In Busia, Kenya, a rare look at what became of a mission project 15 years later

It’s a common scenario in church mission work: A congregation goes into an area and provides a much-needed ministry, and then they leave for whatever reason and never see the results that follow. But every now and then a chain of events will reconnect the dots and provide a peek at the fruits of their labors.

Ruth, photographed 15 years ago with Wilshire volunteer Jason Woodbury, now is married and enrolled in an apprenticeship.

For Jason Coker, national director of Together for Hope, the rural development coalition of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, that rare peek came when he noticed on Facebook that Belinda Onyango, a social worker he had known in Kenya years earlier, had a birthday. He reached out to wish her well and also to find out what had become of the child development center they had worked together to start 15 years earlier.

“I just asked her, ‘Hey, I haven’t heard anything in years. How’s everything going?’ She sent me pictures of some of the kids that started in that program,” he said. “A lot of them are in college; others have graduated and are in the workforce. The pictures of them as adults compared to them as children just blew my mind.”

A model child development center

Jason Coker

Jason Coker

Fifteen years ago, Coker was missions minister at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, and Onyango was working at a new child development center that Buckner International was starting in Busia, Kenya — located on the far western edge of the country near the border with Uganda. Many children in the town had been left parentless by HIV/AIDS, and rather than putting them in orphanages, the CDC supported them in foster care with extended family members.

Wilshire was one of a few churches that committed to helping with that effort. Over the course of three years, the Dallas church sent volunteers to Kenya several times a year, with a few church members making repeated trips and connecting deeply with the children. Wilshire gave budget funds, and individual members gave additional funds, to build the CDC, a medical clinic and a kitchen and water well.

“I was flying from Dallas to Kenya every couple of months, and we got to know the kids there and saw how they adjusted to the foster care program,” Coker recalled. “These kids were traumatized from growing up and losing their parents.”

In a recent Zoom visit, Onyango shared what has happened in Busia and in her own life.

When Coker and the group from Wilshire arrived in Busia in 2006, Onyango was employed by Buckner as a mentor at the new child development center. There were 28 children in the program starting out, and the goal of the CDC was to keep the children in family settings.

Belinda Onyango (Photo courtesy of Baylor University)

“We called it ‘kinship care’ because these kids were being supported by Buckner while living with their kin, and kin could mean probably a grandmother, uncles or aunts, or an older sibling,” Onyango explained. “And just to be clear, the kids neither had fathers or mothers. They were complete orphans.”

The CDC provided help with fees for school, supplemented their farm produce with hard-to-get provisions like sugar and cooking oil, and supplied other things needed for daily nutrition.

“Some of the children were actually born with HIV and AIDS, so we took that up also to make sure that they could access to medical facilities and medication whether they were born with HIV or not,” she said.

In working with the children, Onyango became aware of gaps in their care.

Wilshire volunteers staff a medical clinic at the child development center in Busia 15 years ago.

“Yes, they could afford food because Buckner was supporting them, they could go to school, but there were emotional needs that were not being met,” she said. “I started going to school with the main purpose of understanding, ‘How do I equip myself? How do I get the tools necessary to take care of this child as well as the families from which they come?’”

Baylor School of Social Work connection

Onyango earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and counseling in Kenya, and then in 2017 she began work on a master’s degree in social work from the Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University. She studied under a Global Missions Leadership scholarship that identifies community leaders in the areas of social work who have the potential to return to their communities and empower them.

As Coker was reconnecting with Onyango, he introduced her by email to Elizabeth Batuka, a student in his Global Perspectives in Missions and Ministry class at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta. Both women were from Kenya, and both had master’s degrees from the Garland School of Social Work at Baylor. Coker thought that with so much in common, the two might enjoy getting to know each other. As it turned out, they needed no introduction: They were in the same cohort at the Garland School and, in fact, were roommates.

What happened to the kids

Today, Onyango lives in Nairobi, where she is manager of adoption services for Buckner Kenya. But she has maintained contact with some of the original CDC children through social media and in-person visits when she makes the 280-mile trip to Busia. Most completed school and have jobs and families of their own now. Some have gone on to college, shattering the barrier that keeps only 99% of Kenyans from high education.

Among the success stories:

  • Sharon today

    Sharon lived with her maternal grandfather and was doing fine in school until she became pregnant. But with the support and counseling from the CDC, she delivered her baby and returned to school and graduated. Today the child is 8 years old and Sharon is a high school teacher.

  • Sylvia had a rough time at home and in fact lived with Onyango for almost a year. She completed high school and got into a top university in Kenya where she completed a bachelor’s degree in business. She’s working on the Kenyan coast and doing well for herself and her younger siblings.
  • Betty, Sylvia’s younger sister, is still in college and is training to work in the hotel industry.

    Betty today

  • Ezekiel earned a bachelor’s degree in information technology and is employed by Buckner Kenya in the IT department.

Onyango said the Busia program no longer focuses on individual children but instead works to support and empower entire families.

“We still have that kinship program or that community program, but right now the focus is more on the family unit and with a focus on empowerment so that the families can rise from poverty and be able to support their children,” she said.

Buckner Souls alumni group

Onyango said something remarkable happened as the Buckner program was shifting its focus from single children to families: Some of those first children helped by the CDC formed a group called Buckner Souls to provide extra financial support and other resources to young children in those families.

In a more recent photo, taken in 2018, children at Buckner’s child development center in Busia, Kenya, show off their new shoes.

“Buckner now has other child development centers in different towns, and the Buckner Souls have brought on board those who had been supported in the other Buckner programs,” she said. “It’s become more of an alumni group that now gives back to the Buckner efforts in supporting the younger kids.”

They have a Facebook page that explains: “Buckner Souls is a group of individuals who have gone through Buckner programs and were or are still beneficiaries of the projects. The main aim of the group was to help us come together as a family and unite in activities that include giving back to the society, community development, moral support to those who seem to have lost hope in life and general works of charity to help orphans, vulnerable children and families gain light and hope in their life.”

Many lives changed

Onyango counts herself among those who have been changed by the work in Busia.

“As much as we talk about the community program, I also look at myself as a beneficiary of that,” she said. “This is what actually pushed me into social work.”

Andrew Daugherty, now pastor of Pine Street Baptist Church in Boulder, Colo., was a pastoral resident at Wilshire 15 years ago and participated in the mission work in Busia, Kenya.

Onyango said Wilshire and other congregations that helped launch the child development centers in Kenya should be interested in what their efforts have created.

“I don’t see a farmer waking up in the morning to go to the farm only to sow seeds but they’re not interested in the harvest,” she said. “To me, what has become of this program really speaks of the investment and the time that was put into coming up with the programs that would benefit these children.”

She continued: “We do not just want to cast seeds and then never go back and see what actually became of those seeds. I think it’s good to hold organizations accountable and see what really became of the program, and in this case, what became of the children, how are they doing now. And that can also even help in terms of fundraising because many people desire to see the results.”

Onyango said that what has transpired in Busia continues to shape her own path and her destiny.

Leah Nekesa, who was a child when the Busia child development center began, show in her cap and gown at graduation.

“That’s what keeps me focused,” she said, “because when I see what those children have become — who probably at one point had no hope in life and maybe their family members have given up on them — when I see them blossoming today, having their own families, working, being able to support themselves and also support their families, it really encourages me to also keep working.”

And it should encourage churches that their contribution make a difference, Onyango said.

“It’s important, I believe, to at least understand that it was not in vain, it was not just wasted resources. Whatever it is, no matter how big or no matter how small, it played a huge role in the lives of these children. Because of those resources, they have been able to go to school and now they’re supporting others,” she said.

As for Coker, he is grateful for the rare look at the harvest.

“You don’t get that 15-year arc much, especially in the short-term mission world where things come and go and you never follow up,” he said. “But this was a church that made a commitment over probably five years to make sure what we started had a good footing, and it’s still going well independently of us, and the result is students who have made it against all odds.”

Princess, a girl from Busia, Kenya, came to the Buckner child development center a few years ago to get a new pair of shoes through Buckner’s Shoes for Orphan Souls program. Now she and her grandmother are receiving help and education through the center.
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Jeff Hampton is a freelance writer based in Dallas.

Arkansas church creates innovative program to declare jubilee for those in need

When plans to return to their church building for Advent were canceled by the ongoing pandemic, the congregation of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church turned their attention from inward to outward and ultimately declared Jubilee.

Beginning in mid-March, the Little Rock, Ark., church began providing rental assistance and other financial and material help to neighbors in need out of their newly formed Jubilee Fund. The ministry gets its name from the biblical practice of “jubilee” outlined in Leviticus, where every 50 years, debtors were to be released from their obligations, slaves were to be freed, and property was to be returned to its owners.

