There was a lot going on in the middle of the country to begin February. It felt like winter to the north and west, but conditions were more like spring in Arkansas. With vastly different air masses colliding, there was a wide variety of weather conditions. Areas of snow and ice were ongoing during the wee hours of Feb. 7 from the Plains to the upper Midwest. In milder air from southern Missouri to the Ohio Valley, there was a potential for severe storms in Northern Arkansas.
The event started with thunderstorms moving from Northeast Oklahoma into Northwest Arkansas around 2 a.m. CST. Initially, storms struggled to become severe. One storm managed to ramp up as it headed from Northwest Searcy County into Southern Marion County.
According to the National Weather Service in Little Rock, shortly before 4:30 a.m. CST, this storm produced a weak tornado (rated EF1) south of Yellville (Marion County). It was the first tornado of 2019 in the state. Numerous trees and power lines were downed, with a few trees landing on houses and blocking Highway 14 temporarily. Several mobile homes were destroyed. At least three people were trapped in damaged structures, with one injury reported.
Preliminary assessments by emergency management identified nine homes damaged and two destroyed as of Feb. 12.
The American Red Cross referred two survivors they feel will need further assistance. Emergency Management referred one and confirmed the previous two from Red Cross.
Byron and Janice Mann of Arkansas Conference Disaster Response spoke with the three families whose homes were destroyed and who needed assistance in recovery. Resources are very limited after completing the last recovery project. Anyone wanting to help can donate at www.arumc.org or designate “Disaster Response” and mail to: Arkansas Conference P.O. Box 55588 Little Rock, AR 72215
Disaster Response WANTS YOU!
Local church involvement when disaster strikes is vital in assisting individuals and families affected. Disaster Response wants to help local churches understand how important they are as partners in this ministry. We would love to come talk to your group, class, or church and begin a partnership that will make a meaningful difference when disaster strikes. Contact Janice at email@example.com to find out more.
Disaster Basic Early Response Team Training
Saturday, April 6, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Harrison FUMC Email firstname.lastname@example.org to register. Registration deadline is Monday, April 1. Registration fee is $20 to cover training materials and lunch.
Many times after a disaster, temporary housing in the form of a camper home is a good match for an individual, couple or small family. Sometimes other forms of temporary housing are not feasible for whatever reason. Disaster response has provided a used camper home on several occasions in certain situations. Anyone who has a retired camper trailer and is ready to part with it, please consider donating it to a family affected by disaster. A donation receipt for the market value can be provided. Contact Byron at email@example.com for more information.
Current In-Conference VIM projects:
• ECHO Village
• Crawford County Tornado Recovery
• Delta Dream Facility Repair
Contact Byron at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and to schedule.
Pastors and church leaders from across Arkansas gathered together on March 2 at Trinity UMC in Little Rock to hear about Fresh Expressions, a way of cultivating new forms of church alongside existing congregations.
The Rev. Michael Beck, pastor of Wildwood UMC in Wildwood, Florida, and Travis Collins, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama, presented an all-day seminar called Vision Day.
Attendees learned that church doesn’t have to exist only inside the walls of a church building and were given examples of new forms of church, like restaurant church, addiction recovery church, and tattoo shop church.
According to its website, Fresh Expressions is about “empowering and equipping God’s people to develop creative expressions of church that can reach the increasing diversity of our society.”
The Rev. Herschel Richardson stands with the Grace UMC discipleship goals on the first Sunday of 2019. These goals were set by a 12-person committee made up of church members who are invested in the growth of the church.
With every church congregation, there is a universally understood goal of reaching people for Christ while at the same time growing your membership numbers.
In the United Methodist Church, and specifically in the Arkansas Conference, that goal is understood as “making disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples equipped to transform lives, communities and the world.”
Grace United Methodist Church in Conway, Arkansas has taken that trajectory a step further and laid out their plans for 2019 and beyond into something they call their “Discipleship Dashboard 2019 Goals.”
The Rev. Herschel Richardson was appointed as the senior pastor at Grace UMC on July 1, 2018. A few months into his new role, he – along with a special leadership group at Grace – came up with a blueprint for growing their numbers in every aspect of the church in 2019.
