A Sweet Way to Learn About Jesus


By Rick Wolcott*

A chance to walk through Peppermint Forest and along the Ice Cream Sea attracted 365 children of all ages to Vienna United Methodist Church (Mahoning Valley District) the weekend before Christmas for a chance to play a life-size version of Candy Land.

Players colored their own gingerbread game piece, collected their game cards, and made their way to the start square.  One-by-one, they took turns drawing a card and moving to the corresponding colored rectangle on the floor.  Along the way, they collected candy from Gumdrop Mountains, Lollipop Woods, and many other sweet attractions.

The goal for players was to reach the Candy Castle.  There, Santa Claus, seated next to a manger, told children the story of the candy cane and talked to them about who Jesus is.

“I think this is beautiful.  It’s awesome the amount of work that was put into it,” said Jen Farr, who came to Candy Land with friends.

Pastor Mary Prior said that the idea for the life-size game came three years ago during a conversation with Music Director Rachel Spak.

“We were saying that people don’t come to cantatas anymore and they’re really not interested in Christmas programs.  Rachel came up with this idea and I said, ‘go for it!’”

“I saw something similar at a library a few years before that and thought it would be fun to do at the church,” Spak said.  “It’s been awesome getting a lot of different people here because most of them are not church members.”

“Offering a quality event at no charge during a very expensive season has been our best means of outreach,” Prior said.  “Parents were very appreciative that the Candy Land experience was free, and thanks to TV coverage this year, we’ve had people come from areas of Warren and Youngstown as well as from closer to the church.”

Now in its third year, Vienna UMC Candy Land continues to reach the unchurched.

“We heard a little girl and her mom talking as they were walking out,” Prior said.  “The mom asked the girl, ‘What did you learn?  What did you like?’ and the little girl said, ‘I learned that Jesus died for my sins.’  Isn’t that cool?”

“My son is 4 years old and he is just starting to discover the beauty of Christmas and learn about what it means,” said Angela Betrosky. “I saw the ad and just had to bring him.  It’s been great to be here today.”

“This is fun.  I like it,” said 9 year-old Zoey.

“My wife and daughter go to church here and I know Pastor Mary from out and about because she does a lot of stuff in the community and with the schools, so I came here today to support them,” said Tarin Brown.  “It’s great to see so many people who don’t go to church here come to take part in this.  It means a lot to the community.”

“I’m proud of Vienna for being a church that constantly seeks new ways to connect with its community so it can share the love of Christ,” said Mahoning Valley District Superintendent the Rev. Abby Auman, who brought her family to experience Candy Land.  “Volunteers clearly poured a tremendous amount of effort into making a magical experience for kids, which feels like love when you walk into a transformed fellowship hall.”

“It’s been a breath of fresh air in the church because people are working together while doing something different and something new.  We have a young adult in charge who empowered everyone to be creative and to do their own thing,” Prior said.

Spak said sketching the layout and planning how to construct each of the lands begins in early November but because fellowship hall is used so much the construction window is very tight each year.

“We’ve had about 15 people here each day the past two weeks making sure everything would get done,” she said.

Prior said the labor is not done just by members of the congregation.

“The other churches in town help us promote Candy Land.  We all work hard together to bring new people to Christ through church.”

Plans are already underway to add Rock Candy Canyon to the life-size Candy Land game in 2018.

*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.

The Extravagant Generosity of God

By Rick Wolcott*

Since being assigned to serve as the resident bishop of the East Ohio Conference, Bishop Tracy S. Malone has been intentional about listening to, learning from, and connecting with pastors and churches across the conference.

By spending full-days in all 10 districts, meeting one-on-one with many clergy and lay, participating in conversations with ministry teams and at committee and board meetings, the bishop has seen and heard the joys and the concerns of the conference.

She has observed that our communities are feeling the impact of poverty, crime, and addiction, and that too often our churches have to choose between spending dollars in mission for those in need or spending money to maintain aging buildings.

