First UMC Crossett uses VBS to gather donations for hungry children

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 or If you don’t have a food pantry like Autumn, do not fear; Mary Lewis Dassinger,, can work with you on where those needs may be closest to your location.

Lights, Cellphone Camera, Action!

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.

Upward and Onward

Upward and Onward

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

Beyond 2019 reaches beyond expectations

Matthew 18:20 was the overall theme for this year’s Beyond conference. Children’s Ministers came together, to worship, learn, be inspired, and most of all feel God’s hand working in Children’s ministry. Opening worship modeled how we can make our worship services cross-generational so that all ages feel part of the service instead of a spectator with a busy bag or sent off to another space.

Marilyn Sharpe, the author of For Heaven’s Sake, taught us how to connect with our parents, by giving the space to talk and a listening ear. She shared how important it is to train our volunteers to lean in and look for opportunities to share faith formations techniques. She gave us simple traditions to share with parents and why they are essential. Parents are scared when we say “devotions” but embrace when we teach them how everyday objects can be used to teach children they are a beloved child of God. Most of all, she echoed loud and clear two important points for our church: children are more than the future church they are the NOW, as well as helping everyone understand that if children and youth are not leading in the church, they are leaving the church!

Sadie Stratton from Downtown Bentonville First Church introduced to everyone the new Wonderfully Made human sexuality curriculum as well as wowing all with the progress she and her team have made with Children’s First Church the first Sunday of every month; this is a service where children lead the adults in worship from the beginning to the end of worship.

Karen Reeves refreshed our souls teaching us how to use Yoga breathing to center our souls and hear God’s whispers. She also gave us the gift of movement paired with the Lord’s Prayer to teach our youngest preschool age children all the way to our youth how to fully engage the whole body in prayer.

Seventy Children’s Ministers, pastors, youth workers, and volunteers took every opportunity to learn from one another and help make disciples who make disciples at this year’s Beyond Conference. You will surely hear from one of the attendees that Beyond 2020 needs to be on your calendar.

Bright Nights at Searcy FUMC

Bright Nights at Searcy FUMC

In early November, I attended the Northeast District small group Children’s Ministry. They try to meet at least six times a year for lunch, praying and sharing. I met Catherine Vest, who had only been on staff as a Children’s Minister for two years but has more than seven years experience in ministry if you count all her years of volunteering. She was so excited to share her newly revamped Wednesday night program with her small group. Catherine shares her new program, in her own words, this month.

Melinda Shunk
Conference Children’s Ministry Coordinator

Sept. 5, Searcy First United Methodist Church began a new Wednesday night children’s program called Bright Night. This brand new program is for children entering Kindergarten – 5th grades.

Each Wednesday from 6 – 7:15 p.m. children hear God’s word, actively use the Bible and know what it means to give God glory! The focus for the fall semester was Matthew 5:14-16; God made us be lights in the world.

Wednesday evenings at Searcy First are the highlight of a lot of children’s week. This fun-filled experience on Wednesdays forms faith we hope children will carry with them throughout their lives.

The idea for Bright Night came out of a ministry planning session in the spring of 2018. Our ministry team wanted to provide an opportunity for everyone in our congregation for mid-week discipleship and study. Whether you are nine months old or 99 years old, we wanted there to be something that would grow faith and fellowship in the middle of the week.

In working with children through Sunday School and our other programming, I noticed an overall lack of empathy among children and a need for children to be encouraged. After meditation, prayer, and study, Mathew 5:14 – 16 stuck with me as a means to teach young children who God intends them to be to others in the world.

Each Bright Night of the fall semester, the lesson plan revolved around this verse. We studied it together and talked about ways we could live out this verse.

We looked at ways to live it in our own lives, and how others are lights in the community to us. We also looked at ways we could be lights to others.
This was accomplished through art, music, drama, science and even some mission field trips! Our schedule began each night with singing and prayer request time, then moved on to a large group lesson. Small groups followed for various age groups and then we all gathered back together to play large group games.

To emphasize the Bright Night theme, every week our group meeting room was decorated with colored twinkle lights and each child was given a flashlight to write prayer requests by and a glow stick bracelet to wear during game time.

We celebrated our end of the semester by taking healthy goody baskets to thank some “bright nights” in our community at the Searcy Fire and Police Departments. We are looking forward to continuing this program in 2019!