Richardson said they were doing online worship before COVID-19 and were getting a great response to that, but they wanted to expand their worship opportunities for people and meet them where they are.

A group of youth volunteers passes out water bottles to people attending the parking lot service. Photo by Grace UMC.

Every Sunday, a team of volunteers, including many of the youth who attend Grace, set up the parking lot for the worship service. Richardson said that a lot of the setup is led by younger people who know the technical aspect of getting the service online, as well as running cables for the microphones and speakers needed to broadcast the service loud enough for everyone to hear.

People who want to attend the parking lot service can drive up in their cars and pick a spot close to the stage. The service operates in much the same way as one inside the church, with worship, a time of prayer, and a message.

Richardson said many people choose to stay in their car with the windows rolled down, but some choose to bring lawn chairs and socially distance themselves in the parking lot.

“We’ve also had some people get really creative and set up their lawn chairs in the back of a truck or open their hatchback on their SUV and just sit in the back of their car. We’ve had a great response so far and have had pretty much a full parking lot every Sunday,” Richardson said.

Volunteers also wear masks and gloves, and pass out water bottles as people arrive to the parking lot as well.

Setup for the 9 a.m. service begins at 5 a.m. and volunteers also spend a few hours after the service is over tearing everything down again. Because of the location of the service, every element, from the microphones, monitors and instruments, to the stage itself, a flatbed trailer loaned to the church by a local business, must be set up and taken back down each Sunday.

A man enjoys the Parking Lot Service at Grace from the comfort of his truck bed. Photo by Grace UMC.

They’ve also been able to attract many people in the community who are riding their bikes or walking by the church parking lot. Richardson said they’ve even had people dancing and clapping to the worship music as they walk by the church.

“Some of our neighbors across the street have come outside their homes with lawn chairs and listened to our service in their yards, and we also had people at the nursing home nearby set up chairs in their parking lot to listen.”

Richardson said they’ve even had new people get connected to the church, and he was surprised one Sunday when he told a family about their virtual bulletin and how to get more information about Grace.

“They said ‘oh no, we already have it. We’re connected!’ and that’s a new family that had never been to church before,” Richardson said.

The flatbed trailer that Grace uses as a stage has been one of the key aspects of making the set up for the service run smoother, Richardson said.

Don Mallory, owner of Mallory Construction Inc. located across the street from Grace, said that he loans his flatbed trailer to Grace every Sunday.

Mallory said his wife used to attend Grace under the Rev. Bob Crossman, and as someone who loves to help others out whenever he can, he wanted to find a way to help the church.

“Well, I just think it’s for the Kingdom and the glory of God. I don’t mind helping out and feel like that’s what I should do,” Mallory said.

Richardson also said that although they were doing online worship services before, they had not used Facebook Live before the coronavirus, and since moving to their parking lot service, they have added that option for people as well.

Grace has been holding their Parking Lot Service for about five weeks, and Richardson said they plan on continuing to have it as long as people want it.

“It’s just been a blessing to our church to be able to worship with our community in a new way and we’re just really thankful and prayerful for the new way that God has helped us to engage in the mission of reaching people and making disciples.”

Wear A Mask, Keep Your Neighbors Safe

Wear A Mask, Keep Your Neighbors Safe

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

How did we get to the point where asking someone to wear a mask is a political issue?

And yet, somehow, inexplicably, that’s exactly where we stand.

At the time of this writing, the total number of COVID-19 cases in Arkansas stands at just over 20,000, with nearly 6,000 active cases in the state. That includes about 300 hospitalizations, 63 persons on a ventilator, and 265 Arkansans — people of all races, religions, genders, and ages — who have died from this terrible, unseen enemy.

And compared to other states in the South — like Texas, Florida, and Georgia, where cases have exceeded or are nearing the 100,000 case mark — those are good numbers!

That also doesn’t even begin to touch on the total cases in the United States — more than 2.5 million — or the incalculable devastation of the lives we’ve lost in six short months: nearly 126,000.

