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UMs show church is not a building

Michigan UMs like Jeremy Peters are being church

Both bishop and governor have encouraged Michiganders to stay-at-home. We are finding that church really does happen outside the building.

Senior Content Editor

In his March 25th pastoral letter to The Michigan Conference, Bishop David Bard remarked, “Michigan United Methodists, you have risen to the occasion thus far, and I have every confidence that, by the power of the Spirit, we will continue to do so.” Citing the Executive Order by Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Bard continued, “We are closing church buildings, but not shutting down the Church’s ministry.”

Efforts to “be the church” are underway from Iron Mountain to Detroit, Sault Ste Marie to New Buffalo, and all points in between. First, great efforts were made by churches of every size to reach out to their flocks with online worship options. The list is 360 churches and growing.

Many individuals are doing their part to lift the spirits of their friends in faith. The Rev. Howard Harvey says that an 18-year-old woman has been accompanying worship at Kewadin U.M.C. She has been practicing Easter hymns. With the church doors closed on April 12, she is now calling up the elderly in the church and playing the hymns to them over the phone. A young disciple in action!

Churches are not the only United Methodist ministries affected by public health and safety measures. Brian Pangle, C.E.O. of Clark Retirement Community, reports, “We at Clark take our responsibility to keep our residents and staff safe and secure not only very seriously but to heart.” Pangle says that residents have been very supportive of the Emergency Order. “My sense is their support has a lot to do with the fortitude and strength we have always seen in the generation of elders who call Clark home today,” Pangle observes. “And it has a lot to do with how our staff cares for and supports our elders. We are seeing the Clark Mission lived out 24/7 in the incredible people working at Clark.”

Activities go outside the main building
Long time Tai Chi attendee and Clark resident doing Tai Chi in the comfort and safety of her townhome via Clark’s closed-circuit Channel 15. ~ Facebook/Clark Retirement Community

Clark staff have taken a variety of necessary steps over the past two weeks, including the ramping up of sanitation efforts with products to kill the virus. Some new activities involved food, such as cookie deliveries to residents by team members to break isolation, and free delivery of take-out meals to everyone on the campuses. Regular and concise communications to residents, staff, and families have been shared daily. YouTube and closed-circuit T.V. activities for the enjoyment of residents have been developed. And sing-alongs, conducted like Christmas caroling, down the hallways at good social distance.

“Did you hear the bells last night from the Chapel playing, ‘We Shall Overcome’?” Pangle asks. “I had tears in my eyes!” He concludes with the understanding that, “We at Clark believe our country and state are still in the first quarter of this pandemic. So we are talking like this is a running marathon, pacing our actions.”

While Brian Pangle has a resident community to care for, Amy Brown leads NOAH Project in its caring ministry to the homeless of Detroit. She has served as the Executive Director of NOAH. since 2013. “The NOAH Project will continue to operate during Michigan’s stay-at-home order since it provides an essential service to the people,” Brown observes. Rather than a sit-down meal, for the past four years, NOAH has provided a “to-go” bag lunch, hygiene products, and mail for around 200 clients, Monday through Thursday. NOAH is hosted on the first floor of Central United Methodist Church in Detroit.

NOAH is the one intake site for individuals seeking shelter in greater Detroit. “NOAH is committed to continuing to provide lunches and other essential services during this difficult time for the vulnerable population with whom we work,” Amy asserts. She hopes that meals can be offered through the duration of the pandemic. She adds, “The number of places offering food and other essential services (i.e. bathrooms and places to get warm) has been greatly reduced during this time due to the closing of libraries and agencies not having the staff to remain open.” She explains that it is crucial for N.O.A.H.’s doors to remain open and their bag lunches full, “because clients already trust and depend on us.”

Both NOAH Project Detroit and Clark Retirement Community in Grand Rapids are Ministry Partners of The Michigan Conference.

Volunteers bring food to NOAH out of the building
Housed at Central United Methodist Church in Detroit, N.O.A.H. Project partners with churches, businesses, schools, and individuals to help keep bag lunches filled and in the hands of hungry neighbors. ~ Facebook/N.O.A.H. Project Detroit

Feeding ministries are supported by United Methodist churches across the state. Another instance of lay folk taking Christ’s love into the world is reported by the Rev. Chris Momany, pastor of Dowagiac First United Methodist Church. Volunteers from the congregation support the operation of A.C.T.I.O.N. Ministries, a local non-profit that runs a food pantry in the village. Twenty-two-year-old Jacob Peters, described by Momany as “a member of our church and a tech expert” has been involved in A.C.T.I.O.N. all of his life. “Jacob redesigned an online process that will help this community ministry do even more for folks in need,” Momany notes. The story of how Jacob streamlined the organization’s online registration was reported by Leader Publications. “Jacob’s time has been spent thinking of the logistics to keep people safe,” said his mother and A.C.T.I.O.N. board member, Becky Peters.

The Rev. John Hice reports that one church on the East Winds District, Attica U.M.C., now operates a Drive-Through Food Pantry. Their Dinner@AUMC is now Carry-Out Dinners. Seen on their Facebook Page: “With church doors shutting across America, it is time for us to show that the church has never been about the building. WE ARE THE CHURCH.” They are living out their commitment to Feed the Community and Feed the Spirit in new ways as circumstances demand. They see these ministries as “a response to the need of our community as well as an urging to be God’s people in service.”