Matt Dodrill

Matt Dodrill

Matt Dodrill, pastor at Pulaski Heights, said the ministry has provided the church some spiritual release as well after the disappointment of having to continue worshiping online rather than in person.

“I was concerned that would be a demoralizing thing for our congregation, so what I decided was instead of letting this put us in a rut, let’s have a time of reflection after the sermon every week where we talk about what we as a congregation can do that’s different from anything we’ve ever done before,” he said. “Here we are in this global crisis that’s affecting not just the world but our local community, and we are a church called out by Jesus Christ to address these kinds of issues.”

A collaborative idea

Out of those conversations, the church discerned that God was calling them to address issues of housing insecurity, debt, joblessness and the general shortage of food, medical supplies and clothing that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. A committee — whose members had expertise in social work, politics and laws related to property rental and tenant matters — was formed to consider the possibilities. The resulting Jubilee Fund was unveiled Feb. 16. To begin building the fund, church members were challenged to give $10 to $20 weekly for the duration of the pandemic.

“The response was naturally very positive because this venture grew out of their discernment,” Dodrill said. “The way I presented it to them was, ‘Here’s your ministry; here’s the thing we’ve been talking about all through Advent.’”

People who want assistance through the Jubilee Fund must complete a thorough application based on a template provided by a member, Patrick Lee, who is an attorney with expertise in these types of applications, and then it was customized for Pulaski’s purposes. The application is available online, but it also has been distributed to the Salvation Army, local shelters and other organizations that address homelessness and housing insecurity.

To begin building the fund, church members were challenged to give $10 to $20 weekly for the duration of the pandemic.

“A part of what we want to do is simply get into the broader Little Rock network of service providers who can, if they don’t have any funds, point some people in our direction and vice versa,” Dodrill said.

Applications are reviewed and processed by the same Pulaski team that developed the ministry. If the application is completed online, it gets forwarded automatically by email to all the team members. Whoever sees it first calls a meeting, and they review the application together to make a decision.

Fund started in March

Pulaski Heights began providing aid through the Jubilee Fund in mid-March. One of the first applicants was a man who was two months behind on rent, while another was a woman who just needed some basic supplies like gas and food. Dodrill said one of the challenges is that some people are not familiar with the resources available in the community.

“One of the reasons why this is such a vital ministry is Arkansas has probably the most draconian and oppressive rental laws in the country,” Dodrill said.

He explained that about one-third of Arkansans rent their properties, and the state is one of the few if not the only state in the country that does not recognize an “implied warranty of habitability,” which makes landlords responsible for maintaining the property. Without that provision, a tenant is on their own if the plumbing breaks, the electricity goes out or other repairs are needed.

“Arkansas has probably the most draconian and oppressive rental laws in the country.”

“That’s not to say that there are not good landlords who will take care of that,” Dodrill said. “Most landlords will. It’s just that they are not legally required to do so, and so in that case, renting cheap properties in Arkansas actually ends up being more expensive for you.”

And in Arkansas, renters can be charged with a misdemeanor if they fail to pay rent on the day it’s due. They also can be jailed for up to three months if they’re not out of the property within 10 days of receiving an eviction notice.

“So, we’re not just trying to provide financial relief; we’re also trying to prevent people from unjustly getting put in the criminal system,” he said. “It’s a real problem in Arkansas and it’s something that predated COVID-19.”

More than financial support

To help get a handle on that, Dodrill said Pulaski Heights provides advocacy in addition to financial support.

“Before we just start doling out money, one of the first steps we make is to talk to their landlords just to let them know that the tenant has an advocate and ‘you can trust the tenant and you can trust us,’” he said.

Dodrill said the church has a modest goal starting out of paying off one person’s rent per month, and then at year’s end they’ll review the ministry and look at making the Jubilee Fund a bigger part of the regular budget.

“We anticipate that as the applications start to become more known, we will receive more inquiries about rental assistance, but we also are interested in providing debt relief,” he said.

He explained that if an applicant has a small amount of consumer debt or even student debt that is hampering them and they just can’t seem to catch up with the interest, they’ll consider helping with that too.

The Jubilee Fund application also refers to “mutual aid,” a term Dodrill said some people may not know but that is becoming more popular.

“Mutual aid is the most practical way of cultivating the common good.”

“In my estimation, mutual aid is the most practical way of cultivating the common good. It’s monetary and material goods,” he said. “The best example is found in Acts 2, where followers of Jesus who had just received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost shared resources according to need. We’re trying to embody a gift economy that sort of jettisons the more barbaric effects of our capitalist market economy.”

To that end, the church cleared out a room, installed shelves and began stocking them with non-perishable food, linens, toiletries and clothing.

“If we run an application and determine that somebody really doesn’t need rental assistance or debt relief but they could really use some food this month, then we’ll invite them to come to our pantry and pick out a few things, or we can mail it to them or find somebody who can drive it to them,” he said.

Empowered by the Spirit

Dodrill said he is proud of the way in which the congregation created this ministry together.

“This was a community effort,” he said. “It’s been really cool to watch this church ask where in this time and in this place is God’s Holy Spirit at work. We think God is calling us to help those who are on the margins of our community and to exercise jubilee.”

Dodrill noted that while the jubilee first mentioned in Leviticus was to be provided once every 49 years, Jesus’ declaration in Luke that he came “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” was him saying that jubilee comes through him.

“As long as we are a church empowered by the Holy Spirit, we have a responsibility to proclaim the year of God’s jubilee every day,” Dodrill said.

Jeff Hampton is a freelance writer based in Dallas.

Public health officials find churches are ideal sites for COVID vaccine clinics

While much has been written during the COVID-19 pandemic about the “when and how” of churches opening their doors for worship, a new thread in the story is beginning to take shape: churches hosting vaccination clinics.

Depending on the state and even down to the specific county, residents may be able to get the COVID vaccine at their church or a church in their community. While there is not a comprehensive list of states that are allowing or even asking houses of worship to help distribute the much-sought-after vaccines, local news reports show efforts to recruit churches as vaccination sites in states such as New York, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.

Residents are led to nurses waiting at desks to administer COVID-19 vaccinations while others wait for 15 minutes before leaving the new distribution hub Jan. 21, at North Side Baptist Church in Weatherford, Texas. (Yffy Yossifor/Star-Telegram via AP)

What’s more, the strategy in some cases is to use churches to get vaccines out into rural areas, to populations that don’t have transportation to urban vaccination hubs, and to ethnic populations that have a historic fear or distrust of vaccinations.

Florida leads the way

In early January, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced an initiative for counties to partner with local churches to get the vaccine into underserved communities. Seven sites were chosen to administer up to 500 doses per day to people over age 65 on an appointment basis. At one of those locations — St. John Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa — 590 people received their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Jan. 10 and were to return for a second dose on Jan. 31. The church-based clinic was administered by the Florida Department of Health-Hillsborough County.

A health care worker administers a second dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to a woman at a drive-thru vaccination site operated by the Florida Department of Health at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church Jan. 26in Mount Dora, Fla. More than one million seniors 65 and older have been vaccinated in the state. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via AP)

Up and around the coast in Pensacola, 1,000 people received the Moderna vaccine at Olive Baptist Church on Jan. 6. The vaccines were administered at the church by Ascension Sacred Heart Health Care System.

New York announced on Jan. 23 the selection of eight churches statewide to host vaccination hubs with as many as 300 such sites planned. Among them were St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in the Bronx and Bethany Baptist Church in Brooklyn.

In North Charleston, S.C., the Fetter Health Care Network is hosting Phase 1 distribution of vaccines at Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church.

Novant Health is including faith-based organizations in its effort to provide vaccine access to Black and Latino populations in North Carolina. “Pop-up” vaccination events will rotate between churches, schools and local Novant clinics in Winston-Salem and Charlotte. Two of those partnerships are with Union Baptist Church in Winston-Salem and Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte.

First Baptist Augusta gears up to help

In Georgia, First Baptist Church of Augusta partnered with University Hospital to provide 5,300 first-dose vaccinations over three days in late January. The recipients signed up for the appointments through their physicians, and the hospital administered the vaccines in the church’s Fellowship Hall. While at the church, patients were given appointments to return to the church for their second doses on Feb. 18, 19 and 25.

Will Dyer

Will Dyer, senior pastor, said it was an easy decision when the board president of University Hospital asked if the church would be willing to host the clinics.

“If the role of the church is to be the salt and light of the world, then you seek to do good in any instance in which you can, and so for us this really was a no-brainer,” he said. “We’re a 203-year-old church in the middle of the city of Augusta, and we’re perfectly positioned to host something like this. We have continually tried to reach beyond ourselves and help other people, and this was literally a situation where we could help save lives.”

