Small UMC with too much money serves community
By Lindsay Peyton
Members of a small rural East Texas church have big plans to make positive change in their community. Mt. Zion UMC in DeBerry invested in their neighbors – at a time when many needed their help more than ever.
The Rev. Gene Evans was not sure what to expect when he was first appointed pastor of Mt. Zion UMC in January. The church is located in DeBerry, an unincorporated community in Panola County. The town has a population of about 3,300 – and sits closer to Shreveport than other larger Texas cities.
Evans clearly remembers when he first arrived, preparing his sermon outside. He started to pray for guidance.
“All I could hear were cows mooing,” he said with a laugh. “We are a small rural church, and when I say rural, I mean there are nothing but cows as far as you can see around the church.”
Evans expected to find a stereotypical country congregation, struggling to survive in trying times. The story is not uncommon, he explained, of small churches becoming too inwardly focused, and it hurts their membership and discipleship. “I was kind of nervous, but I felt this was where God was calling me,” he said.
Before long, Evans discovered that Mt. Zion was not at all what he anticipated.
“I got here and everything I expected from a rural church was completely thrown out the window,” he said.
The congregation was already thinking of ways to serve their community more – and building a financial foundation to make an impact. “Mt. Zion was faced with a problem that I had not heard of in my 20 years in ministry; they had too much money,” Evans said.
The congregation had been building a rainy day fund and saved up a surplus of $100,000. Members told the pastor that they actually felt guilty for having too big of a reserve, saying, “A church should not have this kind of money sitting in a bank, when we could be using it for outreach and to spread the gospel.”
“Those words just sung to me,” Evans said. “They were already on this path. And I was just along for the ride and to serve as crew leader. It was just about helping guide the way.”
He suggested that the next step would be establishing a subcommittee to look at funding opportunities. “We began meeting and trying to decide how we were going to invest this money in the kingdom,” Evans said.
The subcommittee meet twice in March to narrow down ways to invest. “By May, we started writing checks,” Evans explained.
Serving locally seemed like the best tactic, the pastor added. “People in your immediate community should know that there’s a church in their town where they can go for help,” he said.
The subcommittee decided to start by distributing $25,000 to various organizations. One of the first worthy causes identified was Faith and Fostering, a newly formed nonprofit in Shreveport that helps children aging out of the foster system. The church pledged $5,000 a year to sponsor two children. “That one really played on our heart strings,” Evans said.
The pastor explained that another top priority was investing in local schools – and the church was able to provide $1,000 each to the elementary, middle and high schools toward programs for children in need.
In addition, Mt. Zion created a quarterly program to buy and serve breakfast for school employees. “That’s from the janitors to the principles,” Evans said.
The church also helped a local summer reading program expand its operations to reach the rural students of Panola county, providing $1,500 to cover the expenses. In addition, the congregation provided scholarships to students in the area.
“We set up a fund for a local woman diagnosed with leukemia and were able to pay $5,000 of her medical bills,” Evans said. “And we sent $3,500 to the Shriner’s hospital down the road.”
And that’s just the beginning, he explained. “Our plan is to continuing doing this twice a year,” he said.
Mt. Zion is setting up more projects to fund and this is simply the first round of giving. The goal is to “increase the love radius that extends from Mt. Zion UMC to Panola county and the world,” Evans explained.
He said that this congregation has a heart for this type of work. “This is simply who these people are,” he added. “We want to help as many people as we can. And we will do more. This establishes a pattern for us. Once our needs are met, everything else is about investing in God’s kingdom.”
Evans believes that Mt. Zion stands as a testament to how local churches can serve as the mission arm for their communities. “Invest in those churches who have been around for 150 years,” he said. “Help them renovate. They have the resources and drive to be a conduit for God’s will.”
“If we can empower our small churches, we have a big opportunity for the rebirth of Wesleyan theology,” he added.