There are some tried and true ministry outreaches that so many churches use to make disciples who make disciples, but sometimes a church finds a very specific niche that serves their community best!
West Memphis United Methodist Church has done just that! When Children and Youth minister Carissa Tarkington was hired, she was met by a group of lay leaders that had a passion to go to Church of the Resurrection for their summer workshop training.
Upon arrival at C.O.R., they decided to divide and conquer so that they could get the most out of their workshop experience. One group went to a workshop called Building Better Moms, and they just knew it was a ministry their church could offer in West Memphis.
Once they returned to Arkansas, they were excited about what they learned but didn’t immediately take the “build it and they come” approach to programming. They prayed and listened to how this could be used in West Memphis.
A petting zoo for children with special needs was one of the activities that Building Better Moms helped put together for their community. || Photo provided by Carissa Tarkington
They started listening by creating a Facebook support group with moms in their church and inviting other moms from the community. They had teachers in the public school system who would invite moms that they knew to the public Facebook group. The administrator of the Facebook group kept daily discussions, ideas, encouragements going to give the moms what they needed. The group members needed to know they were not alone in not having all the answers about raising their children. The Facebook Group grew to 300 followers.
The helpful discussions in the Facebook group and building connections with the West Memphis UMC members made it easy to take a poll: “If our church would offer some parent classes and training, what areas would you like to see us cover?” They received overwhelming feedback for parenting children with special needs, and mental health for children and parents.
They also asked, “if they were able to offer this training, what would be the most likely night to come?” Tuesday was the night that worked for most moms, but they would also need childcare if they were to attend.
Carissa and her lay leaders got busy planning their first Building Better Moms training. They asked the UMW to provide a meal. Senior members of their church who were moms volunteered to sit as mentors at each table during the meal and speaker.
They asked several mental health providers to come and speak at the event explaining services and parenting techniques. Oh, that thing about childcare!
The Peter Pan production was the first ever special need student theatre production held at the church. || Photo provided by Carissa Tarkington
Well, the nursery was provided by the church with help from the paid caregivers, youth and the fathers of the families attending. The fathers that helped found themselves creating their own support group while they supervised and played with the kids. This father group was an unexpected blessing that clearly showed their communities need for connection.
Table group discussions during this event lead to another overwhelming need. The parents attending had special needs children, and their kids were not part of social groups or getting chosen for school activities like school plays. So, from that one night, the special needs cast for the Peter Pan production was launched. Building Better Moms members, the youth group, church members financial backing for set and costumes along with the director Carissa Tarkington debuted the first ever special need student theatre production of Peter Pan held at the church.
West Memphis UMC really let the Holy Spirit lead them to what their community needed. Building Better Moms, the program they learned about at C.O.R., does not necessarily focus on moms of children with special needs, but that is what this group became. The church body felt there was a need and just kept listening and following the need. Building Better Moms continues to be a growing ministry with more than 100 moms participating in monthly activities at the church and in the community.
Libby Tyson, left, of FUMC Hope and Elizabeth Cowart, right, of FBC Hope put on a skit and lead the starting and closing sessions of the ecumenical VBS. || Photo provided by Melinda Shunk
The definition of ecumenical is promoting or relating to unity among the world’s Christian churches. Rose Gagon is doing precisely that at First United Methodist Church in Hope for the second summer in a row! In 2017, Rose met the new Baptist pastor of First Baptist Church of Hope at a community event. As she and Brother Daniel got to know each other, Rose mentioned how nice it would be if they could join together to hold their Vacation Bible School. Not in a way that they share supplies, but in the way of combining volunteers and VBS campers into one large VBS. Brother Daniel thought that would be a wonderful idea and suggested it to Sara O’Brien. Sara is the “full-time volunteer” for Children’s ministry at First Baptist Church of Hope. She soon met with Rose, and they began planning for the 2018 Vacation Bible School.
