Churches get creative in welcoming new guests

Date Posted: 10/28/2021

By Lindsay Peyton  
This fall, congregations in the Texas Annual Conference welcomed members in creative ways, as part of the “Return to School, Return to Church, Return to Community” campaign. Many churches applied for grants that were part of the initiative. The grants were generously donated by United Methodist Communications. Ten churches received $500 each to support their exemplary ideas. Here are our honorees:
Pine Grove UMC’s renovation project
Pine Grove UMC was constructed in the early 1950s, a small wooden building with a steeple on top. The church sits back off the road in the countryside in Hemphill, a town in east Texas. “There has not been any major renovation to the building since it was built,” Rev. Joyce White said.
That is, until Jan. 2019, when the focus became a remodel of the fellowship hall, foyer and pastor’s study. A project of this scale takes time and funding to complete, White explained, and Pine Grove UMC will use their grant to continue working on the renovation. “With the completion of our project, we can open doors to more community involvement events,” White said. “We are working to save souls for Christ. With an open mind, heart, and open doors -- we can fulfill this goal.”
Drive-thru Christmas at Huntington UMC
When Jamie Burnett, chair of the board of stewards at Huntington UMC, heard about the grant opportunity, she proposed an old-fashioned ice cream social. Everyone -- city leaders, first responders, school faculty and staff, fellow pastors and congregations -- would be invited in Huntington, Texas, as well as residents from surrounding communities. Then, she received a call that her proposal was accepted. “I was like, you’ve got to be kidding me,” she recalled. “We were so excited.”
When the Delta variant unfortunately halted their plans for the event, Huntington UMC quickly shifted gears. Now, they will use the grant for a drive-thru Christmas, complete with hot chocolate and candy canes. Holiday films will play on the big screen and parked cars will have FM radio tuners, just like in a drive-in movie.

