Congregation Grows During the Pandemic by Reaching New People in New Ways

By Brett Hetherington*

Church attendance routinely ebbs and flows. During the COVID-19 pandemic this reality became even more apparent. Most people would not be surprised to hear that a church’s attendance during such a time would tail off and perhaps even drop dramatically, but what if a church were able to grow during this season?

Waltz United Methodist Church (Canal District) is one such church.

Les Buttolph serves as the Waltz UMC pastor. The 20-year Navy veteran found an immediate kinship when he arrived at the small country church seven years ago. “Most of the congregation was affiliated with the military in some way,” he shared. “There were between 15 and 17 people when I arrived, and I was told the church was within one year of running out of money to operate. The saying goes, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ but I said, ‘I don’t think so!’”

Roger Fowler serves as the head of the church’s Staff/Parish Relations Committee, and he remembers what it was like when Buttolph arrived. “When the previous pastor retired Les visited and with our church being probably 90% military and Les being retired military it really seemed to gel. It’s not just one person telling everyone what to do, its everyone working together to get the job done.”

This dedication to working together in humility is a lot of the foundation for the growth of the church. Even before the pandemic hit there was already an upward trajectory in the number of people who would join hands with the church to do work together.

“We heard the church bells ring for 30 years, but we never really went to church,” said Kathy Dunlap. She and her family dealt with some pain, and she found herself searching for something. “About three years ago had some family issues and we felt like we needed to connect. I heard the bells, and I said, ‘you know what, I need to pay attention to those bells they’re calling to me.’ So, I went over there, walked up to the door and here’s Les with his big grin introducing himself to us and let us know that very first day that we were here as guests but if we came a second time we were coming as family.”

When the health department shut down large gatherings the church was forced to begin meeting and worshiping online like many other churches. “Les would record a sermon (on Saturday) to upload on Sunday,” shared Dunlap. “I remember the Easter sermon and at one point he stepped off the screen and when he came back, he was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and he had put his hood up and he was one of the shepherds, and having a talk about that and I said, ‘how fun is that?’”

Buttolph added, “We started streaming on YouTube, and we have a pretty good following there, so we continued reaching out to them. Once the weather turned nice, we started hosting services in our pavilion out back.”

The shift to the pavilion is perhaps the most interesting piece of the growth of Waltz UMC over the past year or so.

“Not knowing how it would go we tried it out and it went like gangbusters,” said Fowler. Dunlap concurs with Fowler’s assessment. “People really liked that. We have picnic tables, we have chairs. People found different places to sit, people started bringing lawn chairs. Our organist brought a laptop organ, people share concerns, prayer requests, birthdays, and anniversaries. It’s just, I don’t know, it’s just like being at a family reunion.”

Family. Though Dunlap struggled to put her thoughts into words at that point, she managed to capture the essence of what has allowed Waltz UMC to grow and strengthen during a season that has seen most of the world pull apart from everyone around them.

Buttolph stressed that the most important person at Waltz is not the pastor, it is the greeters. “We have a saying here. You are a stranger for two and a half minutes. After that you are family.” He went on to add that getting people to come into the church is a big step, keeping them coming back is an even bigger step.

This closeness and the new location where Sunday morning worship services were being held even allowed for fellowship to happen that normally would not take place. “When services were over everyone would just stand around in the parking lot and talk for a half an hour,” said Fowler.

The church is also committed to being open-minded and loving to anyone who joins them. “Our church is ‘you’re part of God’s family and we accept you as you are,’” said Fowler. “We don’t care about the color of your skin, your beliefs – when you come to church, we’re here to worship God and that’s what we want to do. We listen.”

Take the feeling of family, the honesty and openness and the opportunity to connect with people without ulterior motives and it is no surprise that over the course of the summer of 2021 the Sunday morning pavilion worship services saw a regular attendance of 45 to 48 people. The church is a comforting space, especially for people who yearn for connection.

“At the end of each service everyone stands and holds hands around the perimeter,” shared Dunlap. “There is a break in the circle indicating there is always room for one more, and we sing “Until We Meet Again.” There’s just a certain feel to it that other churches don’t have. You are made to feel truly, truly welcome.”

The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at

* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.