By Brett Hetherington*
How do you build community amongst a group of churches that appear to have little in common with one another? For two pastors who minister to five churches, the answer to this question has been to start by working with the children.
“One of the previous leaders of the kid’s ministry of Melmore United Methodist Church (Firelands District) sparked this idea,” shared the Rev. Amy Vittorio. There had been a thriving ministry where between 20 and 30 kids and teens would gather weekly prior to COVID shutdown protocols. After restrictions were lifted and the church was able to reboot its program, they consistently saw five children.
“There was not a lot to do, and it was really disheartening,” said Vittorio. “But then this leader came to me and asked, ‘Can we do ministry with Sycamore United Methodist Church?’” Sycamore was in a similar situation and had been hosting limited events to see if kids would attend. Vittorio set up a meeting with a small team and within 90 minutes a plan emerged to combine ministry efforts and move the focus into Sycamore due to the higher population and greater prevalence of children.
That plan was built on the framework of a ministry Vittorio and her co-pastor Charlene Thomas had already put into place called Better Together.
“Prior to these five churches, we co-pastored three of them and put some of our more visionary people – the dreamers – on a cooperative ministry team together,” Thomas shared. “We did a Bible study to form relationships and let them dream what kinds of things we could do better together.”
As with most things over the past two years, the COVID pandemic changed a lot of the team’s planning, but not all of it. The Better Together ministry has still been able to hold candlelight vigils outside of hospitals and nursing homes, deliver care packages, and even plan a festival involving all five churches in the charge: St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, Melmore United Methodist Church, Republic Trinity United Methodist Church, Sycamore United Methodist Church, and Union-Salem United Methodist Church – all in the Firelands District.
Vittorio speaks highly of the adults who have stepped up to lead this new cooperative ministry.
“This is a group of adults who do not know each other that well yet are working together. They have embraced it. You have people bringing snacks from both churches, donating money for the program. On Wednesday night Pastor Charlene and I are there, and her son comes. We have people from Melmore helping to teach, Sycamore providing support with teaching crafts, cooking food, standing around as support. Sometimes you just need someone extra to say, ‘Hey there is a kid over there who needs someone.’”
Currently the ministry focuses on kindergarten through sixth grades. Vittorio explained that in the past when events were offered with a K-12 age range the cap naturally set itself at sixth grade.
This new ministry also benefits from launching at a time when the church has support from the school district.
“We are lucky to have a wonderful school system in this area,” said Vittorio. “We have religious education during the day which is unusual.” The secretary at the elementary school also serves as one of the pianists for the church and agreed to hand out the 425 fliers advertising the ministry to all students in kindergarten through sixth grades. “It was a wonderful blessing; we didn’t have to worry about postage for those!” she said before sharing that that support was just the tip of the iceberg.
“It was neat to see all these adults who were going to man the carnival games who came the night before opening night to set up, and we had some folks who were nervous about new people. And they found out they already knew half the people in the room! And if they didn’t, they knew someone who those people already knew. We set up in 15 minutes and there was an hour and a half after that where we just sat around talking to each other. Which is exactly what we want to happen. I love it when it happens like that, it’s organic. I’m liking that folks are starting their own ministries because it comes from them. There is a strength to that when they begin their own things rather than when we have to sell something to them.”
Thomas then offered her favorite parts of the new ministry.
“I love the intergenerational component. That first night with our house full we had volunteers, kids, the adults brought their kids, ranging from 3-year-olds to teens and folks on up into their 80’s. It was really cool to see all these different generations working together and playing together and one was telling them all about this game they used to play with corn in their pockets. It was church.”
As the season begins to wind down and the churches look to the future Thomas shared that there are already plans to explore how best to continue this community. “There is a music component on Wednesday nights. Pastor Amy has talked about how we could have the kids go and perform at the different churches. We try to do things to build community in fun ways like that. Everyone wants to worship in their own church, and we honor that and respect that we try to find alternative ways to build that community and I think the traveling kids’ choir or bell choir is going to be a cool way to cross those boundaries.”
Vittorio added her own hopes for the future. “We are going to see where it goes. I’m excited about the things that are happening. We have worked hard to open doors and kind of let people walk through them and that I think, has borne some fruit where people have invited some others from outside the church to things that we do.”
Vittorio and Thomas are very aware that theirs is not the only multi-point charge in the East Ohio Conference, nor is it unique to be a church in the position of being asked to work with another congregation. For those who find themselves in this opportunity they offer their advice gained from years of experience in this very field.
“This is a way we can support other churches. I think it allows us to participate in other connectional ministries and help people not to fear that – it does not diminish your church to be part of something bigger,” said Vittorio.
“We say over and over we’re better together,” shared Thomas. “There is strength in that. It doesn’t diminish any one part, we’re all a part of something bigger. Do not panic, it’s gonna be okay.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.