During their planning meeting, many things had to be decided, but first, it was a commitment plan. They decided because this has never been done before they would need to have a two- year commitment to the Ecumenical VBS to work out the kinks and give everyone a chance to experience the positive results of change. It was a smart decision and kept the lines of communication very open between Rose and Sara, the now co-directors of Vacation Bible School. The next decision to be made was where to hold VBS, but that was not difficult because the Children’s wing at First Baptist Church of Hope was under renovation. So, it made perfect sense to hold the first Ecumenical VBS at First United Methodist Church for the first year with the 2019 VBS scheduled to be held at the First Baptist Church. They then had to compromise on the timing. First Baptist always did their VBS in the evening, and FUMC did theirs during the day for four days. They combined ideas and held VBS in the evening for four days and found that it was very beneficial for getting the whole family involved in programming because parents were home from work. The co-directors found that as they planned, their resources grew. They grew because they had more volunteers to place in just the right role. They also found when they ordered supplies, their money went further when they ordered in bulk. The extra money allowed them to purchase a VBS shirt for all the campers to enjoy for free!
Pastor Steve, right, of FUMC and Brother Daniel, left, of FBC work together for Bible story time. || Photo provided by Melinda Shunk
The co-directors might be getting along just fine, but you may be asking how the campers and the volunteers experienced the same collaboration? The Holy Spirit was working that first Ecumenical VBS because no one was upset about going to VBS with their neighbors. It increased their attendance and ability to work together. The kitchen teams were asking their Baptist friends to work with them before the directors even got the phone call made. The youth group that serves as assistant crew leaders were excited to work with their friends from school. The VBS campers just knew they had enough kids to play a solid competitive game during the sports rotation. VBS campers had no idea what volunteers were from which church because they all wore an Ecumenical VBS shirt made special for the week. Rose said that everyone had the mindset that God is a loving God. God brings us together, and that was and is the focus of 2018 and 2019 VBS.
The host church handles the online Google forms for registrations, but together they share publicity with both churches’ names on everything that goes out. They post it on the Baptist digital screen, on each other’s Facebook Pages, flyers that go to the school and into backpacks, and the directors even host a night at the community Farmer’s Market to promote VBS sign-up and registration. VBS is free for all who want to take part. Last year, they had 104 kids and 60 volunteers. This year, they hope to increase outreach numbers by 30-40 kids!
Rose and Sara agree that a wonderful addition to ecumenical VBS is having two pastors take part in everything, even getting a balloon in the face during the last night of festivities. Their 2019 VBS is scheduled for June 24-27, and they will include a third church into the VBS program! A Place of Meeting is a non-denominational church that will be joining in the planning and preparation. Brother Nathaniel Crane, who leads A Place of Meeting, witnessed the success of last year and asked to join in ministry this year. So now everything, from food to decoration supplies, is being split three ways. They may even have to get the vans ready to bus some kiddos into VBS! After one year, the ecumenical idea from two churches has grown to three. God’s love for us is big, but God’s love has an even bigger impact on making disciples when we come together as one body of Christians!
First United Methodist of Crossett has a long history of feeding children in need, but when Autumn Smith came to work there, the program had run its course and lost its momentum for a couple of years.
The VBS group at First UMC Crossett filled a canoe with food for hungry children after Autumn Smith asked the children to fill it with healthy snacks. || Photo provided by Autumn Croswell
Autumn was hired as the new Children’s and Youth Minister in 2016 and saw a need in the community. Children in public schools still faced food insecurity. The schools still needed help with sending food home in backpacks for children over weekends and holiday breaks.
She began gathering resources to help the school. FUMC of Crossett had memorial funds that they were willing to put toward food purchases. Autumn made a call to the president of the Delta Xi Chapter of Beta Sigma Phi in Crossett to see if they would be able to offer help of any kind and collaboration. The chapter was more than willing to offer volunteers as well as money to purchase the reusable backpacks. They purchased 78 backpacks for the church to fill with snacks and make quick meals.
