How 2021 has taught a TAC church to transform missions

By Lindsay Peyton

FUMC Grand Saline was prepared to become a shelter during the winter storm. When no one arrived, however, church members saw an opportunity to begin a new conversation. The congregation has a heart for outreach – and continually seeks ways do more and serve better, even in the midst of the pandemic.

Members of FUMC, Grand Saline contacted their Pastor Susan Smith when forecasts began reporting an Arctic blast on its way. “They saw there was a need to help people, and they asked, ‘Can we open?’” she recalled. “I texted my leadership and was thrilled when they said yes.”

The church campus has a gymnasium and a preschool that would perfectly transform into a shelter, complete with a kitchen when needed. “We were ready,” Smith said. “We had power. We had water.”

She has served the church since July and said the area lost power frequently. “In the storm, I figured we’d be sitting ducks,” she said. “If we lose power when the wind blows, what will happen in a storm?”

The church, however, and surrounding community were spared from the winter storm’s damage. A neighboring congregation in Edgewood lost everything, but icy roads prevented them from traveling to shelter in the Grand Saline church.

It became like an emergency drill, Smith explained. “We were ready to serve,” she said. “We realized we need to be prepared to do this in other times. How do we do that?”

Smith discovered that her congregation was more than willing to do whatever it took to be a shelter when needed. Members even volunteered to stay the night at the church.

Now, she wants to delve deeper into how the campus can help others during a future weather event. “It’s opening up a discussion about what is a church and what is the intention of a church?” she explained.

That’s actually a dialogue Grand Saline FUMC has been engaged in since COVID-19 started, Smith said. The congregation was able to quickly adapt its services in response to the pandemic.

For example, the food pantry on campus went from one where guests could shop for items to one where they could drive up and have volunteers drop a box of goods in their trunk.

The food bank operates from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. every first and third Thursday of the month. “There’s never been a time when we weren’t serving people,” Smith said.

The pandemic also changed the children’s academy on campus, the pastor explained. The long-running preschool completely ceased operation because of the virus.

But that didn’t stop members from finding a way to continue to use the space to serve others. Now the building has transformed into an extended mother day’s off program, open every Tuesday and Thursday for parents and grandparents who need to-drop off their children to run errands or take a break.

“It’s opening up our eyes to do something different than what we know,” Smith said. “It’s not, here’s what we offer, take it or leave it. Instead it’s asking, ‘What are your needs and how do we meet those needs?”

The children’s academy used to operate on the church campus but independently. “Now it’s a mission of the church,” Smith said. “And that just changed your whole thinking.”

She believes that outreach happens best when asking how to help is the first question. “It’s really about stepping into someone else’s shoes,” she said.

Grand Saline FUMC also administers a ministerial alliance, which is built by all the area churches working together. Smith said that individuals know they can go to the church when they need help – and that the congregation’s offices are open to them throughout the week.

“I love that our church is open,” she said. “Often people walk in off the street.”

For instance, during a recent Bible study, a man in need of assistance appeared at the church. “I’m looking for a church that’s open,” he said. “I just need to talk to someone.”

Grand Saline FUMC was the only place with a light on at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday. “I just thought, praise God, we’re here,” Smith said. “We can listen to you. We can pray with you. When you’re in need, a church should be a place where you can go.”

The ministerial alliance and Salvation Army funds allow Grand Saline to help in additional ways, like preventing utilities from being shut off by covering a bill.

Smith sometimes takes people off the streets into the food pantry to find items they need. The church is even stocked with diapers for parents who cannot afford them.

“There’s a Dollar General down the street,” Smith added. “If we know what you need, we can get it. That’s why we’re here.”

Smith said that COVID-19, in many ways, helped churches discover opportunities for more outreach. “The church needs to shift,” she added. “We’ve served our own for so long. We need to focus on serving others.”

That includes serving others who do not already have a relationship with God. “And we strengthen our relationship with God by serving them with grace and love, not duty and obligation,” Smith said. “Sometimes that help is simply listening to them.”

She encourages other congregations to search for ways to better serve their community by first learning more about its needs. “Keep your eyes open for what God is doing in your community and how you can step into that,” she said. “Our Bishop always talks about asking, ‘God, how do I join you today?’ Sometimes, it’s just stepping back — and then taking the steps to get there.”

Smith believes that the week of severe winter weather was a lesson. “This time with the storm could be God saying, ‘Prepare. Are you prepared in the future to do this?’” she explained. “With the storm, we were ready to do something in a moment’s notice. With some time, we can be prepared to do some much more.”

Similarly, the coronavirus has been a learning opportunity. “With COVID, we thought it would only be a couple of weeks, but as it went longer and longer, we had to change,” she said.

That meant learning new technology and discovering new ways to worship, serve and disciple. “What is the priority? We can’t do it the way we’ve always done it,” Smith said.

Congregations had to reassess their resources and look for new direction — and ultimately lean on faith to persevere. “With God, we can do so much more,” Smith said.