“I wasn’t looking at the church and saying there was anything wrong with the way we were doing things. It was more about understanding that as we move forward we had to take a very intentional approach about where we were going as a church,” Richardson said. “I didn’t really feel we could move forward this year as a church in the fullest capacity without first determining where we were trying to go.”
Richardson formed a 12-person committee called the Intentional Discipleship Pastors Advisory Committee at Grace with the purpose of reviewing the goals for the church and working on ways to move toward meeting their goals.
The committee is made up of congregants from both the 8:30 and 11 a.m. services, and both new and older attendees, in order to bring in a diverse group of ideas and perspectives, Richardson said.
Through prayer and discussion, the committee identified six areas of improvement for 2019: baptisms, new members, average weekly attendance, new small groups, their 2019 budget, and the number of church attendees involved in quarterly missions.
For each of these areas, a specific goal was set; 10 baptisms, 30 new members, 250 average weekly attendance, five new small groups, a budget of $525,000, and at least 50 percent of attendees involved in quarterly missions.
Grace UMC in Conway had a mortgage burning ceremony in January 2019, the same month that the church launched their new discipleship goals initiative. Pictured in the center, from left to right, are the Rev. Herschel Richardson, Bishop Gary Mueller, and Central District Superintendent Blake Bradford.
Every week, Grace sends out an emailed newsletter that highlights the progress for each goal. Richardson said this keeps congregants up-to-date on the church’s progress toward their goals, as well as motivates them to see how they can work to improve their numbers each week.
According to the latest numbers from the Feb. 17 newsletter, Grace has had six new members since Jan. 1, as well as an average attendance of 222 people across the two morning services and online worship.
They have also been able to start two new small groups in 2019; one in January and one in February. Since Richardson arrived at Grace in July 2018, the church has started five new small groups.
The small groups don’t have a singular focus or topic, but they do typically organize themselves based on age and life experiences.
A couple of the groups meet off campus from the church, including a group of 20-something young professionals that call themselves the “Roaring Twenties,” Richardson said.
“Small groups add another dimension to our relationship with God by providing a community of people seeking to do His will in our lives.”
Jennifer Stanley, a member of Grace and a second through fourth grade Sunday school teacher, is one of the new leaders of a small group at the church. She leads a group of 30 – 40-year-olds with children called “Open Door.”
“We chose the name ‘Open Door’ because that is what we want to project. But we welcome anyone of any age and any circumstance!”
Stanley said this is her first time leading a group of adults, but she believes in the power of small groups to connect people from different walks of life.
“Small groups allow for intentional conversation and provide opportunities for real spiritual growth. I find our group shows up ready to engage in meaningful discussion,” she said. “We are able to share in each other’s struggles and triumphs. Small groups add another dimension to our relationship with God by providing a community of people seeking to do His will in our lives.”
Another of Grace’s small group leaders, Sandra Kennemore, teaches a class of older adults. She said her group started a while ago and were known as the “Hilltoppers.” Her group typically consists of people who are “over the hill” in age.
Kennemore said that at some point, the original Hilltoppers group faded away, but when Richardson was appointed at Grace, he expressed to Kennemore the desire to bring the group back.
For Kennemore, it’s been a blessing to see the return of a group that had once helped connect many of the older members of Grace.
“Small groups give people a chance to get together who don’t normally get together and talk and relax and share whatever is on their heart,” Kennemore said. “It’s just a joy to see.”
Toni Wyre, who leads a group of 30 – 40-year-olds called the “Cross Walkers,” also sees the value of a small group’s ability to connect people who can relate to similar situations and life journeys.
“The more we understand the lessons of the Bible and how they might apply to us, the greater fellowship we can have with one another and the better disciples we become,” she said.
Wyre also sees how the 2019 goals have connected members of Grace in a more intentional way.
“As we look toward achieving our discipleship goals, sharing our experiences and perspectives with guests and potential members will build an even stronger sense of community and engagement at Grace.”
When it comes to reaching the goals that Grace UMC has set for 2019, Richardson thinks that all of the individual goals rely on each other to succeed.
