On pandemic anniversary, what have Holston members learned?

On pandemic anniversary, what have Holston members learned?

Morrison Chapel United Methodist Church has served 248 children (111 families) in the last five months through its new Mission Agape ministry.

On March 12, 2020, reality set in throughout the U.S. as the rising tide of COVID-19 forced leaders to shut doors and send Americans away to isolate in the safety of their homes.

Shutting church doors and ceasing public worship seemed unthinkable at the time, an act never before witnessed by most Holstonians. Yet on March 12, Bishop Dindy Taylor joined other United Methodist leaders in suspending in-person gatherings on the property of Holston’s 853 churches.

One year later, we’re still struggling to understand what just happened, mourning the loss of those who did not survive, while thanking God for silver linings and lessons learned.

On this anniversary, The Call asked several United Methodists, “What have you learned in the past year that would have seemed unbelievable one year ago?” Here are some of their responses.


Captured by Zoom

“I had never even heard of Zoom one year ago,” said Jana Spence Davison, member at Church Street United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. “You could have never convinced me that my varied church related experiences on Zoom over the past year would have brought me further in my spiritual life than I have ever gotten before.”

Davison explained that Sunday school, United Methodist Women meetings, online worship and prayer had been more fulfilling and intimate than she would have expected, amid the loneliness of staying at home. “Recalling all of this makes my heart explode with joy, especially as I think about us reopening this Sunday for in-person services for the first time in exactly one year,” she said.
The Rev. Tim Jones, Holston director of communications, spent the entire last year not only participating in Zoom meetings but organizing and teaching others how to use video conferencing in their ministries. Through it all, he says he came away with this lesson:
“Online meetings, such as Zoom, are a great way to meet, but it will never completely replace the need and desire for in-person gatherings,” Jones said.


Financial faithfulness

Another communications director, Clayton Hensley, said he finds it “a bit unbelievable” he just spent most of the past year working at home as a staff member for First United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tennessee. Hensley also noted he is “a bit surprised” and “very thankful” church members have continued to give financially throughout the past year.

“It is my understanding the church is very healthy financially,” he said.

While many Holston churches are not faring well financially, facing cutbacks and changes after a tough economic year, the Rev. Ty Harrison also said he is thankful for his church members’ “faithfulness in continuing financial stewardship when ministry experience was so very different.” Harrison is senior pastor at Tyner United Methodist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee.


Turning on the light

Several pastors and church members noted that being forced to discard routines and rituals no longer possible or safe during the pandemic had opened their eyes to needs and possibilities that were invisible before.

“I guess we had become spiritual zombies walking around with no purpose,” said the Rev. Daniel Bradley, pastor at Alexander Memorial United Methodist Church in Bishop, Virginia.

In addition to learning how to reach his community through online worship and an online children’s puppet show over the past year, Bradley and his congregation of about 20 grew a meal ministry from serving 40 in the fellowship hall to delivering 160 dinners each Thursday.

“Because of the pandemic I have found many that were in need of food and clothing and even to have someone to talk to occasionally, that were right here the whole time prior to the pandemic,” Bradley said.

Libby Bowman said the pandemic had helped her to see that two churches working together are stronger than one, and that “we can gather to worship God in many ways.” Bowman is a member at Woodlawn United Methodist Church in Hillsville, Virginia, which has bonded with nearby Shiloh United Methodist Church to serve medical workers and shut-ins with food and gifts.

Bowman commended her pastor for implementing Facebook worship and Zoom for Bible study and devotions. “Our two church congregations have grown and become closer by combining our services and studies,” she said.


Doing the right thing

Some pastors said they learned to stand strong in the face of difficult decisions. In the first year of her first appointment, the Rev. Danielle Goad said it was not easy closing churches to in-person worship as coronavirus cases surged in the Hillsville, Virginia, area last fall.

“It was a hard decision because Christmas was coming, but in my heart I knew it was the most loving decision we could make,” Goad said. “As a result I am happy to say that even during the surge of late November and December, to my knowledge that while some church members did contract COVID (myself included), no cases came as a result of our services.”

Goad is pastor of Fancy Gap, Island Creek, and Mountain Plain United Methodist Churches in the New River District.

When the Rev. Jack Carpenter was forced to temporarily close Morrison Chapel United Methodist Church to help stop virus spread in his community, the pastor faced “immediate opposition, much of it from very well-meaning friends.”

Weeks later, Carpenter and his congregation created a ministry, Mission Agape, to provide diapers, clothing, food and other essentials for young children and their families suffering from unemployment and other challenges in Kingsport, Tennessee.

“The building cannot be our focus,” Carpenter said. “God has brought more people into our parking lot in the past few months than we have seen in 20 years.”


Nothing is sure except for God

Reagan Kelly’s senior year and high-school graduation in May 2020 was radically different than that of her expectations or predecessors. Her first year at Tennessee Wesleyan University has also been different. The disappointments came crashing down with a reinforced truth, says the member of Slagle’s United Methodist Church in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

“Life can be ripped away from you in a second, but through it all, God is oh, so faithful,” Kelly said. “Your plans are nothing but weeds, but God creates new beauty amongst those weeds.”

Isaac Lopez, an eighth grader and member at First United Methodist Church in Gatlinburg, said he learned a similar lesson over the last year.

“I’ve learned that when doors close, God opens more doors, and that God is always in control,” Lopez said. “We should never lose faith in him or doubt him in our struggles.”

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Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.


Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.