Weathering the Perfect Storm

Weathering the Perfect Storm

By Rev. Dr. William "Bud" Reeves

Senior Pastor, First UMC Fort Smith

It wasn’t supposed to last this long.

The pandemic and its concomitant tragedies should have been over in weeks, maybe a couple of months, right? Now over four months into it, the cases, hospitalizations and deaths are still on the increase. If the end is in sight, it is a far distant pinpoint of light in a long, dark tunnel.

I have been reminded of the book and movie from 20 years ago called “The Perfect Storm,” about a fishing boat caught in the convergence of three weather masses in the North Atlantic, creating the most powerful storm ever. The coronavirus health emergency would have been disaster enough, but it precipitated an economic collapse unlike anything since the Great Depression. Then, even as we realized that the virus was striking minorities at levels twice the national average, George Floyd was murdered by a policeman in broad daylight with video recording, igniting a storm of protest across America and the world.  

If we plan to be followers of Jesus in this perfectly stormy time, we had better develop some disciplines for the long haul. The pandemic, economic collapse, and racial tension are going to take months, if not years, to abate. How can we continue to live with faith, hope, and love in these times?

John Wesley’s three rules certainly apply here: “Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.” Keep your personal connection of discipleship alive and growing in the midst of the storm. Online worship is not as good as being there; attend anyway. You may miss your Sunday School class or small group; meet online or join another group to study and pray. Keep in touch with your church friends with texts, emails, or go old school and call them. If we hope to emerge on the other side intact, we have to act with intention to stay strong on the journey.

A second strategy is to continue reaching out to share love with your community. It is easy in these times to succumb to “missional paralysis,” just to hunker down and get through it until things get back to normal. News flash: there will be no going back to normal. If churches are going to survive the present moment, we have to find ways to continue our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ, regardless of our circumstances. Our communities need missional churches. Food banks and blood banks and every helping agency in your town are needing support because so many people are hurting. Find ways to reach beyond the church building to connect with children and youth, some of whom may not be in your church. (We have kids “attending” our VBS-at-home from hundreds of miles away.) Missional paralysis can lead to ecclesial rigor mortis—avoid!

Third, we need to listen more than speak. The calamities of the day require a constant ear to God. But we also need to listen to others who are speaking out of experiences that are different from ours. In particular, we white Christians need to listen to the prophetic words being spoken right now from Black and Latino voices. Until we understand that despite the progress that has been made toward racial justice in the last 75 years, we have still been raised in a culture that makes it harder for people of color to thrive, we will not undo the fundamental inequalities we still experience. There are laws on the books legislating equality, but there has not been the love in our hearts to make it happen.

These issues will not resolve quickly.  But we can build on the positive steps of the past and make progress together toward the beloved community of which Dr. King spoke. There are forces in our midst today that seek to divide and create chaos and hatred. We must do what we can to make sure that kind of thinking loses and love wins.

It’s going to take longer than we thought for the perfect storm to subside. But no matter how long it takes, God is still going to be with us. In fact, stormy times are when God’s best work happens. Speaking out of a stormy time in the history of Israel, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness.”

I know it’s hard. It’s exhausting. Everything is different, and different takes two extra steps.  Our creativity is being stretched to the breaking point. But this changing landscape is forcing us to find new ways of being the church, new definitions of discipleship, new strategies for reaching lost and broken people. Some of these changes will be permanent, and we are going to have to adapt.

The other night I was watching a National Geographic documentary called “Wild Hawaii.”  Not a surfer film, it was about the unique species of plants and animals in the Hawaiian archipelago. Early in the show, the narrator, his voice full of gravitas, asked and answered his own question: “How do these species survive in this harsh environment built on volcanic soil?  Adapt, or die.” That is the task of the church in a perfect storm: adapt or die. 

The road before us is anything but clear. But there is a way in the wilderness; it has been prepared by God for us.

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

Parking Lot Service Brings Conway Community Together
Grace UMC holds weekly worship service outside the church's 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.”

Are You Having Fun Yet?A few words of wisdom for communication leaders

Are You Having Fun Yet?
A few words of wisdom for communication leaders

By Amy Ezell

Director, Center for Communication

Take a second to ask yourself: When was the last time that you did something FUN through your online ministry? Something that actually makes you have the most contagious smile and energy and, of course, engages exponentially with your audience?

Here are a few ideas for adding some fun to your online ministry:

Do something out of your comfort zone and film yourself doing it. Bake something for your family to surprise them out of love, but be prepared to laugh at yourself if needed. Go fishing/kayaking for the first time. Volunteer for a local pet shelter on a dog wash day. Take a nature walk to someplace you’ve never been before and share the beauty of God through new eyes.

Plan a “game show” with your staff / lay leaders. You may do this via Zoom and record it and then share it on Facebook. You may also upload the video to YouTube and share on your website. It’s super easy. Some ideas include: “Get to know the new pastor” or “Crazy purchases made during the pandemic” (this could possibly lead to creating a stockpile of unused items that could be donated to those who need it). You could also host a “Big Dreams Mission Work: if money, time, and health were not barriers, where would you go and what would you want to do?”

Plan a backyard photo share. Ask members to share photos of animals, plants, garden goodies, yard art, sunsets, sunrises, food on the BBQ grill, a seating area, a tree, critters, etc. from their backyards. This is a great conversation engagement and opens the door to discuss some of God’s beautiful creations. Remind them not to share pictures of other people unless they have their consent. Who knows? Maybe this could be the beginning of a small group ministry that meets in the backyards of neighbors?