Autumn worked with the UMW who continued to purchase and organize more food. As space became needed, she looked for a place to keep the donated food before it was bagged up and taken to the schools. The Board of Stewards voted that they could change the church library into the food pantry for the gifted food. With organized storage space, Autumn could quickly know the supplies and communicate with the primary, intermediate, middle and high school counselors about what she and her volunteers could prepare and drop off to the school once a month. The Junior Auxiliary donates large flats of food for the long holiday breaks. Depending on supplies and food gifts, they can offer food pick-ups in the summer by students or their parents.
First UMC Crossett’s backpack ministry volunteers fill bags with food for hungry children. From left to right: Ann West, Reba Gray, Annie Ruth Pitzer, Autumn Croswell, and Sylvia White. || Photo provided by Autumn Croswell
Those low supplies in the summer led Autumn to think about how she could fill those shelves, so she decided to make it her Vacation Bible School mission project instead of the assigned mission in the curriculum. FUMC Crossett had planned a three-day Vacation Bible School.
The first day, Autumn shared the story of how many children needed food in their community. She was doing the Raging River themed VBS, so she pulled a large canoe into the sanctuary and asked the children to fill it with the healthy snacks needed for the school backpack ministry. At the end of the last day of Vacation Bible School, the canoe had been filled, and they had raised $198 in cash to add to the food pantry.
Autumn had an excellent idea for making her VBS mission very local and real for her congregation. You can take her excellent idea and make your own service project, VBS mission, or multi-generational service project. 200,000 Reasons has partnered with the Rice Depot and Children’s Ministry to create an easy-to-use lesson plan that you can use in your Vacation Bible School.
You can download the FREE sample lesson plans for Pre-K – second grade, third – sixth grade and a congregation presentation from https://arumc.org/our-ministries/childrens-ministry/vacation-bible-school/ or https://arumc.org/our-ministries/200k-reasons/. If you don’t have a food pantry like Autumn, do not fear; Mary Lewis Dassinger, firstname.lastname@example.org, can work with you on where those needs may be closest to your location.
Nick Garrison, the youth director at Maumelle UMC, was in a planning meeting with his senior pastor a year ago discussing how they could get the whole church involved in a spring cleaning of the church grounds. The suggestion was made that they could make a video of what needs to be cleaned and what doesn’t need cleaning. Nick knew it had to be comedic to get people’s attention. He quickly set forth recording a video that had him grabbing items that needed to be sent to the trash and others that clearly should not be thrown in the trash! They used only jesters with no sound, and it became very slapstick in nature. Nick put it together and posted on the church Facebook page. It was a hit. People were sharing the post on their pages, and the pastor used it to invite congregation members to sign up during announcements on the screens in their worship space.
After the debut of the first very simple video, the staff knew they were on to something. Together they discussed that the positive feedback from the first video was just the beginning. Kayla Tullos, the Children’s Minister at Maumelle UMC, knew this would be a great way to introduce Feast and Family Table as it was going to be a new Wednesday night program. Parents needed to see what they would be making time for in their family’s busy week. Kayla and Nick joined their beginner level video skills and created another promotional video for Kayla to use to promote Feast and Family Table. It had a little comedy and at the end of the video posted exact times and dates. The video clip promotion worked again!
The video creation duo extended its acting cast to the entire church staff. Kayla needed trunks for an upcoming trunk or treat event. She and Nick had different staff members playing different roles as they went “running in fear from Kayla who was carrying the sign-up sheet” to get people to volunteer their car. It had always been a struggle to get enough vehicles to volunteer their trunks. Before the video, she would have about 15 volunteers, and after this year’s video recruitment for Trunk or Treat she had 40! Nick says people don’t always take time to read a big write up about a volunteer need, but they will watch the 30-second video. Kayla and Nick continued to make promotion videos about Trunk or Treat, like where and when it would be held. They knew the promotions were working when people who were not from their church would come up to them in a store and comment on the video they saw on Facebook last week.
The more they made the videos they more they learned how to do it better.