“We think all of them go hand-in-hand. So, as we bring in new members, that will also lead to more baptisms and more money for the church as well.”
And it’s not just about setting a goal and then waiting to see what happens; the discipleship committee has also come up with a strategy for reaching people in multiple ways.
“One of the things we focused on in the month of January was membership. And we talked about how we encounter people that come to our church, from the time they get out of their car until the time that they leave service.”
“I believe we should be a church of high expectations, and we should always believe that God will grow our church.”
The committee focused on making it a priority to initiate contact with new or reoccurring visitors and finding a way to connect with them.
One example that Richardson brought up was not only greeting a visitor to Grace when they walk in the door of the church, but also reaching out to the same person – through email, text message or other means – to invite them to come to a small group one night.
Richardson said the committee is not exclusive, and anyone in the church that’s interested in joining the community can do so. They are simply looking for people who are dedicated to growing Grace.
As for the future of Grace, Richardson said that even if they meet all of their goals in 2019, that doesn’t mean that’s the end of their work.
“I don’t think that the Lord ever wants us to be stagnant. I’m hoping we exceed those goals, and when we exceed those goals, we’ll sit down and pray and ask for goals for 2020.
“I believe we should be a church of high expectations, and we should always believe that God will grow our church.”
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
When Haley Jones first arrived at First United Methodist Church in downtown Little Rock more than a year ago, she felt like she didn’t have the appropriate space to meet the needs of the community.
“Our neighbors would come in and share the problems they may be facing, such as utilities or transportation, but it would be in and out, and see you later,” Jones said. “We wanted to slow down the process and get to know people, and we couldn’t do that upstairs in my office.
“Now, people come in downstairs, and they spread out in the café, and I can make the rounds and check in on people and find out who they are. This café has allowed us to have more of a community feel, and build better relationships, instead of a big scary red building.”
Jones, who serves as the pastor of community engagement for FUMC, said the church can assist with utilities for those in need, despite only having a certain amount of money. They can also help with birth certificates, prescriptions and the café offers coffee and snacks.
“We opened the café as a community experiment at our church,” Jones said. “We wanted to have a welcoming space, for guests to get out of the elements and enjoy a hot drink or a snack. We wanted a comfortable place to do that and for them to rest for a while.
“We had pretty good success with it, and we decided to keep it open longer. We offer a space where people are more willing to engage in conversation.”
Currently, the café doesn’t charge for any of the food, including the pastries and coffee. Jones said for those below the poverty line or those who are experiencing homelessness, “we ask that you take what you need and you leave the rest in love.”
“We can make some noodles for you or make some soup, but the rule is, you take only what you need, and you begin to care for each other,” Jones said.
“First Cup Community Café has cultivated relationships beyond our wildest dreams.
“Conversation has slowed, stories have been told, and needs have been met,” Jones said. “We are experiencing church in its fullest form.
“We have problem solved life situations, prayed together, battled the demons of mental health, and wiped away tears that we thought would never stop.”
First Cup Community Café is open Monday through Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and is located right in the heart of downtown Little Rock at 723 Center St., between the Simmons Bank building and Center Street.
“We offer a space for people who are willing to engage in conversation,” Jones said. “Our ultimate intention is to be able to swing open our doors and be a little more radical than in the past.”
In a statement, David Freeman, the lead pastor at First United Methodist Church, said the church is very excited about the café.
“Being in downtown is very important to us and being good neighbors is as well,” Freeman said. “We’ve always searched for ways to engage with our downtown neighbors and the café provides an easy way to meet our neighbors, build relationships, and provide a warm or cool spot to rest a while.
“It has been fun to have so much activity in our building in the afternoons and know that people feel welcome here.”
Freeman said the café allows the church to get to know their neighbors, learn their names and hear their stories.
“Jesus teaches us that loving God and loving our neighbors are inextricably tied together,” he said. “Yet, when your neighbors are experiencing homelessness or hungry, it can seem difficult.
“Sometimes, as churches, we try to be service providers that ‘fix’ their problem and send them on their way… (The café) is a way for us not just to serve our neighbors, but love them. And hopefully, as those relationships grow, we quit thinking of each other as ‘us’ or ‘them’ but true neighbors.”