And yet, we still have people who think this virus is a hoax. Or it’s not as deadly as other viruses. Or that it’s some sort of deadly game of chess, where the economy is the king and me, you, and everyone we know are pawns that can easily be tossed aside for the “greater good.”

We cannot continue to act like this virus is over and that it’s time to return to the way things were. Back to our normal lives, pre-COVID.

I read a chilling article the other day citing the diminishing number of COVID cases in older adults, and the rapidly rising number of cases from people in the 24 – 44 age group.

That’s me. Those are my friends. Those are people who are a little older and a little younger than me. We are now the leading cause of coronavirus cases in the U.S., and because of the thousands of people who have the coronavirus but are asymptomatic, we don’t even know we have it.

I don’t want to be the reason that someone’s mother, father, grandparent, or sibling dies from coronavirus. I can’t have that on my conscience. Who would ever want to live with the knowledge that something you did had caused pain and unimaginable loss in another’s life?

We have been told by health experts, scientists and many of our leaders that aside from washing your hands, and staying six feet apart from others, wearing a face-covering is one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of COVID-19.

We have to follow the rules in order to make any progress in this fight.

You’ve heard this quote from John Wesley before, and it’s applicable to our current crisis now more than ever: “Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.”

We are failing at even the most basic understanding of Wesley’s rules: do no harm.

We have to start thinking of wearing a mask and stopping the spread of the virus as a matter of extending Christian love to others rather than something we throw a fit about in a grocery store checkout lane.

I am so very grateful that we have a leader like Bishop Mueller in Arkansas right now. The Bishop has been a constant source of fact-based information and smart guidance for our churches as we all have learned to navigate doing church in a brand new way.

Our Conference has put out a steady stream of COVID-19 guidance since this pandemic began, and for the many churches that have chosen to follow the guidance, it has kept us safe while other churches and denominations have, unfortunately, faced outbreaks in their places of worship.

And I can’t thank the Methodist Foundation for Arkansas enough for the generous donation of PPE supplies, including sanitizer and disinfectant, for every church in Arkansas. One of the biggest barriers people face when trying to protect themselves from coronavirus infections is access to basic supplies, like masks, gloves, and sanitizer. They have made it possible for all of our Methodist churches to open safely.

We are not done fighting this war yet. And don’t make a mistake; this pandemic is a war and not just a battle. We will be fighting this virus for many more months to come.

The least you can do right now is wash your hands, keep your distance, and for goodness’ sake, wear a mask and keep your neighbors safe!

Ozark Mission Project Finds Success in Online-Only CampOMP Connect brings campers together via Zoom

Ozark Mission Project Finds Success in Online-Only Camp
OMP Connect brings campers together via Zoom

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

The coronavirus pandemic has upended not only our churches but our extension ministries as well. Some of the most popular summer camps for youth and young adults are the Ozark Mission Project camps, where youth from all across the Conference can come together to physically serve their communities with renovation and building projects while learning about Scripture.

Unfortunately, because of the risk that serving in-person poses to the people OMP assists, this year’s camps were canceled in an effort to protect everyone from spreading COVID-19.

But that didn’t stop OMP from remaining connected despite the restrictions on meeting in-person.

OMP Connect is the organization’s solution to social distancing in summer 2020. 

“In April, our board voted to suspend in-person summer camps due to COVID-19,” said Bailey Faulkner, director of Ozark Mission Project. “Our number one priority is to keep our neighbors and our campus safe and following the guidelines. And there was no way we would be able to have in-person camp and be safe this summer.”

Faulkner said that while she and her team at OMP were racking their brains trying to come up with a way to still have something for youth this summer, Faulkner’s mother came up with a solution. 

“My mother has COPD so she isn’t able to get out during the pandemic. But she said ‘well, you know OMP is really about building relationships, and what better time to do that than with neighbors that are homebound?’”

After forming a committee of youth pastors and volunteers, OMP decided to launch OMP Connect for the 2020 summer.