Of course, ministry to meet the spiritual needs of church members is also changing. The pastoral team of Clarkston United Methodist Church—the Rev. Rick Dake, Megan Walther, and Laura Speiren—are currently focused on “helping people cope with what’s going on while also empowering them to deepen their faith and reach out to help others.” Daily Devotionals are shared online through Facebook. Prayer and relationships are foundational to their approach.

Walther explains, “To strengthen relationships, our Middle School Youth Director, Michele Ettinger, has been hosting daily ZOOM calls for 6-8 graders at 3 pm. Parents have shared that their kids value the consistency and the connection.” She says that youth have introduced their pets and shared what’s going on in their lives. “Daily contact with friends is helping them maintain some sense of “normal,” she adds. Shanon Hoffman, Clarkston’s Director of Family Ministries, hosted a basketball-themed family fun night on Facebook. “We had originally planned to host a March Madness viewing party,” Walther says, “but it morphed into a family-friendly challenge night.” Providing “a safe place to meet online is a way of caring for people.”

Noting that “people still need to eat amid COVID-19,” Walther says that a place has been set up for people to drop off non-perishable food and paper products. “We have been overwhelmed with the positive response of food donations,” the pastor remarks.

Home altar outside the church building
Georgetown United Methodist Church is encouraging families to set up worship space at home. ~ Facebook/G.U.M. Church

Georgetown United Methodist Church in Jenison is helping families develop their spiritual life together at home. Sara Zallar, G.U.M.’s Director of Young Disciples Ministries, is posting encouragement on the church’s public group page, which facilitates interaction with others. On March 23, Sara wrote, “Today, as we prepare to be out of the building (remembering that we are church, even when we aren’t IN church!), I grabbed what I could that represents some of our intentional work over the past couple of years.” These items included positive post-its, mandalas, confirmation statements, and prayer flags.

She added, “In our Sunday school lesson last week, we referenced our altar in the Kid’s Cave, and I’ve begun recreating one in a space I’ll be using from home.” She explained that others could do the same thing at their home. “Create an altar that holds physical items that represent intentions and important ideas,” Zallar says. “Also, calming or centering relics like a candle.” The central concept is to create “a safe, prayerful space to be alone and have quiet, meditative time with God.” The dialogue continues on that page with daily suggestions.

Court Street United Methodist Church in Flint is also engaged in online ministry with children and youth. The Rev. Christy Miller White notes, “We are offering a wide array of Christian Education programming.” Children have the chance to connect and hear stories from Pastor Christy and friends two times a week right before bed.

The youth stay connected by gathering on Wednesdays and Sundays to play games together, study scripture, and talk about how they can make a difference in our world from their homes. “Our adults are continuing a Court Street Lenten tradition by gathering for a Virtual Potluck and Bible Study during the usual times we would gather at the church,” White says. “These times of connection remind us who we are as a community of faith and allow us to support and uplift each other during this difficult time.” The youth also are finding ways to reach out to the community and to members of the congregation. “This week’s project has been to start sending cards or letters to people who will need to remain in the homes longer than many of the rest of us,” White says. “We hope to encourage others and build a connection between the generations for long-lasting memories and friendship.”

The Rev. Jeremy Peters, also a pastor at Court Street, is enthusiastic about Youth Group Online. “The youth group gatherings have been a huge hit at our house. My son (12) was a little reluctant to participate the first night, but now the online youth group is his favorite part of the week.” He thanks Rev. Christy’s creativity in designing games. “Online youth group turns out to be a high-energy activity!” he says. 

Interaction increases with the launch of a new church YouTube channel. Everyone gets to add their snippet to a ministry of encouragement. “YouTube will allow our members to share, via video, scripture, and thoughts that they have found encouraging in these last few weeks,” White explains. Peters is particularly excited about the Daily Devotional because “We don’t want to be sending content out to our congregation constantly. We would much rather use these new technologies to connect the people of the church to one another.” 
Peters admits that “Some of our regular ministries have translated pretty well to an online format, and some not so well.” The Lenten Bible Study did not adapt well. “Our Thursday morning Coffee with Clergy gathering is an informal time for people to caffeinate and talk about whatever God-related issues are on their minds. That worked really well through Zoom. We had some people participate online who have never been able to attend in person.”

Zoom Call East Winds
And Districts are using innovations in communication as well. The East Winds District Mission Zone facilitators met virtually by Zoom. Says D.S. John Hice: “We celebrated God’s work through us, discussed challenges, and went deep to discuss ways that we can engage ministry. Facilitators will be working with clergy and churches in each of our 14 mission zones to strengthen our churches during this season of quarantine no matter how long it lasts. We might be quarantined, but we will not be isolated.” ~ Facebook/East Winds District

Returning to the words of Bishop Bard, “Friends, we have gifts to give. The coming days will not be easy, but they can be a time when we stir up the sparks of grace which are in us. And when this crisis is past, and it will pass, we may find that those sparks of grace stirred up now might be blown into even brighter flames of love and grace by which we can touch the world.” United Methodist pastors and laity across The Michigan Conference are dreaming new dreams, learning new skills, and relating in new ways. Forced out of the box by a pandemic, they are finding the courage and the know-how to make disciples and transform the world like never before.

~ What is your church doing differently since March 13 when the no-in-person approach to ministry was first introduced? How are you meeting the needs of your congregation and your neighbors? Send your short report to Senior Content Editor, Kay DeMoss.

The Michigan Conference has a Health Crisis Toolbox with resources to help you in your ministry and mission.

Last Updated on January 30, 2024

The Michigan Conference