Dyer said it also presented an opportunity to model a better way of conducting and being the church.

While First Baptist has resumed in-person activities with appropriate restrictions and social distancing, “we live in a city where there are quite a few churches that are acting as though COVID is not a real thing with masks not being worn, social distancing not being observed, and I have had multiple people tell me they have walked away from churches because of that sort of attitude,” he said. “For me and I think for us as a church, we felt it really important to say, ‘That’s not the only way to follow Jesus. In fact, there’s a more fruitful, faithful way: to trust our medical professionals, to partner with them to help make the city a safer and better place for everybody.’”

Dyer said this also was an opportunity to show the church in a better light than churches in general have been seen recently, often as a result of their own missteps.

“To paint some sort of picture that is positive and affirming of what Jesus actually teaches is to me pretty important for us to do,” he said.

The clinics at First Baptist were held in the church’s Fellowship Hall with church staff and volunteers helping direct traffic, serving as greeters and cleaning up while the hospital took care of all the medical aspects.

Regarding logistics, the clinics at First Baptist were held in the church’s Fellowship Hall with church staff and volunteers helping direct traffic, serving as greeters and cleaning up while the hospital took care of all the medical aspects.

“This went from not even a concept to being a reality in less than a week, so the manpower it took both from our side and from University Hospital was really significant,” Dyer said. “And the cool thing was we were inundated with phone calls from retired nurses, current nurses and people that just said, ‘Hey, I’m willing to help in any way I can. I’ll come administer vaccines. Just let me know what I can do.’ So it was a true community effort, which was so cool to see.”

A welcome return to community missions

Kelly Rose, church administrator, said the clinic was a good return to missions activities for the church.

Kelly Rose

“For me, as a church where we have been used to being a hub for community events, 2020 was tough with everything shut down,” she said. “We did meals for health care workers and we continue to provide some benevolence through the United Way, but we no longer were hosting luncheons and nonprofit groups. So hosting the clinics was just a great way to do something tangible and to help save lives.”

First Baptist will host the second-dose clinics for all those patients who came for the first round, but the church has let the hospital know they are ready for more first-round clinics as well. Meanwhile, Dyer said he would encourage other churches to do the same if asked.

“Find a way to do it,” he said. “We didn’t know what they were going to ask of us, we didn’t know what sort of volunteer load they were going to require, but we knew we would find a way to make it happen because it’s the right thing to do.”

In Tennessee, a big parking lot is a plus

Just east of Memphis, Tenn., Germantown Baptist Church is hosting drive-through vaccination clinics in the church parking lot in a partnership with the Shelby County Health Department, the city of Germantown and the town of Collierville. The clinics began this week and may continue through June and beyond if needed, said John Longworth, recreation and senior adults pastor at the church.

“We were approached by the city administrator for the city of Germantown,” he said. “They have the personnel locally to be able to administrate the vaccine and put everything together, and they were looking at potential sites and I think quickly recognized that probably one of if not the best place to do it in the city of Germantown would be our church because we do have a large parking lot.”

John Longworth

Longworth said the plan was discussed by church leadership and then lay leaders and committees and there was a unanimous feeling that this was something the church should do.

“This is just a small way that our church is able to communicate that we love and care about our neighbors and the communities we serve,” he said. “A lot has been said over the past several months about living in unprecedented times and the challenges we’ve faced as a result of a global pandemic, and so much of Jesus’ ministry was ministering to the masses through teaching and healing, and so it’s just an opportunity for us to play a small role in ministering to our community and the mid-South by offering our parking lot for COVID vaccinations.”

With the clinics just starting this week, the level of church volunteers needed to work alongside medical, paramedic and other professionals has yet to be fully decided.

“After this first week, we’ll have a better handle on what the needs are and they’ll be reaching out to us for potential volunteers to serve in a variety of roles,” Longworth said, “but right now we don’t know what that looks like — how many they’ll need or what they’ll be doing specifically.”


Jeff Hampton is a freelance writer based in Dallas.

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Despite COVID, ‘worst-case scenario’ did not emerge for church finances

Eleven months after the global COVID-19 pandemic forced the closing of churches and synagogues nationwide, faith communities of all stripes have stepped into the new year with new goals and expectations for how to fund and conduct their ministries and missions.

A survey conducted by The Church Network, an inter-denominational association of church business administrators, reveals that comparing 2020 to 2019:

  • 46% of survey congregations said their 2020 income exceeded 2019.
  • 13% said their 2020 income matched 2019.
  • 36% said their 2020 income was no more than 10% less than 2019.
  • 5% said their 2020 income was greater than 10% below 2019.


  • 80% said 2020 income covered 2020 expenses.
  • 48% said their 2021 spending plan is equal to or greater than 2020.
  • 46% said their staff is receiving a pay increase in 2021.
  • 3% said their staff is having a pay reduction in 2021.

Phill Martin, CEO of the network, said that while the survey is not a large sampling, it’s reflective of what he’s been hearing in conversations with members.

Phill Martin

“It’s a mixed bag. A lot of people are doing really well, some people are doing exceptionally well, and then some are just sort of OK,” he said. “More anecdotally, from everything I’m hearing, the worst-case scenario that everyone feared did not happen, and overall churches are doing well in light of the pandemic. I do think it’s true that there is an acceleration of trends that already were in place. Churches that already were struggling and really not prepared for the future are seeing their struggle and decline move faster. Churches that were solid and stable and had infrastructure in place are weathering it better.”

Allen Walworth, executive vice president of Generis, financial consultants to churches and nonprofits, said his organization has seen about one-third of churches actually exceed their expenses for the year and end the year with a surplus. Another third to maybe half were within 10% either above or below annual expenses.

“Now, there were about a third — it may not be any fault of their own, just the demographics of the church — that really struggled,” he said. “It especially was true if there already was some conflict in the church, or if you had a younger demographic or if you had a smaller church.”

He explained that some smaller churches were hit harder because they didn’t have the technological tools or the capital to purchase those tools to keep their congregations connected.

“When they didn’t have ways of beaming worship in a really effective and excellent way, it began to erode the connections with the congregation and limit other ways to stay in touch,” he said.

At the other extreme were up to 15% of congregations that closed out the year 15% or more above their budget and not just above their expenses.

“There’s like 15% of churches that say this is the best, strongest financial giving year we’ve ever had as a church, and no one saw that coming in March,” Walworth said. “Everybody had less expenses because there were programs that didn’t happen, but there were some who saw such a surplus that it allowed them to be much more innovative and more mission- and outreach-oriented and to do some things that wouldn’t even have been on their plate. That wasn’t widespread but it was a pretty noticeable amount.”

Growth for a multi-campus Carolinas church

Among churches engaged with The Church Network, the multi-campus, nondenominational Seacoast Church in the Carolinas saw unrestricted giving increase by about 5% in 2020 compared to 2019.

“That’s lower than what we’d typically see in a given year in terms of growth, although it’s hard to know what the year would have been like without the pandemic,” said Glenn Wood, pastor of administration. “We probably did better than most. There are some that had tremendous growth, but there’s a lot of them that had lots of challenges with dealing with decreased giving and decreased attendance last year.”

Glenn Wood

Seacoast has 12 campuses in South Carolina, one in North Carolina, and an online campus. Before the pandemic, the church had about 15,000 “attenders” at all locations combined — ranging from 6,000 at the founding location in Mount Pleasant, S.C., to 80 in the fishing village of McClellanville, S.C.

Wood said all the Seacoast campuses were closed for 182 days from mid-March to mid-September. All have reopened in accordance with parameters and metrics in their specific locations, with attendance across the board at about 55% of pre-COVID numbers. Harnessing technology to engage attenders and provide means of online giving have been key to keeping the church financially sound, he added.

“One of the things over the last few years and especially in 2020 is we have worked very hard at trying to basically tell the story of life changing through the church and through the gospel,” Wood said. Those stories gathered from within their membership and shown through videos and in sermon topics have spanned the full range of human challenges — from the pandemic itself to family and marital issues to personal financial difficulties.

Seacoast has had an online presence for 12 years, “so when the pandemic hit and we had to move everything online for services, it wasn’t a significant change for us,” Wood noted. “Now we did tweak the format and all, but we had a significant presence already, and I think that’s helped us especially continue to keep our attenders engaged in the church and engaged with the church. Along the same lines, we also moved the small groups online. I think that was and still is a challenge for some churches that didn’t have much of an online presence. They’re having to scramble to figure out, ‘How do we do it?’ One of the things we’ve realized even prior to the pandemic is ministering online is similar but also different than how you minister in person.”