OMP Connect is for 4th – 12th graders and is all of the fun of an OMP camp, but campers meet at home on their computer rather than at a church. 

“We try to incorporate everything that you would normally have at an OMP camp. All the campers ‘arrive’ via an online platform, Zoom, and we have music playing and people welcoming them as they come in, just like our regular camps.”

They then move into morning announcements and then a daily scripture reading. Afterward, campers move into family groups which consist of two adult leaders and five to six kids.

In the groups, they play games and have a discussion on the daily scripture.

One of the aspects of camp that is harder to reproduce on a virtual platform is the service activities. Normally during camp, OMP campers will do service projects for a resident of the community, which they call “neighbors,” such as repainting a house or building a wheelchair ramp. However, despite the limitations of an online camp, OMP has found a way to incorporate  “Tool Time” into the camp as well.

“We show a Tool Time video, which shows different things like how to use a power tool and things like that. This year, we are focusing on activities that they can do at home with their families, like showing them how to build and maintain a raised-bed garden in their yard,” Faulkner said.

Faulkner said that she’s found that campers have the same experience on the virtual platform as they do at in-person camps.

“You know, everyone is a little shy and awkward at the beginning of the week, but by Thursday, it’s the cutest. It’s like the kids don’t want to hang up at the end of the day.”

Jules Anderson, Student and Adult Ministries Director at Sequoyah UMC in Fayetteville, said that she’s seen lots of growth and joy in kids who’ve attended OMP Connect.

The most amazing thing to me about this week of OMP Connect is that despite the obstacles of an online program, Ozark Mission Project has still managed to find a way to serve neighbors in just the way that they needed.

“The hope in God that He could still move through a Zoom meeting and online worship was alive this week, and I know that I have walked away impacted by the power of the Holy Spirit to bring connection and unity through such a camp as this. The spirit is alive in our state through OMP Connect and I am thankful that I got to be a small part of this week,” Anderson said.

Dianne Cook, a neighbor who participated in OMP Connect this year, also had a memorable time with the camp.

“I’m impressed that so many younger youth are participating in OMP Connect. My favorite part about this camp has been getting to see faces, learning how to use Zoom, and getting to talk to this group of kids,” she said.

Grace Beckham, a recent graduate of Mountain Home High School who will be attending Belmont University in the fall, shared that even though this year was different, many memories and learning experiences were made at OMP Connect.

“This year has been a whirlwind for everyone, and if we were to fix our eyes on the things of this current world, it would be so easy to see only chaos, on every side,” Beckham said. “Being someone who considers Ozark Mission Project her favorite ‘place’ on earth, I had to be very careful and prayerful to make sure that I was going into this non-traditional OMP experience with an open mind and a humble heart. Despite my heart’s uncharacteristic hesitations, my experience through OMP Connect brought more encouragement, joy, and wisdom than I had ever dreamed possible.

“If I could pinpoint one lesson I learned, it would have to be this: we should never let our own comfort lead us to underestimate the unshakeable, unfathomable power of God. God showed up to me this week, and He proved to me that His transcendence is unrivaled. Nothing is impossible for Him.”

OMP scheduled three weeks of OMP Connect this summer, June 8 -11, June 22 – 25, and the last week of camp, which will take place July 13 -16. The first week Faulkner said they had 65 campers, and the second week they had 75. Although these numbers are smaller than what they are used to, Faulkner sees it as a major success considering there were no other alternatives.

One of the biggest barriers that OMP had to overcome this year was the loss in revenue from not having in-person camp.

Faulkner said that when they realized they weren’t going to be able to have camp, they made the decision to refund 100% of the money they received from registrations back to parents and churches.

“We returned a little over $170,000 back to families and churches,” Faulkner said.

What would have been a huge financial loss for OMP ending up being saved thanks to the generosity of the Methodist Foundation for Arkansas and other supporters of OMP.

“They made it possible for us to have OMP Connect as a completely free program to local churches and campers.”

