Pulaski church hits a home run, offers worship in a ball park

Pulaski church hits a home run, offers worship in a ball park

The pastor and praise team of First United Methodist Church lead worship in Calfee Park, home of the Pulaski Yankees.

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PULASKI, Va. – The pews are stadium seats. The congregation is not looking up to the pulpit, but looking down on the field where the pastor wears a ball cap. The choir sits in the dugout.

First United Methodist Church of Pulaski has not opened its doors to in-person worship since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in mid-March. However, church leaders have found a place to gather outdoors where worshippers can stay safely distant from each other: a minor-league baseball stadium, home to the Pulaski Yankees.
Calfee Park: "Source of civic pride"

“Calfee Park is a big deal and a source of civic pride,” said Hank Hanks, leader of the worship praise team. “It’s a great touch point for the community, and the idea of worshipping there seemed immediately familiar.”

First United Methodist Church has online worship every Sunday morning, reaching “twice as many people in a meaningful way than we did before the pandemic,” said the Rev. Will Shelton.

The idea of worshipping at Calfee Park emerged after Holston Conference released safety guidelines for churches to resume in-person worship in June, after weeks of closing the doors to prevent virus spread. Among other things, the guidelines eliminate choirs, restrict seating, and prohibit congregational singing.
Rev. Will Shelton: Freedom to be fruitful

“For us, it felt like trying to provide in-person worship in the church was more about what we had to say ‘no’ to,” Shelton said. “We wanted a spirit of invitation where it was more about what we could say ‘yes’ to.”

Shelton approached the general manager of Calfee Park, the home field of the New York Yankees’ Appalachian League affiliate. First United Methodist Church already had a connection with the ballpark after sponsoring refreshments for baseball fans in the past.
Ballpark is a "cool place to invite someone to."

“In this town, that ballpark is where most people gather. It’s a cool place to invite someone to,” Shelton said.

Shelton learned that baseball tournaments were occupying the 3,200-seat stadium over the weekends, but Wednesday nights were open. Church leaders decided to offer mid-week worship at the ballpark every three weeks.

“If we tried to offer ballpark worship every week, it might lose some of what makes it unique,” the pastor said. “Doing it once a month seemed too far away.”

At the stadium, Wednesday-night attendance has ranged from 95 to 115 -- about 70 percent of First United Methodist’s average attendance before the pandemic (170). Most of the participants are church members, but guests have been present at each of the three Wednesday gatherings so far.

Shelton says that ballpark worship – instead of worship in the church building -- is a win-win because his congregants have done a good job of participating in online worship, mission opportunities, and financial giving. At First United Methodist, financial giving is down only 3%, compared with year-to-date giving in 2019.
Praise Team sets up in front of the dugout.

“We’ve had the freedom of making decisions about what would be most fruitful, what makes disciples, instead of decisions based on how to survive,” he said.

Worshippers can space out as far as they wish in the ballpark, and children also have more freedom to be active and make noise. The pastor and praise band set up in front of the dugout, heeding management’s request to stay off the grass.

The praise band has the hard work of carrying in equipment and adapting the sound system, said Hanks, but he’s glad his 80-something parents have felt safe enough to come out to Calfee Park for worship.
Stadium space makes worshippers feel safer.

“They don’t have a lot of other options right now,” said Hanks, who is also a physician. “They are not going back into that church building until this over.”

The weather has cooperated so far, although the pastor, praise team, and choir have figured out where to re-station within the stadium if it rains. As for fall and winter, the pastor is considering arranging a Sunday-afternoon time slot in the ballpark, when the baseball tournaments conclude in late October.

“I think I could watch the forecast and find a 50-degree day where we could still do it,” he said.
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Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.


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Annette Spence

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