Wood said Seacoast stopped passing offering plates and began collecting gifts through offering boxes about 15 years ago, but they’ve also introduced alternate ways of giving online. “A lot of people already were comfortable with those, and I think that also helped support the church as we had to move to being totally remote.”

Shift to online giving

Lutheran Church of the Cross in the Des Moines suburb of Altoona saw its giving increase by 5.9% in 2020 compared to 2019, according to Laurel Swanson, administrator/communication coordinator. Membership is around 1,000, with a pre-COVID attendance of around 650 and a current in-person attendance of 250, or 40%.

“We had a solid online giving group prior to the pandemic,” Swanson said, explaining that online giving has increased from 34% to 70% of total receipts through the pandemic. “I feel we made a conscious effort to let people know throughout 2020 how we continued to be able to bless our congregation and community with their generosity. Every week we were saying thank you and sharing an example or story.”

Laurel Swanson

Swanson said it was a “God-timing thing” that the church underwent a congregation-wide financial study — called “Balanced” — in January and February of 2020, “which I think helped people get their finances aligned with biblical principles prior to the pandemic hitting.”

Justin Greene, chief financial officer at Liberty Live Church in Hampton Roads, Va., said there was an immediate impact on giving with the mandatory closure of all their campuses.

“However, our members have continued to be faithful in their giving and we were able to close out 2020 meeting all financial obligations. From the expense side, we were able to reduce a portion of our operating costs (excluding personnel) simply by not being able to meet in person,” he said.

Liberty Live is a Baptist community with 11,390 members worshiping at six campuses in the Hampton Roads area and an online presence as well. Greene said two primary strategies have been the key to Liberty’s continued prospering through the pandemic.

Justin Greene

“The first strategy was already being well-established online. Having an online platform in place to easily migrate the congregation from in-person to online worship services allowed our congregation to never lose connection,” he said. “Additionally, a significant portion of our members already had adopted online giving as their method of giving.”

The second strategy was mobilizing their ministry team in the community.

“God opened doors for us to connect with and minister to hospital workers, first responders, schoolteachers and many others all across Hampton Roads in ways that we could not before,” Greene said.

Payroll help

For many congregations, loans through the Paycheck Protection Plan proved a help in getting through the year. According to a report in Newsweek magazine in July based on Treasury Department data, 88,411 churches received $7.3 billion in the first round of PPP loans.

Seacoast Church applied and received a PPP loan to maintain the employment of its 250-plus employees across all locations. With the buildings closed and many functions such as accounting moved off-site, employees have been put to work in different ways. For example, administrative and facilities staff helped with an outreach project to call all attenders twice so far during the pandemic.

With the buildings closed and many functions such as accounting moved off-site, employees have been put to work in different ways.

“Everybody is part of the gospel, and everybody is here to help,” Wood said. “We repurposed people as we could and found places for them to serve so that they could continue to be part of the solution and allow everybody to be employed.”

Lutheran Church of the Cross received a PPP loan as well.

“At the time we applied, we didn’t know we were going to have such a strong year,” Swanson said. “At this point, we are looking for ways to give away the amount we received from the PPP to bless our partner ministries.”

“Given the uncertainty of the financial climate in 2020, and based on conversations from sister churches, denominational leaders and legal counsel, we chose to receive a PPP loan,” said Greene at Liberty Live. “The loan enabled us to retain and provide support to all employees, even though our campuses were closed and all in-person events cancelled.”

Raising funds for the future

A church activity that for the most part ground to a halt in March is capital campaigns or special funding emphases, Walworth reported. While churches have rebounded with online services and the financial markets have recovered for the most part, “what we didn’t recover and have not yet is the ability to get people together in small groups and in public worship — the kind of ingredients it takes to build community, inspire vision and call people into a worshipful reflection of their gifts.”

Walworth said the only reason some campaigns did go forward was if there was a compelling situation like a debt balloon payment that was due or an opportunity to buy a property at a low cost. Otherwise, those kinds of campaigns were tabled. But now there is some movement and interest again.

“What we’re beginning to see is churches starting initiatives in the spring with the hope of culminating the campaign in the fall,” he said. “And an even larger number of churches are thinking about beginning in the fall and bridging over into the spring. For most people, next fall is beginning to feel like that’s when we can consider these things again.”

The view going forward 

As 2021 unfolds, churches appear to be more optimistic than they were in early 2020 when the extent of the pandemic still was not known, Martin said.

Churches appear to be more optimistic than they were in early 2020 when the extent of the pandemic still was not known.

“I think two things are driving that,” he explained. “They’ve got this data under their belt, so they know what happened last year. And, the hope of the vaccine — although there’s some new anxiety related to it just because the rollout is so slow.”

At Seacoast Church, the outlook is “cautiously optimistic,” Wood said. “We still have not opened up every program at every campus and so as attendance continues to grow, we’re going to look at opening some of those. Financially, I think we are optimistic that things will improve, but again, timing wise, who knows? God is the only one who knows that.”

At Lutheran Church of the Cross, they’re expecting a “steady year” in 2021.

“Our congregation is excited with the ways we are ‘doing church,’ including several creative virtual connection points,” Swanson said. “Our theme is ‘Relationships, Rhythms and Risk / Sense of Adventure.’ It is exciting to see our congregation rally behind the many new things we are trying.”

Green at Liberty Live Church said there still is much economic uncertainty in 2021 but also opportunities.

“As with most organizations, the familiar way of operating changed almost overnight. Some impacts from the pandemic that we thought would be temporary are now looking more permanent. That means how we engage people and minister to them, how we steward resources and staff ministries, has needed to adapt to an ever-changing environment,” he said. “However, the new opportunities and new doors opened to us to share the gospel, doors that were tightly closed before the pandemic, gives us a lot of excitement and hope. We firmly believe God has positioned us, no matter how uncertain the times, to change lives, communities and the world for Jesus Christ.”

Still, questions remain

Looking ahead, there also are some questions about what church will look like when the doors are fully open again, Martin added.

“I think the uncertainty is not as much around finance as what does ministry look like going forward and how do you continue to do the virtual, online, creative stuff and everything else you were doing before,” he said.

David King, director of the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, agrees there are many pressing questions going forward.

“Some congregations will revert back to what they’ve always done, and another third will use this as an opportunity to reflect on that new normal and redeploy their resources in different ways.”

“For the most part, I think this last year was about congregations streamlining expenses. Maybe they didn’t spend a lot of money on Bible school, they didn’t spend a lot of money on programming, they didn’t take mission trips, they didn’t travel. What will that look like in 2021? What is the expectation of a new normal?” he asked. “My guess is that some congregations will revert back to what they’ve always done, and another third will use this as an opportunity to reflect on that new normal and redeploy their resources in different ways.”

David King

King believes congregations are at an “inflection point” where they can think about their budgets not simply in terms of streamlining expenses but re-imagining how they do church.

“Religion has been a divisive force in our country in recent years and particularly in recent weeks. But at the same time, I think it holds the potential to be a great healer, convener and rebuilder of social trust,” he said. “It’s definitely true in local communities, and I think that’s one of the key values of congregations going into this next year.”

A big question for many churches is how they will approach having both an online experience and an in-person experience.

“How do you continue to resource a subset of one’s congregation that is not going to return, that is unable to return because they live two states away, or they’ve just grown accustomed to a different set of practices?” King wondered. “I think that’s going to be a both/and for many congregations, that if they don’t re-imagine that new normal, they’re going to be behind the eight ball.”

Walworth concurs.

“I’d say going forward it’s a pretty good likelihood that five years from now the church won’t snap back to what it was in 2019. I think there’s going to be a lot of people who got used to worshipping online, the church got good at offering it, and the churches will need to keep offering it,” he said. “But there are some people who probably got into Sunday morning tennis leagues, you know, who may not come back to worship, although there will certainly be more attending than there is now.

“But rather than that sounding like the most dire thing in the world, it is what churches have found who went to online worship: they found that actually their audience and reach greatly multiplied.”

Focus on mission and message

As always, a key to financial health will be making sure the mission and the message are clear.

“Congregations have to continue to make the case for why the support of individuals engaged in their community in a variety of ways is welcomed.”

“Congregations have to continue to make the case for why the support of individuals engaged in their community in a variety of ways is welcomed,” King advised. “Congregations will have to make the case for why they are good recipients for one’s gifts, tithes and offerings. If you don’t make that case regularly, you’re doing a disservice to your congregation’s future. And you may have to make it in a number of ways because you’ve got people who are engaging with you in ways that you wouldn’t have imagined before.”

Walworth said the good work of churches in 2020 during the pandemic sets a model for the future.

