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Let’s organize a search party

We must search for the lost sheep

The church, says Lay Leader Anne Soles, must make an intentional search for those “not there” as churches use electronic outreach during the pandemic. What other tools must we use?


Michigan Conference Lay Leader

From two gospels comes the familiar story of the lost sheep, as reported here in The Message.

What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?  Matthew 18:12-14

Then Luke 15:4-7: And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home…. Rejoice with me.

It is time to search. It is time to search for congregations. It is time to search for lone individuals in congregations. It is time for a search party. And there will be rejoicing!

The COVID-19 pandemic caught us short. It has caught everyone—families, people needing elective surgery, people needing a haircut or groceries, or their next meal. We have all been caught short. And as the initial shock wears off, we have all been taking stock and, hopefully, counting sheep. Like the teacher in a fire drill: who is not here?

We know there are United Methodists and all manner of community members who are isolated, quarantined, cut off in hospitals and nursing homes, or their own houses. We know there are people in our communities seeking safety, shelter, and comfort. Looking around, we find whole flocks are missing, too. Not every church has been able to meet the challenge of distancing ministry.

At the Communications Commission meeting this month, we learned the national estimate is 14% of United Methodist congregations have been overwhelmed and closed their doors. Facing online worship, ZOOM Bible Study, no special music, pressures of conducting a funeral in such times, some flocks are lost. And the help of better equipment, better broad-band, new cables, and instruction go unheard. If Michigan has 800 congregations, the loss could number 112.

Counting the un-connected.

For several years, our church has kept three lists of individuals of special note: (1) those in institutional care; (2) those who are out of the area but consider this “home”; and (3) those in the community who are restricted and isolated. We keep some confidential notes about family connections and “who to contact.” Add lists of service members and those in college. In ordinary times, these lists, along with cards, visits, phone calls, pastoral visits, rides to the doctor, rides to church, help us stay connected.

COVID time has pushed this model. When you do not gather, how do you know who is not there? Who is not “on Facebook,” who does not have or cannot manage a cell phone? Who relied on distant or casual family to see to groceries, medications, or cleaning? Who goes to dialysis twice a week or sees the doctor monthly? Think long haul.

Searches made

The searching stories have been coming in by Facebook, between friends, and on the news. Common wisdom building and some creative ideas are forming.

Phone calls: a District Superintendent tells the story of a pastor who picked up the phone and called everyone in his congregation — once, twice, and he was circling back to do it again. Rejoicing for the immediate contact, concerns, and love shown.

A search:  a 98-year-old is living alone in a little lake house where all phone calls literally fell on deaf ears. Since no one knew for sure, it was time to break the rules and search. She was home with Meals on Wheels and good neighbors. As Luke said, a time for rejoicing.  

A sign: out for a walk, a woman stopped to marvel at a community church dinner sign for curbside pickups. “Is this a fund-raiser?” she asked.  “Oh no, we do this all the time. But now we must use a small kitchen crew, distancing, and pickups.” “Do you need help?” she asked.

A signal:  Bishop Bard’s Easter message online was viewed by over 20,000. For each connection counted by the software, there is an industry-standard multiplier for whose who watched, watched in groups, and watched later. Sixty thousand even 90,000 looked for that message of hope this Easter.

Searchers needed

As with the congregational-needs model (lists of nursing home residents, college kids, shut-ins, etc.) COVID challenges us to expand our thinking. Districts have always had regional groups or clusters, primarily for clergy in their support, to distribute information, and to identify mission zones. With this health challenge, we need that last mile of connection. We need every inch of networking. We need to utilize the skills and relationships of the pew. 

Questions for the search parties. What do we have to work with? Who can come? Do we have back up? In the old saying, “Church becomes a verb. Love becomes a process.”

Pastors are the first responders, but they need help. Routers and cables, ZOOM, and Instagram were not taught in seminary! It is important to ask for help, even if help is the kid next door.

Lay leaders, church councils, and staff have wide-ranging responsibilities in the vision and ministry of the church. Where are our people? Where will we be in a few months?

Laity in the pew, is this the time to lend a hand? Volunteer to record special music? Explain Pay Pal, updated equipment, a ZOOM license together with how to use it. There’s a tool kit on the conference web site. What tool will you pick up and put to use?

And our groups. The Mary(s), Martha(s), lay servants, Men’s groups, District UMW connections, and Facebook administrators.  We laity expect to help. We have a network to build, repair, transform, and expand. 

We are a connectional church. Aware and searching for broken connections. Open to new connections. “Are you doing this as a fund-raiser?” asked the woman.  “No. No, we do this because of love.”