Host a virtual food drive. There are so many hungry kids out there. Why not host a virtual food drive where you let people contribute ONLINE for different levels of food packages for young ones? For example, ask for $5 to cover a big jar of peanut butter. Ask for $10 to cover three boxes of cereal. Ask for $15 to cover a toiletry kit (toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant, shampoo, shower gel). GET CREATIVE, but encourage online giving so that you can purchase all of the items at once from a local grocery store and then donate to your local food pantry. Anytime that we assist the hungry, a smile usually finds itself on our faces.

Encourage an online choir performance. Invite each choir member to hop on a Zoom call from their homes and sing away! Your audience will love this. Maybe consider having a kid sing on Zoom in the same format. Go acapella, play a guitar or piano, whatever. This is something that can be recorded and then shared in a worship video or even in person when you get to this time.

These are just a few ideas that can add some fun to your ministry. If you are struggling with technology, please reach out to the Center for Communication and we will be glad to help.

Just get out there and have some fun, all in the blessed name of Jesus!

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 United Methodist 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!

Redesign Your Children’s Space With a Few Simple Changes

Redesign Your Children’s Space With a Few Simple Changes

By Melinda Shunk

Children's Ministry Coordinator

Children’s ministry has taken many different approaches so far this year!

Ministry has moved to online worship, small groups handing out PPE, drive-by VBS curriculum pick-up, and even drive-in communion for families. However, what is not different in ministry are caring Children’s Ministers planning ahead for a time when we can all come together in a space and learn the scripture, share a snack, play a game, and maybe even a side hug!

I want to share with you three Children’s Ministers who not only have moved their ministry to online classes but when they are not behind the camera they are redesigning their educational spaces in their churches. So often evaluating the use of a space and its aesthetics gets put at the bottom of the list of things that need to be done. Tiffany Jones, Stephanie Dunn, and Jessica Butler are Children’s Ministers who took advantage of weeks of empty classrooms and a little creativity sparked by Pinterest.

Bryant First UMC Before

Bryant First UMC Before

Bryant First UMC After

Bryant First UMC After

Jacksonville First UMC Before

Jacksonville First UMC Before

Jacksonville First UMC After

Jacksonville First UMC After

They never have time during normal ministry seasons to freshen up an entrance hallway or go through old material that has been “stored” in what was once a viable classroom. It may take time, but eventually, we will all be together again. Why not use this time to clean and redesign? Use it as a promotion when you get to open the Children’s Ministry programming again! Here are five helpful suggestions:

 

  1. Organizing materials helps you know what you have and how to get to them quickly. You end up spending less of your education budget on duplicate items.
  2. A fresh coat of paint and a decluttered space creates a warm and welcoming environment for children and adults who volunteer in the space.
  3. No need for big-budget renovations. A can of $35 paint, wall stickers ($100), and new curtains is all you need! (ask the church sewing group. I am sure they will donate supplies and talents). The Dollar Tree or Five Below have many affordable storage containers for classrooms.
  4. Normally children’s education rooms are left to that ministry to choose how it is decorated, but always check with your senior pastor before painting over something that you may not know has historical value to the church.
  5. Often purging outdated material, re-homing furniture, and stocking the room with spiritually inspirational material is all a room needs.

Beebe First UMC

Go Slow, Go Fast

Go Slow, Go Fast

By Gary E. Mueller

Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference

The beautiful opening words of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes offer profound wisdom about the nature of life, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens…”

We have learned that we can’t control when the seasons of life take place, especially the painful and challenging ones. We have discovered that they come and go; when one ends, another quickly begins. And we have come to understand that we must adapt to the seasons as they are, and not how we would like them to be.

So what season are we in now? If we are in tune with what is going on around us, we realize we are in two seasons at the same time. The first is the season of COVID-19. The second is the season when the world has finally embraced the absolute necessity of dismantling racism and moving toward a new vision of living as a reconciled people.

It’s critically important to remember something as we figure out how we adapt to these two seasons that are so shaping our lives. Our relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior changes how we see, feel, think and act. This means we don’t just follow conventional wisdom. Instead, we do all we can to make sure we live the Jesus’ way in response to these two significant seasons.

What does this mean in the season of COVID-19? Quite simply, we go slow because the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. Indeed, it has entered a new and dangerous stage. Dozens of churches in Arkansas have been places where people have been exposed to COVID-19, mostly because they have not followed the basic safety protocols outlined by Governor Hutchinson.

Like all of you, I long to gather face-to-face with sisters and brothers in faith as we pray, worship, study and serve. But in this season, Jesus’ words about loving our neighbor means we go slow. Let’s take small steps – making sure we do it with our masks on. Better to go slow and then speed up, than to go too quickly and have to deal with the illness or death of someone you love.

And what does living the Jesus’ way mean for this season of our increasing awareness of racism following the deaths of George Floyd and others at the hands of the police? Quite frankly, addressing racial injustice has been on hold too long – far too long – and we dare not waste this moment. We must go fast as we address our role in it, as painful as that may be. We must go fast in coming to grips with how racism is part and parcel of our culture, government, private sector, and the church. And we must go fast to live out Jesus’ call to be a reconciled community in which ethnicity and race are not dividers, but wonderful gifts within the Body of Christ.

We are blessed because we have been embraced by Jesus and the fullness of his unconditional, invitational and transformational love. We are privileged to be called by him to follow him in everything we do. We have important seasonal work to do right now. There is a place for all of us to make a difference. For God’s sake, let’s show the world how to go slow and how to go fast.