“Churches that really worked hard to keep expressing care and staying in touch because people weren’t coming to church, figuring out how to go to them electronically or in other old-school ways — those churches did better,” he said. “Churches that really stayed focused on their outreach innovation, especially with COVID-related things — here’s a poor neighborhood, kids are having to work from home who don’t have computers so let’s get them computers, or let’s help these frontline workers and have a ministry with them, or let’s work harder on affordable housing because some people are slipping below the poverty line because of COVID — when churches demonstrated that there’s never been a greater need for the church than in this dark hour, there was reason for people to keep giving.”

Jeff Hampton is a freelance writer based in Dallas.


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The church has a role to play in implementing COVID vaccine

With a vaccine for COVID-19 presumably coming sooner than later, the question of who will and who won’t choose to get the vaccine is looming large. And along with that are questions about the role of the church on matters of public health and safety.

The potential answers may be influenced by skepticism about the safety of a vaccine as well as politicization of every response to the pandemic — from social distancing to masks to lockdowns.

In a Gallup poll conducted Oct. 19-Nov. 1, before the announcement of vaccine progress by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, 42% of U.S. adults said they would not get a vaccine, down from 50% in September. Meanwhile, the number of respondents saying they would get a vaccine has drifted from 66% in July down to 50% in September and back up to 58% in the most recent poll.

The results are “indicative of significant challenges ahead for public health and government officials in achieving mass public compliance with vaccine recommendations,” Gallup noted.

As for what is driving some to resist a much-anticipated resolution to the pandemic, 37% say they are concerned about the “rushed” timeline, 26% want to confirm it is safe, 12% don’t trust vaccines generally, 10% want to wait to see how effective it is, and 15% cite “other” reasons.

While poll responses are broken down by gender, political party, education, age and race/ethnicity, there is no breakdown for religious affiliation. Regardless, there is substantial interest in the religious community regarding what churches and church people can, will and should do.

A Christian ethics perspective Gushee, distinguished professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University, said it is understandable that there is and will be some hesitancy in the general population to take the vaccine.

“I think that all of us, really people all around the world, are going to want to know with confidence that the vaccine shows every sign, according to scientific evidence, of being safe and effective,” he said. “The fact that it has moved so quickly relative to other vaccines naturally will lead to perhaps a little hesitancy.”

Still, it is in that space of hesitancy and concern where the church has a significant role to play, Gushee said.

“We have a chance to finally help make a dent in this awful disease and to, in the end, demonstrate love for our neighbors.”

“It may be that the church should first think about speaking of the virtue of courage in terms of some of our members feeling called and inspired to be among the early adopters of the vaccine,” he said. “I also think the call to love our neighbors would be an appropriate place for pastors to emphasize that as Christians take the vaccine perhaps on the front end of the process by showing some courage, we have a chance to finally help make a dent in this awful disease and to, in the end, demonstrate love for our neighbors.”

Gushee said a broader issue at hand is the fact that a certain percentage of the American population distrusts science and scientists, and a lot of the people in that camp are Christians. The trend dates back centuries, it worsened with the teachings of Darwin on evolution, and it really has never gone away.

“The new iteration of it is a kind of anti-elite, anti-science, anti-empirical kind of universe that I think the right wing in America is inhabiting,” he said. “While taking a vaccine shouldn’t be political in any way, if it is a political statement to trust science and scientists when it comes to something like a vaccine, then it’s a statement we’ll have to make for the well-being of the whole. It’s individualism versus concern for the common good, and I think Christians are called to concern for the common good.”

Gushee said the shuttering of churches along with everything else during the pandemic has limited the church’s ability to make much of a public contribution as it otherwise would.

A chance for the church to lead

“One of the things about the impact of COVID on the church is I think it has contributed to a deepening of our invisibility in the public arena in American life. And a good way to re-emerge, in my opinion, would be to encourage a skeptical public to just go ahead and be vaccinated if the evidence warrants it,” he said.

That encouragement could span the spectrum from Sunday morning sermons to providing space for vaccination events.

“I don’t know if it would even be possible to do vaccinations in churches, but leading by example could mean actually hosting vaccinations,” Gushee suggested.

David King

David King, director of the Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, said the church definitely has a role to play because there is no other form of nonprofit as pervasive in the United States as church congregations.

“Congregations have to be a resource for instilling confidence in vaccines and promoting social trust.”

“Congregations have such a strong and trusted track record in providing social services, disaster relief and other forms of help,” King said. “They can’t not be part of the solution in getting the vaccine out. Congregations have to be a resource for instilling confidence in vaccines and promoting social trust. But I think as a provider, we’ll also see a lot of partnerships with congregations in helping to deliver a vaccine.”

Anticipate resistance

Still, there will be hesitance, and getting people to take the vaccine may provoke the same kind of pushback as getting people to wear masks, said Emily Smith, assistant professor of epidemiology at Baylor University.

Emily Smith

“It seems like at the beginning of the pandemic everybody had solidarity and we understood, and then somehow it became political, and masks became equated with losing freedom and living in fear,” she said. “It seemed like the Christian community divided on masks — either you’re living in fear or you’re wearing it to protect your neighbor.”

Exacerbating the divided opinions on a vaccine are wild conspiracy theories — including that the vaccine contains a microchip for tracking or has byproducts from aborted fetuses — and simple distrust in the process, Smith said.

“The anti-vaxxer community is loud, but if Dr. (Anthony) Fauci or one of those experts says its safe, then they’ve done due diligence to make sure it’s safe,” she said.

The anti-COVID vaccine group is new and includes Christians who are skeptical of science.

Smith said some in the anti-childhood vaccine crowd will jump on board and reject the COVID vaccine as well, but the anti-COVID vaccine group is new and includes Christians who are skeptical of science and agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control.

“I think it’s a new wave of, ‘I will get the childhood vaccines for my kids, but I won’t get this because it looks too fast-tracked,’” she said.

Smith said another factor adding to the debate is the merging of religion and science.

“I think we’ve done a bad job in the faith community merging science, and on the other side of that, the science community seeing that there could be a faith motivation,” she said. “I do both. My science is motivated by my faith, but they don’t merge. And I think in the pandemic we’re seeing it merge and it makes both sides uncomfortable.”

Vaccine as a way to love your neighbor

Smith, a scientist and the wife of a Baptist pastor, said she looks to Galatians 5:13 when thinking about how Christians should respond to the vaccine.

“I think this is a way we can use our freedom to protect our neighbors. I just think it’s loving our neighbors; I think it’s the second commandment,” she said. “And it also is the best way to protect people around us. The more of us that get vaccines, that protection becomes bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Smith said she would love to see the Christian community be the first in line to say “yes” to the vaccine as a way of modeling love for one’s neighbors.

“We’ve done a terrible job with masks and losing our witness on that, but maybe vaccines can be a way to redeem it.”

“We’ve done a terrible job with masks and losing our witness on that, but maybe vaccines can be a way to redeem it,” she said.

On the scientific side, Smith cautions that whenever the vaccine is ready, it still will not be an immediate fix. It will require 80% of the population getting the vaccine before other precautions like masks and social distancing can be set aside. But a vaccine still is the best answer.

“Our ticket out of this is a vaccine,” she said. “It’s not herd immunity through just opening up the floodgates and letting everybody go for it in terms of no precautions. But this time next year it will be much better than what it is right now.”

Smith also warns that while hope is on the horizon, there still are difficult days ahead.

“Getting the vaccine when it is available will be crucial because I don’t think people understand the magnitude of this next surge that we’re going through,” she said. “We’re all hearing this is going to be a dark winter, and I don’t know how to emphasize how dark that’s going to be because I don’t want to scare people, but it’s so bad. So, there is an urgency there to get the vaccine when it does become available.”

Pastors can’t prescribe but can lead

Gaynor Yancey, professor of social work and director of the Center for Church and Community Impact at Baylor, said the hesitance of people to trust and take the vaccine provides an opportunity for the church and pastors especially to continue the work of encouraging people to follow the leadership of the Lord, but they can’t be “prescriptive.”

Gaynor Yancey

“In my heart of hearts, I’d love for everyone to have the vaccine and it work for everyone,” she said. “But on the other side of the coin is knowing that we give people freedom to make their choices. So I think pastors will have to be very careful in what they do, and we might have some who would say, ‘Yes, everybody get a vaccine,’ but they can’t demand that. And yet they can encourage people to continuously seek to do what they’re comfortable to do under the leadership of the Lord.”

Yancey said religious leaders need to be cognizant that some people may have other conditions that would prevent them from getting a vaccine.

“There are all these mitigating circumstances that people have to consider, and that pastors don’t know and leaders of churches don’t know,” she said.

“The common good perspective would tell us clearly that when you are here to work alongside each other, you are to care for each other in every way possible.”