They found that by asking congregational members to be actors, they had more views and shares on each video. Having staff and members in videos helped others get to know the leaders in the church. It made it easy for members to invite their neighbors when they would share a video event on their social media page. Kayla feels that video sharing on social media lets people know exactly what they are getting invited to as well as the culture of the church. They have found it to be a very connectional resource for all ages in their church. They have not only used the videos for promoting events, but for sharing about stewardship and highlighting specific ministries.
Kayla and Nick’s belief is that no matter the church size and tech-savvy abilities any church can make a video. They shoot all of their videos on their cellphones! Yes, a cellphone; so, reach in your pocket. You don’t have to invest in expensive equipment. They recommend and use the iPhone X and iMovie and Video Leap. They suggest that videos are no longer than two minutes for Facebook or a church website. Instagram is best for the 20 and under church members, so those videos must be 30 seconds. They use the videos during announcements at the traditional and contemporary worship service. If you don’t have a screen in your worship space, then no worries. Nick recommends your church get the Church App with Sub splash. It is a subscription-based program that sends a text of the church announcements (video included) to a member’s phone once their geo-tracking shows they are in the church building — no need to have a screen projection because it is right in their hand or pocket.
Ten years ago, when St. James was expanding their church to add a gymnasium they wanted it to be used for more than just youth group games and evening parishioner athletics. They wanted something that would bring the community together in fellowship inside the gym walls. A search committee set out to see what they could find that had already seen success and they found Upward Youth Basketball program. They went to Dallas, Texas to learn how the program worked and how they could build the same outreach program at St. James First United Methodist Church in Little Rock.
Upward Youth Basketball program has at least one church that houses the program. The basketball program is for K-6th graders who want to learn basketball and play against other teams. The parents register their child’s age and gender with the online Upward link which is provided by the program free of charge as a simple tool. The parents are requested to pay $85 for their child to participate in eight weeks’ worth of practices and games. The money charged pays for the Upward uniform and curriculum which is how the brand makes money, and the church does not have any investment other than the gym and the balls.
A group of young girls huddle during a timeout at an Upward basketball game.
They build in late fees on registrations that in turn pay for scholarships for students who may not be able to afford to play. Upward Youth Basketball provides weekly coaching skills curriculum and scripture devotion for each practice and halftime of each game, so no volunteer has to be an expert at either. They just have to feel called to serve children and their families.
Upward Basketball does not keep score and has a system in place that if you attend all games, each player will have equal playing time. The games played are about team building, basketball skill development, learning God loves them, and most importantly fellowship of players and parents.
The young boys groups wait to start their game.
Sean Dunbar came on staff at St. James six years ago and added his love of soccer to the program to get even more families to walk into the St. James gym. Dunbar introduced futsal – a variation of soccer that is played on an inside court instead of outside – because it offered soccer kids some inside soccer skill competition in their offseason. He runs basketball all day Saturday and futsal Friday nights and Saturday nights.
The Friday night futsal games just “happen” to overlap with Youth Group Live going on in the free space next to the gym, so many of the teens from futsal venture over to the St. James youth group fun while waiting for their next game. Dunbar is communities.
Two volunteer referees for Upward smile for the camera.
Here are some hard numbers that Dunbar was able to share about those who take part in the Upward Athletics program at St. James. There are currently 279 children enrolled in St. James Upward program. He had to turn 100 away because they didn’t have enough practice space to add more than the 32 teams they already practice. Forty-one percent of those kids are unaffiliated with a church. Twenty-six percent are affiliated with a UMC church. Thirteen percent of the participating Upward players are from St. James. I will end by sharing a quote from a father who is not a member but wrote an article about the work being done at St. James under the leadership of Sean Dunbar and the St. James Mission team.
“Thank you, St. James, for opening your doors to serve the youths of central Arkansas – even those who are not church members. It has allowed kids to become better athletes in the right kind of environment, gives kids an opportunity to play basketball and soccer in ways otherwise unavailable, and opens the doors of the church to do it all with the presence of God in the background.” – Matt Dishongh