For those wanting to register for the last week of OMP Connect, there is still time to do so. Registration ends on July 6 and more information can be found at ozarkmissionproject.org.

For the future, Faulkner said they hope to be able to gather again in-person in summer 2021, but from now on, OMP Connect will be their “rain plan option.” 

“This experience has made us realize that this camp is a huge need in our community. And right now, OMP is in a time of needing critical support. We are 100% funded by donations, and we need all the help we can get to continue doing this for another 35 years and beyond,” Faulkner said.

To donate to OMP, visit ozarkmissionproject.org/give and help financially support this vital ministry for years to come.

Arkansas Holds First Ever Online Annual ConferenceGeorge Floyd Honored, New Initiatives to Strengthen Black Church Announced

Arkansas Holds First Ever Online Annual Conference
George Floyd Honored, New Initiatives to Strengthen Black Church Announced

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

The 2020 meeting of the Arkansas Annual Conference was different than any past gathering, in more ways than one.

Taking place on June 13, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m., this year’s Annual Conference was a one-day meeting, held completely online via the Zoom video conferencing platform, and took the place of our usual 3-day conference at Bank OZK Arena in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

“It’s at this time that I would usually say, ‘Welcome to the Arkansas Annual Conference in Hot Springs, Little Rock, or Rogers.’ Today, I get to give a first-ever greeting. Welcome to the Arkansas Annual Conference, wherever you are!” said Bishop Gary Mueller, in his opening address to the Conference.

The COVID-19 pandemic upended all in-person gatherings planned by the Arkansas Conference in 2020, which forced the meeting to be moved online in order to protect the health and well-being of the attendees.

The virtual conference, which was made possible by Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson’s Executive Order 20-15 in early April, was a stripped-down and condensed version of our usual annual meeting and consisted only of business deemed essential by the Conference staff and cabinet.

Remembering George Floyd

Not only was this year a first for the manner and location of our conference, but it also arrived during the middle of massive protests across all 50 states and the world over the killing of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, a white man.

The Bishop’s Cabinet released a unified statement a few days prior to the meeting, which stated the commitment of the Conference to better work toward eradicating racism, listening more to black voices within the Conference, and putting into action a plan for creating a more just and equal environment for people of color within the Conference.

At the start of the Conference, Bishop Mueller asked for a moment of silence to be taken to honor the memory of George Floyd. A silent video with a picture of George Floyd played for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time that Officer Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck before Floyd died from his injuries.

Afterward, the Rev. Mark Norman, Southeast District Superintendent, offered a powerful prayer to the conference, asking for justice to be served, healing to happen, and for us all to remember the work of John Wesley and the mission of United Methodists to offer justice and peace to a broken world.

Strengthening the Black Church in Arkansas

During the afternoon business session, Bishop Mueller presented more details on new initiatives the Conference would be taking to better support and work with members of the black community, both clergy and laity, in the Arkansas Conference.

Part of the initiative includes a partnership with Philander Smith College, a Historically Black College with Methodist roots, for an annual mandatory training event for clergy with Philander’s Center for Social Justice. This training would work to educate clergy on issues related to race and better equip them to understand the needs of the black communities they serve.

Other elements of the initiative include a new landing page on the Conference website dedicated to dismantling racism in the church. Links to resources on the topic of racism and race will be included on the page in the coming weeks.

Additionally, the Arkansas Conference Cabinet will undergo implicit bias training provided by the General Commission on Religion and Race. Small groups of black clergy will also be invited to meet with the Bishop and District Superintendents to voice their concerns and questions.

The Rev. Rashim Merriwether, who currently serves as the Developer of Ethnic Faith Communities in the Center for Connectional Ministries, has also been appointed as a member of the Cabinet to increase the representation and voice of the black community in the Arkansas Conference.

And finally, increased funding for ethnic ministries in the Conference, as well as a new working group to develop strategic plans for Black churches in Little Rock, were announced.