On the other hand, Yancey said, “If people say, ‘I don’t have to worry about it,’ well the common good perspective is that we do have to worry about it. The common good perspective would tell us clearly that when you are here to work alongside each other, you are to care for each other in every way possible.”

She continued: “When you look at the backlash against wearing masks, you think, wow, to go to a vaccine is even harder for some people in what they would consider to be against their rights. I think it would be harder for a pastor to legislate that, but to encourage it and to have people seek their own actions around that I think is very appropriate.”

Yancey said it’s important to trust that people are going to do what God calls them to do and respect their decision when they’ve thought about it and prayed about it. Then give them time and space to change their decision with the help of God.

“Knowing that God is in control of everything — and I truly believe that — and how God works in our hearts, I would hope that we would be continuing to encourage our folks,” she said.

There is no arguing or debate about the fact that this has been an eye-opening time for everyone in every regard, Yancey concluded.

“What I think the church has been called to in this — and what we’ve all been called to which is closing up everything — has been a very different picture than we might have realized,” she said. “We’re learning a lot about ourselves as a country and individually: what we can handle and what we can’t handle.”

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Compassion International and Baylor form partnership against poverty

Ending poverty among children and their families is the goal of a new partnership between Baylor University and Compassion International. The effort will pair Baylor’s educational expertise with Compassion’s historic mission to address persistent family poverty and bring about global human flourishing.

The initial project for the partnership, which was formally announced Oct. 28, will increase the knowledge and ministry tools available to Compassion-affiliated pastors in Guatemala. Beginning this week, eight pastors in that Central American country have begun the online ministerial certification program offered by Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary.

Mike Cookson

“The concept is: Can you take that program that was developed for U.S.-based pastors and can you apply it to Compassion pastors who are out in the field?” said Mike Cookson, Compassion’s director of strategic partnerships. “We have a great network of pastors out in the world that need better ways of being trained in theology. Baylor has a fantastic seminary that we want to tap into.”

At the same time, he said, the project will help the seminary in its goal of spreading the gospel on a global scale. “Compassion is one of the partners, one of the mechanisms that can bring those pastors to the table to start figuring out how do we do that,” he said.

Truett Seminary and School of Social Work connection

Lori E. Baker, Baylor’s vice provost for faculty development and diversity, said the partnership will help Truett Seminary learn how to adapt its program to be more culturally relevant in different locations, but the certificate of ministry is just a start. Pastors also will benefit from gaining skills in business, social work, marketing, health and education, to name a few, as the partnership develops and grows.

Lori Baker

“Baylor has 12 colleges and schools within the university, and we’ll be engaging all of them,” she said.

For example, Baylor’s Garland School of Social Work has a Global Missions Leadership program that will offer scholarships to young people from Compassion’s educational programs. Another area of focus will be health, and a Baylor professor and graduate student from Peru will begin working with Compassion on health topics in Guatemala.

“Poverty is so multi-dimensional,” Baker said. “We’ve got to hit it from every angle. Any tool that we can bring to the community is going to be translated into helping these children flourish and helping the community flourish. It’s pretty exciting to think that we have an avenue for doing that. As a university we might be able to aspire to do something like this on a very small scale, but it would take a very long time to ramp it up, to get partnerships and to get the trust to be able to bring this into different communities.”

Compassion fights poverty

Cookson said working on poverty at the local church level has been Compassion’s model since its founding in 1952, with 8,000 churches in 25 countries currently affiliated. That model will continue through the partnership with Baylor.

“When we release a child from poverty in Jesus’ name — that’s our tagline — we always offer it through that local church,” he said. “And obviously it’s important how well equipped that pastor is to deal with their local environments and how well educated they are in theology and social work and in trauma and in poverty and in education and in health. They can’t know all those things. They’re relying on their local experts in their local community. We’re not a school; we bring in tutors. We’re not a clinic; we bring in doctors. But as that pastor knows more about how to provide those services, then he can provide better services to that child.”

When Compassion speaks of children living in poverty, they’re talking about children living on less than $2 a day.

Cookson said when Compassion speaks of children living in poverty, they’re talking about children living on less than $2 a day.

“That’s a hard life, and that’s a tough life to have hope, and that’s a tough life to have a faith,” he said. “So when we educate those pastors to be able to speak to those aspects, that’s a clearer line of how a child goes from their day-to-day life to proceeding through the Compassion programs with a better knowledge of Christ and with a better equipping to be released from poverty.”

A long-term investment

Cookson said Compassion doesn’t provide just poverty intervention but instead changes lives through long-term interaction. Children remain in Compassion’s educational program for about eight years on average, and sponsors, numbering 1.5 million, are in it for the long term as well. Tying it all together are the pastors of the local churches.

“That pastor was there before Compassion was on the ground, they’re there while we’re on the ground, and they’re going to be there after we leave,” he said.

Baker said Baylor’s initial focus in Guatemala aligns directly with “Baylor in Latin America,” one of five academic initiatives in Baylor’s “Illuminate” strategic plan. In her faculty development role, she said she looks for opportunities for faculty “to be animated by their faith; to use their gifts and talents and expertise in ways that they feel called to do by God. Working alongside Compassion can really help our faculty see how they can engage their expertise in real-life work alongside other Christians.”

Cookson said that as director of strategic partnerships for Compassion, his role is to figure out how this and other partnerships will work, whether it be with tech companies, private companies, governments or churches.

“Academia has a huge part to play in this, and Baylor is an obvious candidate to get started with us,” he said. “It’s going to reach into seminary work, it’s going to reach into faculty, it’s going to reach into students, it’s going to reach into supporters, it’s going to reach into athletics. There’s all kinds of tentacles that we can leverage here. We just need to figure out what those specific items are.”

Months in the planning

The partnership between Baylor and Compassion International comes after several months of conversations between the two entities.

Santiago Mellado

“I can’t tell you how grateful I am to partner with Baylor to help release even more children from poverty in Jesus’ name,” said Santiago “Jimmy” Mellado, CEO of Compassion. “Innovating with a premier academic and research institution who shares our faith and our passion to serve the world’s most vulnerable children will be nothing short of transformational. Even in this early stage, I’m seeing how this partnership will expand our reach and impact to better care for more than 2.2 million children living in unacceptable poverty.”


Award-winning TV journalist returns to thank Houston church for its friendship

When broadcast journalist Deanna Dewberry gave her testimony to a Bible study class at Houston’s South Main Baptist Church, it was the continuation of an ongoing story of friendship and faith that spans the years and the miles.

Dewberry, a 12-time Emmy Award-winning news anchor and investigative reporter at WHEC-TV News10NBC in Rochester, N.Y., spoke to South Main’s Power and Light adult class by Zoom in late August. If anyone in the class didn’t know Dewberry, she definitely knew them and their pastor, Steve Wells. She and Wells became close friends as classmates at Smylie Wilson Middle School and Coronado High School in Lubbock, Texas, where they shared a love of music through choir and a strong Christian faith.

While her body was being treated, she found her soul being ministered to by South Main’s InSpirit Patient Housing ministry.

The journalist and pastor have remained close friends through the years, getting together when possible such as for a small “class reunion” among a half-dozen friends to share memories and catch up on their personal stories. Then in 2018, Wells and Dewberry were chatting on Facebook one night when she told him about her cancer diagnosis. He suggested she come to Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center for treatment.

Dewberry did exactly that, and while her body was being treated, she found her soul being ministered to by South Main’s InSpirit Patient Housing ministry, which for 40 years has provided affordable furnished apartments to medical patients coming to Houston from around the world for extended treatments at the various hospitals of the Texas Medical Center. Many of the volunteers who support the apartment ministry are members of South Main’s Power and Light Class, and they supported Dewberry with prayers, fellowship and open arms.

Steve Wells

“Deanna just became beloved in our church and in that Power and Light Sunday school class,” Wells said. “She was there on Sundays and on Wednesdays too.”

Dewberry returned to the class via Zoom in August to share her journey and her testimony. Using 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 as her text, Dewberry spoke about “God’s gift in grave situations.” She told how her time at MD Anderson was her fourth bout with cancer, having first been diagnosed with Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a 21-year-old student at the University of Texas. With a survival chance of 10%, “I was literally facing a grave situation,” she said.

She survived, only to be challenged with leukemia, two bouts of viral meningitis, epilepsy and Graves’ disease all before her 30th birthday, and still she found God’s grace to be sufficient. Then at 42, a diagnosis of breast cancer led to her decision to have a double mastectomy. She was cancer free for eight years until she found a lump below where her breast had been. This time, the cancer had spread, and it was attacked aggressively with chemo, surgery, radiation and more chemo.