Porter-Friendship UMC’s partnership with Porter Elementary 
During the past 18 months of COVID-19, Porter-Friendship UMC has worked hard to solidify its relationship with nearby Porter Elementary. The Title 1 school had an F rating in 2019 – and the congregation wanted to help turn that score around. “In spite of our challenges, Porter Elementary is growing and improving,” Rev. Alan Van Hooser said. “We are looking forward to a new ‘report card’ next spring, which will show our progress.”
With grant funding, the church was able to join with school counselors and the principal to plan the “Welcome Back Porter Elementary School” event in August. The meet-the-teacher night and celebration reached 600 students. The grant allowed the church to bring a bounce house, hot dogs and snacks to the festivities. Church volunteers were also on deck.  “This is a great opportunity for both Porter Elementary and Friendship UMC to break into our neighborhood community in a positive way,” Van Hooser said. “Many thanks to the TAC for the grant that made it happen.”
Bible study and youth programming at Cheatham Memorial UMC
Cheatham Memorial UMC used the grant for two projects. Pastor David McGlocklin launched a 31-week Bible study during worship and a Sunday School called “The Story.” The series is now in its 13th week. “And we've had more than a dozen visitors and half have of them have returned multiple weeks,”  he said. That portion of the grant focused on adults.
Then, Cheatham Memorial created a back-to-church campaign for youth entitled, “Spark Studios.” The program, held on Wednesday evenings, helps youth explore their worship gifts. “The youth are not only learning musical skills, but for those without musical skills the technical skills to run worship,” McGlocklin explained. The concept led the church board to approve funding for a part-time youth pastor, he added, as well as the launch of a youth-led worship experience next year.
When the pastor received a call to let him know that Cheatham Memorial was selected for the grant, he was pleasantly surprised. “I was elated,” he recalled. “We're a small-town church with a big heart for the community, and it felt awesome that a small-town church might be considered for a grant like this.”
Spreading the word of the new hope center Waller UMC
At Waller UMC, receiving the award was affirmation that the church is moving in the right direction. “For us to have gotten that grant, it was almost like saying ‘your work in not in vain,’” Rev. Cathy Beasley explained.
The pastor said that Waller UMC has been building its options to serve children in the community, including hosting a summer experience and building its own Hope Center in partnership with Cy-Hope, to help area school students.
The grant allowed the congregation to host a successful back-to-church event, and welcome visiting families. Waller even signed up a couple new members. “We are seeking God’s call for our presence to be the church in a changing and growing community,” Beasley said.
Honoring teachers and celebrating students at FUMC Crockett
After learning that Crockett ISD was starting the school year on Aug. 23, FUMC Crockett began putting a plan together to welcome teachers. The congregation hosted a fajita luncheon for new teachers and staff during their in-service training. “We let them know our church deeply appreciated the sacrifices they make through the school year,” Rev. Michael Bedevian said.
The following week, the church organized a cookie and brownie delivery to the teachers’ lounges on each campus. Then, the Sunday before school began, the church scheduled its Back-to-School service, honoring teachers and students. A blessing of the backpacks was held. After service, the Back-to-School Bash started, with a bounce house, a water slide and games.
“The turnout that Sunday was a blessing for all of us,” Bedevian said. “We have several new young couples visiting our church since then and one couple recently joined. I’m so thankful to our conference for giving us the support and encouragement to make this happen.”
Church Reunion FUMC Bay City
At FUMC Bay City, the award was used for Church Reunion Sunday on Aug. 15. The date marked the return of adult Sunday school and a special worship service, complete with a blessing of the backpacks, choir and bell choir music and the distribution of third grade Bibles. “We had a great Church Reunion Sunday,” Rev. Wade Floyd said. “In the midst of the Delta variant, we continued with our plans to focus on worship, discipleship, fellowship and mission.”
He explained that during the pandemic, FUMC Bay City held Bible study on Zoom and an online Sunday school for children. Now, with the help of Church Reunion Sunday, the church has four adult discipleship groups, as well as two for children and one for youth.  “That's from none, to two, to seven in less than 18 months!” Floyd said.
On Church Reunion Sunday, the church also hosted a mission fair to introduce members to volunteer opportunities and a school supply drive. The day culminated in a fried chicken fellowship lunch. “It had been since March of 2020 -- 17 months -- since the church had a fellowship lunch,” Floyd added. “The fellowship had at the lunch was one of the best I have ever seen, and many others said the same.”
Return celebrations at Trinity East UMC
The support from the Conference helped Trinity East UMC have a successful Return Back  campaign, Rev. Marilyn White said. The congregation welcomed back members in a number of ways.
In August, Trinity East scheduled an entire week of community-wide Vacation Bible School, and also reopened its food pantry with a drive-through distribution. “We were able to bless 100 households with food,” White said. “Our pantry had been closed for over a year, and we received many responses from our community thanking us for coming back.”
A Back-to-School social event was also scheduled under a big tent outside. To-go lunches were provided, and each school age student received a backpack with supplies. Children who had never been to Trinity East UMC before stayed to attend worship. “We were also delighted to welcome some school administrators and teachers,” White said.
Community-wide return campaign at Elkhart FUMC
When school began last year, nothing was normal, Rev. Carmen Rickel explained. Now, she is ready for a change. “It is time to live into our new normal and be interactive as a community again,” she said.
And in Elkhart, that means returning as an entire community, not simply one church family. The Back to School, Back to Church, Back to Community campaign was shared by multiple congregations. “If we can get more people back in church and being the church, it does not matter whose pew they are sitting in, because it is a win for the Kingdom of God – and that is what we are all about,” Rickel said.
Grant funding offset the cost of three events for the church – a back to school lunch for Elkhart ISD staff co-hosted by the Baptist church, a hamburger fundraiser for the Volunteer Fire Department, and a potluck after Back to Church Day.
“Our church operates off of a bare bones budget, meaning we really don't have a budget and only spend what we actually have to,” Rickel said. “Receiving the grant helped us to not have to ask the congregation for added donations to help with our Back to School, Back to Church, Back to Community event.”

Celebration of the return of M&Ms at Lexington UMC
Lexington UMC has hosted an afterschool program for elementary students called M&Ms for two decades. “But COVID made us take a break,” Rev. Raegan Seaton said.
This fall, the program made a comeback. With the grant funding, the church was able to host a community event to spread the word. When the rain forced the celebration indoors, that meant moving even a bouncy house inside. Attendees also enjoyed a build-your-own nacho bar. Children were invited to design their own backpack tags, which were then laminated.
The festivities also doubled as an invitation to tell families about youth and adult programs. “Without this grant, I’m not sure this would be possible,” Seaton said.