At the conclusion of Bishop Mueller’s presentation, the Rev. Michael Roberts, First UMC Conway, presented legislation that proposed using funds from the Connected in Christ Endowment Fund, in the amount of $550,000, to purchase St. James Pine Bluff from the Methodist Foundation for Arkansas and deed it back to the congregation for continued ministry.

The church fell into financial distress after a previous pastor was implicated in an embezzlement scheme with a former Arkansas state representative in 2018, which resulted in the church not being able to pay the mortgage held by the Methodist Foundation. This resulted in the church voluntarily deeding the property to the Methodist Foundation.

The legislation passed on a vote of 577 to 69. In addition to the congregation regaining control of their church property, the Methodist Foundation for Arkansas has awarded St. James with a $100,000 grant which will be used to renovate existing space into a new kitchen and dining area for the church.

“I am very excited about the recent transaction between the Methodist Foundation for Arkansas, The Arkansas Annual Conference, and St. James United Methodist Church, Pine Bluff,” said the Rev. Wayne Clark, president and CEO of the Methodist Foundation for Arkansas. “A plan that truly helps the local church, campus ministry, and the Annual Conference do mission and ministry better is a blessing to everyone. I continue to be amazed at how God works.”

Spending Plan Approval

The 2020 – 2021 Conference Center for Finance & Administration report was presented in the morning business session by Todd Burris and the Rev. Brittany Richardson Watson.

Overall, the Conference budget, which we are now calling the Conference Spending Plan to better reflect the goals of the Conference, saw a reduction from $10,547,689 in the 2019 – 2020 fiscal year to $8,429,924 in the 2020 -2021 fiscal year. That translates to a 20% overall reduction in budget.

Factors that contributed to the lower spending plan include the reduction of Conference staff, as well as the dissolving of the Center for Multiplying Disciples. Rev. Merriwether, the only remaining member of the Center’s staff as of July 1, will be moved to the Center for Connectional Ministries, which will also absorb the remaining budget for New Places for New People.

Additionally, effective July 1, the 10% tithe for Conference apportionments will increase by .5% to help the transition of district offices to the Conference office. This increase in tithing will last for one year, from July 1, 2020 to July 1, 2021. After that time, Conference apportionments will return to 10%.

The CF&A Spending Plan was adopted by the Conference, 631 – 25.

For more detailed information on the Conference Spending Plan, please refer to pages 9 -23 of the Pre-Conference Journal.

Ordination Class

The clergy session of the 2020 Annual Conference took place prior to the June 13 meeting. During the session, seven people were approved to be ordained as elders in full connection: Rev. Andrea Cummings, Rev. Brad Moore, Rev. Daniel Read, Rev. Doug Phillips, Rev. Jonathan Bevil, Rev. Matthew Carter, and Rev. Taylor Loy.

The 2020 Ordination Service is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 30 at 4 p.m. A location has not yet been announced.

The Rev. J.J. Whitney, current chaplain at Hendrix College and senior pastor at Bentonville First UMC beginning July 1, was the recipient of this year’s Jim Beal Barnabas Award. The Barnabas Award is given annually by the Board of Ordained Ministry to a person, lay or clergy, who has a heart for pastors and mentoring others. It is given in remembrance of the late Rev. Jim Beal.

Retirees and Celebration of Life

Although it looked quite different this year, the Arkansas Annual Conference was able to find a way to honor our faithful pastors who retired this year, as well as clergy and clergy spouses who passed away since our last meeting.

A Retiree Service video was presented, with Bishop Mueller offering a few words of encouragement to the 21 retirees who, combined, served for 572 years of service.

In the Celebration of Life Service, we honored the memory of the clergy and clergy spouses who we lost this year. Additionally, special recognition was given to the family of Rebecca Davis, Administrative Assistant for Connectional Ministries, who passed away shortly before Annual Conference after many years battling cancer.

Next year’s Annual Conference is scheduled for June in Hot Springs, Arkansas. An exact date will be announced later. An order form for print copies of the Conference Journal and Directory will be available soon.

To view the 2020 Arkansas Annual Conference in its entirety, watch the video below.