“South Main was my home away from home during the six weeks I was at M.D. Anderson getting radiation treatment,” Dewberry told the class. “And you all provided so much friendship and such spiritual support while I was there that it was a gift.”

Dewberry with her mother

In the months following her time in Houston, Dewberry has faced another major challenge: the sudden death of her mother from pancreatic cancer. Again, she said, it was the grace of God expressed in Thessalonians that got her through.

“For the last year and a half that verse has really sat at the seat of my soul,” she said. “It guides me, it soothes me, it comforts me, it consoles me, it reminds me that God is.”

Dewberry said it has been difficult negotiating life without her mother.

“My mother’s love defined me,” she said, explaining that she assessed her value, talent and ability to achieve by the depth of her mother’s love. And while that may be true for any adult child with a close relationship with a parent, “it takes on a new dimension for a Black child in a white world,” she said. “If I valued my smart Black mother, then I had value too.”

Dewberry told the class that Lubbock was “painfully segregated” during her childhood. Zoning and land use plans didn’t allow Blacks to live anywhere other than the east side of the city while at the same time permitting industrial plants to operate next to minority neighborhoods. In 1975, her single, school-teacher mother set her sights on a small house on the west side of town, and she fought hard for the right to move. As a result, Dewberry was the only Black child in her elementary school for two years. When she got to Coronado High School, she was one of only five Blacks in her class of almost 600.

“If I valued my smart Black mother, then I had value too.”

“But where I found home was in choir with Steve,” she said.

Wells said he had other classes with Dewberry, including English, where her natural eloquence shined, “but our big experience together was in choir.”

During the Zoom visit, Dewberry brought the Power and Light Class up to date on her medical journey since leaving Houston and returning to work in Rochester. Most recently, she completed a year-long clinical trial for an immunotherapy.

“And two weeks ago, I rang the bell,” she said. “I’m done. I’m cancer free. I’m healthy and I’m here. Why? Because God’s grace is sufficient. (That is) God’s gift in grave situations.”

Speaking from Rochester a few weeks later, Dewberry said it was a joy to be back with the class.

“I got to know and love a husband and wife who are active in the housing ministry,” she said. “They invited me to their Sunday School class, and what a gift. The members of the class are really close, and that gives them the freedom to be open and honest, without the pretense you find in a room full of strangers. In that environment we shared weaknesses and vulnerabilities in our ongoing effort to become more like Christ.”

Being back with the class on Zoom “was like coming home,” Dewberry said. “My only regret is that we all couldn’t meet in person. But I have full faith I’ll see them again and be able to thank them in person for allowing me to share my heart with them and they with me.”

Wells said the last time he saw Dewberry in person was at the funeral service for her mother, where he was asked to speak. Several of their close school friends also were there.

“You just show up for people when you’re friends like that,” he said. “Jesus has made us family, and that’s what binds us.”

Majority of churches plan flat budgets for 2021, large survey finds

Fall is a traditional season for budget planning in many churches and denominations, with stewardship drives often following into the holidays, but COVID-19 has flattened expectations and heightened uncertainty, according to a new survey conducted by the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving.

The institute, a program of Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, surveyed 555 U.S. congregations in July about how they fared in the early months of the pandemic and their plans for the coming year. Respondents represent a wide diversity of congregations across a variety of religious traditions.

None of the congregations surveyed expected to increase its budget during the next year. The majority (52%) plan to maintain their current budgets, while 48% anticipate reductions, with most of those anticipating cuts in the 5% to 10% range.

This comes after overall congregational giving declined by 4.4% on average from February through June 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, the survey found. A plurality of congregations (41%) reported a decrease in giving, while more than a quarter (28%) said giving increased.

David King

“Most congregations stopped in-person religious services in mid-March, quickly shifting online, and they’ve had to navigate uncertainty in multiple aspects of congregational life and operations ever since,” said David King, director of the institute. “As congregations consider when and how to reopen while planning for their financial futures, they are asking themselves important questions about what comes next.”

Key findings from the survey that are highlighted by the institute include:

  • While a majority (52%) of congregations reported an increase in participation, a plurality (41%) experienced a decrease in giving.
  • Catholic parishes and small congregations (fewer than 50 weekly participants) reported declines in participation and giving more often than any other group.
  • 65% of congregations surveyed received federal Payroll Protection Program loans. Just 14% of all congregations reported having to make reductions, layoffs or furloughs of staff.
  • 30% of congregations raised funds to support other congregations and nonprofits in need.
  • Just over half (53%) of congregations reported they already had resumed in-person services or anticipated doing so by Sept. 1. One-third of congregations indicated they did not know when they would reopen.
  • Congregations’ political orientations appear to have a greater effect on reopening than do public health or financial considerations. Nearly three-quarters (71%) of conservative congregations had reopened or planned to reopen by August for in-person religious services, compared to 20% of liberal congregations and 49% of moderates.
  • Congregations that continue to face a financial shortfall going forward plan to continue to reduce administrative expenses while developing new fundraising appeals and drawing down from their financial reserves or endowment.

King said the fact that most congregations plan to maintain their current budgets next year or reduce them by a small percentage probably indicates some “paralysis” in decision making without a lot of information.

King said the fact that most congregations plan to maintain their current budgets next year or reduce them by a small percentage probably indicates some “paralysis” in decision making without a lot of information.

“But maintaining budgets in a year like this — sustaining your giving or sustaining your budget — really is a glass-half-full outcome in many ways,” he said.

King said there are similarities to the experiences of congregations and nonprofits during the pandemic, especially those working in social services. Both saw an influx of funds during the early months of the pandemic but also a dramatic rise in the need for their services.

“For both nonprofits and congregations, I think the worry is, ‘What will happen over the next six months if we’re going to continue with the pandemic similar to now?’ There’s a little bit of fatigue for donors to nonprofits and increasing uncertainty with an election coming and with economic uncertainty,” he explained.

King said that while the survey is reflective of 555 complete responses from congregations, hundreds more gave good information.

“We are grateful for that response because we asked a lot of congregational leaders at a time when a lot is being asked of them,” he said. “Congregations were really very honest with us. Not only did we ask questions about whether their giving was up or down, but we asked specific questions about the exact financial amount that they received in the spring and in various months.”

King said this level of response helps the institute fulfill its mission of tying research to education and practices.

“Our hope is to be able to give back and offer the best information to help add context and clarity to what’s happening to congregations, so they don’t feel isolated and alone,” he said. “Demonstrating what’s happening across the landscape of congregations is a helpful tool for congregations to have as they’re reflecting on their own practices.”

Find the full survey results here.

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12 trends for being church in a post-pandemic world

Pandemic opens the door to a far-flung notion of church membership

There’s nothing new about people attending church in their living rooms and kitchens. Since the earliest days of television, there has been a symbiotic relationship between preachers and viewers. But what once was a sometimes-dubious bond — with televangelists offering prayers in exchange for donations — has given way to full-fledged online church membership. In some cases, this began before COVID-19, but more congregations are ramping up efforts during the pandemic to attract and nurture online members.

A Pew Research Center survey of church activities during the pandemic, published in August, seems to indicate that virtual church attendance has taken hold in the United States. Among regular worshippers, one-third say they have attended religious services in person while nearly three-quarters have watched virtually. Half of regular worshippers have replaced in-person attendance with virtual services, and just over half of adults who have recently watched virtual services had not done so before the outbreak.

Screenshot of a pre-service slide from Cathedral of Hope.

Among churches with longstanding long-distance members is Cathedral of Hope in Dallas. Established as a Metropolitan Community Church in 1970 and then joining the United Church of Christ in 2006, Cathedral of Hope has a 50-year history as an affirming place of worship for the LGBTQ community, and that has attracted worshipers from throughout the United States and beyond. The church reports a formal membership of about 4,500, with several hundred of those being online members.

“For a long time, Cathedral of Hope has been engaged in distribution of worship services, whether by broadcast on TV and now online,” said Andria M. Davis, associate pastor. “So the question we’ve really been asking ourselves is: Is that enough? And for us for a long time, it was.”

When the pandemic pushed entire congregations into the new world of virtual worship, it also opened the doors for virtual gatherings of small groups for Bible study and other activities. The result is that once-anonymous online worshipers are now gaining names and faces through Zoom and other meeting platforms.

“Every week we have folks who worship with us who are from all over the world, and so we’re trying to mobilize people where they are,” Davis said. “That means pathways to small groups that meet in virtual contexts. Because of the pandemic, it’s been much easier to make that jump.”

Screenshot from homepage of Wilshire Baptist Church.

On the other side of Dallas, Wilshire Baptist Church had just one virtual member — in Brazil — before the pandemic, but has since added six more in far-flung locations such as Mexico, Oregon, North Carolina and Massachusetts. Others have joined the church from as far out as 30 to 40 miles, and unknown numbers are visiting online from unknown locations.