Kyle Hendricks has been serving as a volunteer for the café since it opened.
“I enjoy the satisfaction of being able to help people get off the street and in where it is warm,” Hendricks said. “To sit and relax and have a conversation and not be hassled by a lot of other people.
“It is an opportunity to get to know the homeless community with a little more depth, and I think that is always helpful.”
Hendricks, who is a retired minister from Oklahoma, moved to Arkansas four years ago. He began volunteering while visiting his now wife, starting with The Van, a mobile aid center for unsheltered homeless people, and then Lucie’s Place, a shelter for young LGBTQ adults experiencing homelessness.
“When I was a pastor at First Christian Church, we had a program there that helped a population of people who had specific needs,” he said. “We would help with rent, clothing, food, anything like that.
“So I have been doing this kind of thing for years.”
As a volunteer at the café, Hendricks helps serve the coffee and sandwiches. He said he makes sure everything is stocked, including socks and toothbrushes.
“We have a few of those items that we can give to them, as well as cloth bags for them to carry items in,” Hendricks said. “Haley works with people for their other needs including transportation, help with utilities or food.
“(Me and the other volunteers) just kind of man the café for them.”
Kathy Blair, a member at FUMC, has been volunteering for a little over a year. She said she primarily helps to get the coffee going and greeting the folks when they come in.
“I think I enjoy being able to be there with the people,” she said. “And give them a smile and some words of encouragement.
“I’ll cook them some ramen noodles and serve them a glass of lemonade – wait on them a little and make them feel like they have a place to be and that somebody cares.”
Jones said First Cup Community Café is transitioning into a community space and is partnering with other programs within the church, including starting a kids’ day on Mondays from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. for parents with kids at home to have coffee and pastries as well as connection and prayer.
“The gym will also be open,” Jones said. “We are looking at it from a wide angle, where anybody and everybody can get a little bit of something, or extra attention and care.
“This is the place, where our neighbors can feel comfortable to come to. That’s the general idea.”
She said the church does not set out for the café to serve as a witness ministry, but she said they did recently have a unique experience.
“One guy came in, desperate for a birth certificate because he was looking for housing, and he joined the church a couple of weeks ago,” Jones said. “I met him through the café. And we have some who come to the 11 a.m. service, who have also come to the café.
“We have built relationships with them, joked with them, which we weren’t able to do otherwise.”
The called Special Session of General Conference took place from Feb. 23 – 26 in St. Louis, Missouri. The conference was called to address human sexuality and the church’s struggle with ordaining LGBTQIA clergy and the performance of same-sex marriages within United Methodist Churches.
After a day of prayer on Saturday, delegates began their work on Sunday and continued debating and amending petitions through Tuesday evening.
At the end of the conference, the Traditional Plan, which reaffirms the church’s current understanding on human sexuality as well as adds new measures to discipline those who violate the Book of Discipline, was passed by a vote of 438 to 384.
The One Church Plan, which was presented as the moderate or centrist approach, failed to pass by a minority report by a vote of 374 to 449.
Before the conclusion of General Conference, a motion was passed for the Judicial Council to review all petitions which passed through the plenary session. The Judicial Council will review these petitions at their next scheduled meeting, April 23 – 25 in Evanston, Illinois. For more on General Conference, visit the News page of arumc.org to find all of the daily reports.
Arkansas delegates to General Conference. From left to right (top): Asa Whitaker, John Miles II, Karen Millar, Mark Norman, Todd Burris, (bottom) Rebekah Miles, Karon Mann, and Dede Roberts. Photo by Stephen Coburn
Siblings John Miles and Rebekah Miles share a conversation during General Conference. Photo by Stephen Coburn
Bishop Gary Mueller prays during the Saturday Day of Prayer at General Conference. Photo by Stephen Coburn
Rev. Britt Skarda and Jay Clark. Photo by Stephen Coburn
Arkansans from all over the state gathered together to watch General Conference, including a group of students from Hendrix College, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Arkansas State University, the University of Central Arkansas, and others. Photo by Stephen Coburn
Bishops join delegates to pray before the final vote on the Traditional Plan at General Conference. Photo by Stephen Coburn