Q&A w/ Kathy ConleyNew Lay Leader for the Arkansas Conference

Q&A w/ Kathy Conley
New Lay Leader for the Arkansas Conference

What is your current church and hometown, and how long have you been there?

My hometown is Murfreesboro, Arkansas but in 1980, I got transferred with my work to Blytheville. I went thinking I was only going to be there a year but there was a man there that I fell in love with and married, had two children, and here I am all these years later still there. We have a wonderful life out in “Promised Land” a few miles out of the city limits. We have lots of friends, belong to several organizations, and enjoy a wonderful church and church family. We are very busy in our life.

What is the role of a Lay Leader, and how did you come to be in this role?

Four years ago, the nominating committee decided to select an associate Lay Leader to shadow and learn from the Lay Leader. Several of the other Annual Conferences have this and it seems to make the transition easier. I have jokingly referred to myself as the”Laity in Waiting” during this time. I have watched and learned from Karon Mann and helped her when she asked. She has been such an asset to the laity in the Conference. She sees so many possibilities for ways to use our gifts. That is how I view my job, too; As a helper to the laity, a teacher, an advocate, a cheerleader and encourager, and someone who always looks to the Holy Spirit for guidance in all things.

What is your goal as the new conference Lay Leader?

This past February, in Nashville at the AACLL meeting, Junius Dotson, the general secretary of Discipleship Ministries spoke to us about our role in our conferences. At the close of his presentation, he challenged us to “exercise courageous leadership and see with spiritual eyes.” That is my intent as the new Arkansas Conference Lay Leader: to live before the Conference a life worthy of the calling of God, to follow Jesus, and to allow the Holy Spirit to guide me in all I do and say.

I recognize that I am blessed to experience this new area of ministry as I seek to help God empower our laity to be energized and passionate for the gospel. I want us to continually ask ourselves, “what new things are we willing to create to increase discipleship movements in our congregations as we display visibly the love of Jesus?” I hope to encourage a continued heart for mission and a gracious sharing of mercy and justice.

Communication is important to me; sharing information, talking about viewpoints, learning to listen to one another, always helps in confronting misunderstanding, and alleviates many problems before they begin.

It’s such a blessing to see laity doing good work in the name of Jesus. To talk to the folks of our conference and see reflected in their eyes the Holy Spirit moving in the churches through them as they meet the challenges God gives them every day shows their trust in God. They aren’t afraid to speak and to witness their faith to others because the presence of God permeates every part of their lives. I am honored to work in the midst of these great people.

What have you learned from past leaders in this role that you can adapt to your position?

In watching past Lay Leaders, I’ve observed that it is a big job! I’m amazed at how easy they make it look, though. I’ve watched Jim Lane, Asa Whitaker, and Karon Mann breeze through all their responsibilities and just pray that I’ll be able to step into the footprints they have left along the way. One thing I noticed about all three is they looked to others for direction and to God for wisdom during their tenure and I hope to do the same.

Who is someone that inspires you and why?

I have had so many people to inspire me and model the faith throughout my life – too many to name. All those people who have believed in me, offered encouragement with kind, uplifting words I appreciate more than they know. I thank all those who have shown me Jesus by teaching me, listening to me, and making time for my many questions. Those who have prayed for me, noticed what gifts God has given me and allowed me to use them have certainly helped me walk daily with God. And all those sweet-spirited, spirit-filled people who just loved me . . . I thank them from the bottom of my heart.

Do you have a favorite passage from the Bible that you would like to share?

My favorite Bible verse is also a song that I love to sing called “You Are Mine” based on Isaiah 43.

“Do not be afraid, I Am with you. I have called you each by name.  Come and follow me, I will bring you home. I love you and you are Mine”.

This to me says it all. It encompasses everything we are as Christians – Don’t fear, follow Me and all will be well. You belong to Me and I love You. May we remember this as we work alongside each other in the days ahead. These words are our focus. This is what we proclaim to the world about Jesus, our Savior.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.”