Nine churches in one small town band together to become stronger
By Lindsay Peyton
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Pastor Carmen Rickel of FUMC Elkhart brainstormed with the leaders of other churches in town about how to best serve the community. Banding together is nothing new in Elkhart; it is simply the way local churches operate. In fact, they are known as the United Churches of Elkhart, an ecumenical organization that unites congregations in worship, missions and outreach.
Since Pastor Carmen Rickel moved to Elkhart about four and a half years ago, she found a new family comprised of other pastors serving the same town. Regardless of denomination, the churches stand together and support each other.
For the past couple of years, the pastors have meet weekly for prayer – often putting their heads together to come up with solutions to concerns. Together, Rickel said, they can do more and reach more people.
“We couldn’t be doing the things we’re doing if we had to do them all independently,” the pastor said. “We are a small community.”
The United Churches of Elkhart includes the Assembly of God, Washington’s Chapel, First Baptist, FUMC, Congregational Methodist, Family of Faith, Church of Christ and Rocky Mound Missionary Baptist. In addition, they meet each week with Superintendent Dr. Lamont Smith at Elkhart ISD, who is also a pastor at Trinity Baptist Church in Dallas.
At Christmas, the United Churches of Elkhart go caroling together. They join to host VBS, National Night Out and an annual Thanksgiving celebration. The churches all volunteer to run the Elkhart Food Pantry, and the faith leaders take turns preaching at the annual revival. The congregations also collect school supplies, donations for the holidays and feed the football team and school staff.
When FUMC Elkhart recently had a gas leak, they headed to First Baptist to finish their service – and when that church’s Pastor Jason Hoffman was sick, Rickel delivered his Sunday sermon in his stead.
“We are all one faith community,” Rickel said. “We just meet at different places on Sundays.”
During the coronavirus, however, church members have been able to watch devotionals and prayers from all of the pastors in one place.
The pastors also started posting their services and announcements to one Facebook page – under United Churches of Elkhart.
For the past couple of years, the churches have provided Lenten lunches together, complete with a discussion provided by either Rickel, Hoffman or David Franklin, with the Congregational Methodist church. “We pick a topic, and it’s different each time,” she said.
As social distancing became the new normal, the churches did not want to miss this opportunity to learn about Lent, Pastor Hoffman explained. “We didn’t want to miss that,” he said. “We still wanted to do the devotion – so we did. It just takes coordination, and with this group, it just felt natural.”
The clergy moved the luncheons online and were still able to deliver the message to their congregations. Working together for Lent also led to the churches joining on Easter.
Hoffman wanted to host a service and still maintain a distance. He thought of the Christmas light drive-throughs, where families are instructed to tune their radios into holiday music.
“An FM transmitter would be the perfect solution to those of us who still wanted a service,” Hoffman said.
He purchased the transmitter, and the United Churches of Elkhart joined to host one big Easter drive-in service this year.
Dr. Smith suggested that they use the high school. About 200 people drove in to worship. “Each preacher picked a part and four churches participated,” Rickel said. “Our people loved it – and they loved being together.”
The Easter service was so successful that the United Churches of Elkhart are considering doing next year as well. The churches are also planning a community-wide worship service outdoors this summer.
“COVID-19 allowed us to do some things together that we wouldn’t have thought of before,” Rickel said. “God planted the seed a while ago – and that made us able to come together as a community at this time. We can do this, because we’re used to working together.”
Dr. Smith said that he was surprised when he first met the pastors. He worked with various church groups in the past, when he served at another ISD, to find ways to build connections in the community and work together for the benefit of students.
Smith soon discovered that the pastors were already meeting – and were eager to assist the schools. “They are extremely supportive,” he said. “All I have to do is speak, and they’ll ask, ‘How can we help?’ It’s pretty powerful.”
He enjoys joining in the effort. “We encourage one another,” he said. “When we get in a room, there’s no big ‘I’s or little ‘you’s. We’re all in it for the community.”
The United Churches of Elkhart set a good example in the school district – and to the community as a whole. “It’s uncommon what we have, these pastors working together,” he said. “I wish it would be contagious, that everyone would pick up on it. I’m just fortunate to be here. We’re all better, because of each other.”
Pastor Hoffman said that the United Churches of Elkhart is unusual – in the best possible way. “We have a unique arrangement,” he said. “It’s the right folks at the right place and the right leadership.”
And there’s a recognition that all of the churches have a common goal. “When we are doing something that points people to Jesus, we do it together,” Hoffman said.
Already pastors from other communities are taking note of what is happening in Elkhart – and Hoffman enjoys sharing the story. “It’s a conversation I get to have all the time,” he said. “Let me tell you what happens in my little town, where all the churches come together.”
Rickel is looking forward to restaurants opening their doors so the pastors can continue their tradition of monthly lunches. “The community would see us laughing and cutting up,” she said. “They enjoy seeing us together.”
The pastor said that she has lived in and served other communities – but has never before witnessed this type of support and this level of collaboration.
She is well aware of how special this community is. “We always want to be in awe that this is going on here – and not take it for granted,” she said.