In the midst of these struggles, there are reasons for hope.  During her visits, Malone has seen and heard countless examples of God’s generosity exhibited in the ministries and the mission work of East Ohio Conference churches and agencies.

The bishop’s most-recent visit was with the leadership and the residents of Copeland Oaks (Mahoning Valley District), one of the health and welfare agencies of the conference.  The vespers service sermon she preached there, “The Extravagant Generosity of God,” centered on the woman at the well, as told in John 4:5-42.

“What I love about this text is that it truly shows us who Jesus is.  It shows us how far reaching, how extravagant is the generosity of God’s love,” she said that evening from the Bennett Chapel pulpit.

Click on the video above to view Bishop Malone’s sermon, “The Extravagant Generosity of God.”

John wrote that Jesus, weary from his travel, stopped to rest in the Samaritan city of Sychar.  That decision shocked the disciples because Jews and Samaritans did not associate with each other in Jesus’ day.

“Our Lord, thanks be to God, on so many occasions in his ministry chooses an odd place to stop to witness to the glory of God’s love, and thanks be to God that he also stops in the odd places of our very lives,” Malone said in her sermon.  “There’s a climactic moment in this text.  Here, while at the crossroads of his own spiritual journey, with a woman, a Samaritan woman of questionable repute, he makes himself known to her.”

For the first time in the Bible, Jesus reveals himself as the Messiah.

“The woman at the well became a woman made well because she was in the right place at the right time and Jesus extended to her the extravagant love and the grace of God.  That’s just who Jesus is, and that’s just who he calls us to be,” Malone preached.

At a time when people are hurting, disillusioned, and angry, the ministries of our East Ohio Conference churches offer hope by proclaiming the good news that all things are possible through Jesus Christ.

That’s a message worth sharing.

*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Rev. Abby Auman Appointed Mahoning Valley District Superintendent

Abby Aum

Bishop Tracy S. Malone is appointing the Rev. Abby Auman to the East Ohio Conference Cabinet.  She will serve as superintendent of the Mahoning Valley District.

“Abby has strong leadership skills, is an innovative thinker who brings vision and courage to the development and empowerment of lay leadership, and has a passion for revitalizing the local church,” said Bishop Malone.

“God’s call is often surprising, and the call to be a district superintendent certainly was!” Auman said.  “As a pastor, I took a vow to follow Jesus wherever he called.  Since I had just preached about that to my congregation, when Bishop Malone called, I had to offer myself to a different kind of service.  I am growing more excited to serve Christ’s church under her leadership.”

In her fifth year as pastor of Greensburg United Methodist Church (Canal District), Auman also serves as Candidacy Summit director for the East Ohio Conference Board of Ordained Ministry.  Her first conference appointment was to Mt. Carmel United Methodist Church (Firelands District) in 2006.  She then served the Strongsville United Methodist Church (North Coast District) as associate pastor from February 16, 2009 until her appointment to Greensburg UMC.

She will succeed the Rev. Dan Bryant as superintendent of the Mahoning Valley District.

“Everywhere I have served, I have been amazed and thrilled to see God work through faithful followers of Christ, in ways large and small,” Auman said.  “I’m excited to learn what God has already done through the people of the Mahoning Valley District, and even more excited to see what new thing God is about to do.  I look forward to dreaming together about how to share Christ with the least, the lost, and the last.”

Her appointment to serve the Mahoning Valley District and Bryant’s appointment as senior pastor of Lakewood United Methodist Church (North Coast District) are effective July 1.

Auman earned a Bachelor’s degree in Religion, with a minor in Creative Writing, from Ohio Northern University, and a Master of Divinity from Wesley Theological Seminary.

“I was born and raised on a farm, which gave me a deep love for creation and the relationships that are often so strong in farming communities,” she said.  “My husband and I intentionally attended Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC in order to experience more of the world.  There we learned to think globally and to appreciate the diversity and creativity of the city.  Serving small, medium, and large churches has helped me to appreciate the strengths of each in reaching people for Christ and helping them mature as disciples.”

She and the Rev. Seth Auman are parents of a son and a daughter.