When the Rev. Doug Fairbanks introduced the Rev. Ann Robins at a recent Cabinet meeting, he said, "She's been building a church the right way, with enthusiasm, skill and love. She's been doing it with the help of the Holy Spirit."
Ebenezer United Methodist Church is one of a few churches lifted up as "Bright Spots" by Bishop James Swanson and his right-hand men and women. ("Bright Spot" churches have numerous Vital Congregations qualities, according to Swanson.) District superintendents are each inviting one pastor to share their congregation's success story. Fairbanks, Knoxville District superintendent, chose Robins and Ebenezer.
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Robins was appointed to the west Knoxville church in 2005. Since then, average worship attendance has increased from 199 to 250 (26 percent). Average Sunday school attendance has increased from 78 to 108 (38 percent). Easter 2012 worship attendance was 517.
Membership increased from 448 to 638 (42 percent). Giving units: 91 to 256 (133 percent). Contributions for operating budget: $262,551 to $447,503 (70 percent).
Meanwhile, capital debt decreased from $578,194 to $138,529 (-76 percent).
Robins walked the cabinet through decisions and changes of the past six years:
- A 20-year-old child care ministry located largely in cramped Sunday school rooms was relocated to a nearby Baptist church with more space. Since then, the child care ministry increased its capacity from 100 to 150 children served, and Ebenezer benefited from reduced wear-and-tear on finances and facilities.
- Staff changes and shifts were made to improve the traditional and contemporary worship services and to ensure that youth ministry operated within United Methodist beliefs. Ebenezer how has three full-time staff, one three-quarter staff, and nine part-time staff, including three paid nursery workers.
- A third worship service was added: a contemporary service coinciding next door to the 11 a.m. traditional service. Robins' sermon is simulcast to the smaller group, averaging 36. "That's 36 more people that I can get in the traditional service," said Robins, noting that the sanctuary holds 200. The 11 a.m. traditional service averages 153; the 9 a.m. contemporary service, 102.
- Automated giving was implemented and promoted. Today, nearly 25 percent of Ebenezer's offerings are received through electronic fund transfer.
- The sanctuary was renovated and the 17-acre property along Ebenezer and Westland Roads have been cleared of an old house and woodland brush. A soccer field was added and a shady park is in progress, making the church more visible and attractive. "Now friends and neighbors are saying, 'I didn't know you were back there,'" Robins said.
- Forty-three new parking spaces were added with the aid of a Holston Congregational Development loan.
- Evangelism Team was discontinued. "Evangelism should be part of every ministry and team," the pastor said.
- Annual community events such as the Easter egg hunt, concerts on the lawn, and Vacation Bible School regularly draw families from the community who don't come to Sunday worship. However, the church maintains contact through prize drawings requiring email addresses. Ebenezer saves and builds on the email list as a postage-free means to invite the families back.
- An inner-city relationship was developed with Rev. Van Sanks and Magnolia Avenue UMC. Ebenezer helped develop a food pantry at Magnolia Avenue, then began collecting food and clothing from west Knoxville residents via the church sign. "I thought it would be a waste of time," Robins said, but the donations keep coming from the community. One woman brought in a $200 check -- three times.
- Homeless families are hosted in the church for one-week periods through Family Promise of Knoxville.
- Traditional, favorite activities such as the United Methodist Women's rummage sale and the United Methodist Men's barbecue sale were maintained, but with new ministry twists. In addition to raising church funds through pork roasting, for example, the men invite members to buy extra barbecue to feed the homeless at The Water Angels ministry in downtown Knoxville.
- Children's ministries emphasize teaching children to pray in public. Ebenezer also has an active Scout ministry, and college students have been encouraged to stay active through part-time jobs in the youth and nursery ministries.
Robins said that Ebenezer hopes to begin a capital fundraising campaign by spring 2013 to build a new addition including a sanctuary and two classrooms.