Christ is alive in the country
|Pancake breakfasts hosted by Brookfield Eaton UMC support local and global mission.
|Heritage UMC is a merger of three congregations now moving forward together to Connect-Grow-Serve.
|Brethren Epworth UMC hosts programs like Cooking Matters to enable training and fellowship for their neighbors.
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WMC) -- “Knee high by the 4th of July.” “He’s all vines and no taters.” If you know what those old sayings mean, chances are you also know why West Michigan’s Rural Life Sunday Offering is so important to the life of this Annual Conference.
This year the official day for taking the offering is August 26 but it can be scheduled whenever convenient for your congregation. The Rev. Carl Litchfield explains that this special offering has been taken since 1993. “So next year will be the 20th.” Carl goes on to say, “We have distributed an average of $10,000 a year. This means we are approaching $200,000 in funds received and distributed in the last 20 years!”
Because leadership is such a key component to church vitality, many of those dollars have been used for scholarships for Course of Study and seminary students preparing for service in rural church settings. Carl adds, “We have also provided emergency funds to pastors in rural settings and technology grants for rural churches as the funds were available.”
We asked Carl for some examples of rural churches doing great ministry. Here are four snapshots…
Fifteen years ago a Pentecost Sunday wind storm hit the West Michigan heartland. That started a process that led to the merger of Maple Hill, Howard City and Coral UMCs. “When three families come together, you have your struggles,” says the Rev. Brad Brillhart, pastor of Heritage UMC since 2007. “Today the congregation is moving forward as one church. When I came they were ready to turn the corner.”
After studying the book, Simple Church, Heritage is following a Connect-Grow-Serve model of ministry. “The challenge,” says Brad, “is being the church by becoming intentional in Christian community.” He believes Heritage has an important asset: “We are a medium church with a small church mindset. People enjoy getting to know one another.” Brad is convinced there is value in sticking to the basics. Sometimes it’s something as simple as a prayer shawl. “We get a lot of feedback from those who have received the shawls saying, ‘Wow! This touched my life. I have felt God through you!’”
Amble UMC was part of the merger discussions that gave birth to Heritage UMC. But distance from the other congregations led to their decision to remain independent. According to their present pastor, Anne Reigler, that caused a split in the church. A retired elder had the patience to help them through a period of fragmentation. “Sometimes small churches are seen as a bother,” Anne notes. “But we’d be in bad shape if it weren’t for churches like Amble!”
The neighborhood consists of the church and a biker bar and a lot of transient people who are really isolated. When Anne arrived the congregation of 50 members was doing six Feeding America food trucks a year. In 2012, in a tough economy, they increased that number to eight. “We average 70 families at the trucks. We will have people sitting in the parking lot at 11 a.m. for a 5:00 p.m. food distribution,” Anne notes. They provide food for the soul as well as for the spirit. “We started walking down the line asking for prayer requests,” the pastor says. “That has really opened doors. God is helping us take barriers down.” They offer lemonade in the summer and coffee in the winter. “It makes us known,” Anne explains. “I have a dream that one day the doors of the Amble church will be open seven days a week. That’s not happening now but it will someday!’
Becoming more visible in an isolated spot has its challenges. Anne rejoices in several young families who want the church to grow. “These parents decided the outside of the church needs to look kid-friendly so they raised funds and are putting up a play structure.” The congregation’s short-term dream is to put up a pavilion for members and neighbors to use. Long-term they hope to construct a community building that can provide ongoing services in the same spirit that now powers the food trucks. “I think we do a good job of discipling,” concludes Anne, “because small churches find strength in the depth of relationships they nurture.”
Brookfield Eaton UMC
The Rev. Irene Vittoz has pastured Brookfield Eaton UMC since 2004. “For years we had pancake breakfast to keep church going,” she reports. Now the monthly breakfasts support food banks, hospice, UMCOR and families in need. “The person who runs the breakfast is 93 and has been a United Methodist Woman for over 70 years!” says Irene. The church’s vision is to be “God’s hands, feet and voice and to bless people to the other side of the world to right next door.”
There’s a rather non-traditional children’s minister on staff. “Sammy is a 48- inch orangutan puppet,” Irene explains. “When we don’t have children in worship, he just talks to adults. One Christmas Eve two men in their 70s were sitting on the steps talking to Sammy!”
Irene admits that it’s challenging to find new people when you’re in the country. The Masonic Temple, the Brookfield Eaton church, the township hall, two horses, one donkey and a few houses make up this community situated near Charlotte. “We’ve prayed and prayed for angels to walk the roads and let people know God is in this church. We’ve had people show up in the neighborhood and stay.” Currently they have three young people helping on Sunday… a university student studying piano, a young woman trained as a singer, and a man in his 20s with tattoos from neck to toe comprise the worship team.
What has made a difference? “When I first got here,” remarks Irene, the attitude was, ‘We need young people to do the work.’ Now the spirit is, ‘We need more people to love. When that shift happened we started to grow.” New stained glass windows and an anonymous gift of air conditioning are evidence that the congregation intends to keep its doors open for many years to come.
Brethren Epworth & Grant UMCs
Colleen Wierman is in her first appointment, serving Brethren Epworth and Grant UMCs on the Grand Traverse District. Her unique approach has been to view the churches as a “second campus” for various programs happening in nearby cities. “People tend to say, ‘But we’re out here in the middle of nowhere!’” Colleen says. “That’s right! So use that as an asset!” Manistee was doing Cooking Matters, a national program that enables chefs to assist low-income families to cook healthy and economically. Colleen explains, “So Brethren UMC opened up an extension of the program so people around us wouldn’t have to go all the way into town.” They’ve worked with other non-profits to provide this second venue, as well.
Face to face interaction and community-building are at the heart of their ministry. In the summer they become a cooling station. In the winter there’s a snowman contest. Because the church has wifi, they have provided internet service to those doing job searches and applications. Quarterly meals are community events. The Grant UMC, close to Traverse City, offers family camping space, with hook-ups, available on a donation basis. “In that resort area, that’s a big deal!” Colleen remarks. “We want to express the love of God to people where they are.” Sack lunches delivered to farmers in the field is the next thing the Grant church may try. “I push the congregations around community needs,” Colleen admits. “I say up front, ‘I’m here to push you. We’re not going to sit inside!’”
Recurring themes in these accounts include depth of relationship, an outward focus on compassion and a willingness to do things in a new way. While crops may be wilting in the summer sun, the spirit of rural churches in West Michigan provides a breath of fresh air and promise of new growth.
Gifts to the Rural Life Sunday should be made to the West Michigan Conference Treasurer. Report in Lane Six of the Six Lanes of the Advance. Click here for a bulletin insert to help with promotion. “Our biggest challenge is to get existing congregation to realize that they are vital because they are the only ones around in some of our rural areas,” notes Colleen Wierman. Through the Rural Sunday Offering you can help our churches across the Michigan countryside be strategic centers of hope and blessing.
~Reported by Kay DeMoss, Weekly News Senior Writer