“The biggest issue is how to find them, and the biggest worry is how to keep them engaged,” said Carolyn Murray, coordinator of congregational life.

In addition to streaming its worship service live for nine years now, Wilshire has offered a livestream adult Sunday school class since 2015. A second class will go live when the pandemic ends, but all Bible study is virtual through Zoom or Facebook for now.

“We are also connecting the virtual members with a first-year pastoral resident as a source of pastoral care,” Murray said, referring to the church’s longstanding Pathways to Ministry program in which seminary graduates learn and serve in the congregation for two years.

Carolyn Murray

Murray said Wilshire considers virtual members to be “full” members, and with that has come a question of what to do when the church votes on a matter — such as with votes in recent years about inclusion and diversity and acceptance of forms of baptism other than immersion. While virtual members are fully eligible to vote, the church’s bylaws imply that voting must be done in person, and indeed that has been the case in the past.

Cathedral of Hope has grappled with church polity too, but engagement and mission are the priorities, Davis said.

“Frankly, while we do have processes for that — we have proxy voting, we have absentee voting, that kind of thing — that’s not the point,” she said. “It’s all about how do we engage with folks and create a home for people, a faith home, a church home, a community that they can identify with and be on this spiritual faith journey with? That’s No. 1, and so we set the polity question aside.”

Long-distance history

When it comes to long-distance reach, few churches have more experience than Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, founded in 1628 and gaining an international following during the pastorate of Norman Vincent Peale from 1932 to 1984. Peale’s books and radio programs brought many to the church while on vacation or business in New York and helped generate a strong following through the mail. During the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, the church deployed the then-new technology of closed-circuit television to accommodate overflow crowds for worship. While that experience did not lead directly to the growth of online membership, it gave the church some experience with distant congregants.

Screenshot from Marble Collegiate website

Kim Sebastian-Ryan, Marble’s director of membership and connecting, said the church began working on its online presence 12 years ago. It began with livestreaming Sunday and Wednesday worship services and then adding Bible studies and affinity groups. The new online offerings were embraced by members who had moved away but wanted to stay connected and by others who found their way to Marble on their own and wanted a way to connect from afar. Through the years they’ve built on that, and now with COVID they’ve opened up their call links so they can have 100 or more callers for different gatherings and can use breakout rooms to create smaller groups.

Today, Marble Collegiate has some 2,000 members, but it does not have a firm number for how many of those are virtual.

“We make no distinction in membership,” Sebastian-Ryan explained. “Whether you are worshipping online or are here, we want you to be a member of our Marble family.”

Virtual missions and service

While technology has bridged the gap between in-person and online worship and Bible study, the last frontier for online church membership may be in missions activities, where members come out of the pews and serve each other and their community.

“We certainly have members who are plugging in online that are committee members online and are board members online,” said Sebastian-Ryan at Marble Collegiate. “At the committee level, there is always involvement in the planning (of missions efforts). But in the actual doing level, we’re working on that. It’s always a work in progress, and we acknowledge that with everybody.”

Adria Davis in a recent online worship video from Cathedral of Hope.

Davis said Cathedral of Hope is addressing that by asking outreach groups to develop and design ministries that can be transplanted to members wherever they are. An example is “Taste of Hope,” a ministry where volunteers meet in private homes twice a month to prepare hot meals for delivery to food insecure and homeless people in Dallas.

“They’ve designed their model so that it can be replicated wherever people are — wherever these home groups are. That can be in Dallas, it can be in Fort Worth, it can be in Austin, in the middle of Wyoming somewhere, it can be in the middle of Australia or England, where we have communities,” she said. “Using that as a model is how we’re going to continue to carry this forward through this pandemic time and then into whatever this new normal may be.”

Another question that looms for any church wanting to nurture and maintain an online membership presence is how to keep online members logging in, including when the church doors open again.

“How do we honor their experience and keep them engaged in the life of the church when we shift gears?” Davis asked.

South Main Baptist Church in Houston has seen an uptick in people around the country who are participating in discipleship groups via Zoom in addition to attending online worship, according to Matt Walton, minister for discipleship.

Matt Walton leading in online worship at South Main Baptist Church.

“These were folks who pre-pandemic connected to our live virtual broadcast of worship and during the pandemic (with all discipleship groups meeting virtually), joined our local groups which are now online,” he said. “This has caused us to begin considering how we might continue virtual connection alongside groups meeting physically on our campus when we are able to do so again.”

Marble Collegiate’s Sebastian-Ryan said that when online members depart, it’s for the same reasons that local members leave: major life changes and getting involved in a local church.

“We do have some longevity,” she said. “We haven’t had anyone say, ‘This just isn’t working for me.’”

Caleb Lawrence, a deacon at Bethel Baptist Church in White Plains, N.Y., voiced some of the issues that many churches may have going forward. Bethel has 250 active members with a few who have joined online and living hundreds of miles away.

“All who have a level of technological skill have been very consistent,” he said. “If this modality for church goes forward, I expect more to join online and participate. I think because this is our ‘new normal,’ opening the doors of the church will not eliminate virtual service, ministry, meetings, fellowship and choirs. However, going forward we must have a plan that strengthens membership commitments to being discipled. As it stands now, some have joined two or three different churches at the same time, which is not provided for in our constitution.”

Rebuilding the rolls

Allen Walworth, a former pastor and now executive vice president of Generis, financial consultants to churches and nonprofits, said online church may provide the membership lift that many churches have been seeking.

Allen Walworth

“We’ve lamented declining attendance, which is primarily because the same people just don’t come as many Sundays,” he said. “The overall net result is declining attendance by about 15% in the last 10 years. We can probably reclaim a lot of that — if we accept that and train those people to continue to plug in and be involved.”

Walworth said the new world of online church attendance “will fit a more mobile congregational life even when there’s not a health crisis that is separating us. Frankly, our affluence separates us because people are out and gone.”

Davis at Cathedral of Hope said it is understood that some of those who have engaged with the church for the first time online during the pandemic will come through the doors post-pandemic, some will remain online members, and some will move on when churches closer to home reopen.

“When folks find what they need, we’re not jealous, because people finding any faith community to grow in their faith with is really what we want,” she said. “The gospel is big enough for everyone.”

A new way of being church

Church consultant Susan Beaumont sees long-term change coming because of the virtual church world that is sustaining spiritual communities right now.

“There are a lot of people finding their way to us online only,” she said. “If we don’t adjust our assumptions about belonging, we’re going to lose people who have found their way to us during the pandemic. This is turned upside down. People are finding their way to us and have nothing to with worship, don’t care about our building. Are they going to become lesser-status people?

“I’m hearing from pastors everywhere who are attracting people from around the world,” she added. “Geography doesn’t count anymore. What does belonging and membership mean if you don’t have physical geography anymore?”

Jeff Hampton is a freelance writer based in Dallas. He is the author of six books, including Aransas Morning, Aransas Evening, Grandpa Jack, Jonah Prophet, When the Light Returned to Main Street and The Snowman Uprising on Hickory Lane. His collected work may be viewed at his website.

This story was made possible by gifts to the Mark Wingfield Fund for Interpretive Journalism.

If you’d like to learn more about churches and virtual membership:

A random sampling of churches shows that some are not shy about the concept of “online” membership.

Guiding Light Church in Birmingham, Ala., has a web page titled Online Membership stating:

“We are a big-hearted ministry that would like to include you in our family. No, you don’t have to attend our church (but you can!). We’re inviting you to become an Online Member. As an online member, you will benefit from teachings, personal prayer for your submitted requests by our Prayer Warriors and activities that are reserved for members only. Come on! Get connected with GLC!”

The membership page for Grace Church in Dumfries, Va., has a message for those who can’t get to church any other way: “It is God’s desire that you connect with the local church and fellowship with other believers. However, Grace Church understands that certain circumstances don’t allow you to. If that’s you, come connect with us by becoming a Grace Church member!”

In South Carolina, Relentless Church gives equal exposure to its “Greenville Campus” and its “Online Campus”: “Relentless Online gives you the ability to connect no matter where you are! Relentless Online is a community that experiences spiritual growth together, globally. We engage with each other during the worship and the message from our pastor… . Each and every Sunday, our online community, volunteer hosts and members log in and share the church experience together. We stay connected through the live chat, prayer, membership, weekly encouragement, life groups and volunteering.”

Likewise, OpenDoor Church in Burleson, Texas, states on its website: “Now that we have an online campus, we want to give people all over the world an opportunity to become a member of our church. If you would like to become an online member, all you need to do is watch a short video below and fill out the form and someone from our team will be in contact with you (for) more information.”