4 great ideas to reach, bless, serve during pandemic

October 22, 2020
Rev. Laura Hannah distributes backpacks and bicycles during UMC of Anoka's drive-through back-to-school event.

By: Christa Meland

While our methods for ministry have been significantly impacted by COVID-19, many United Methodist Churches in Minnesota have found creative new ways to share God’s love with their congregations and communities.

Here are four specific ways that four different churches have made a difference—each of which other congregations of any size could easily replicate.

Email us to tell us about something unique your church is doing to connect with people in this challenging season.

1. Have a “mission trip” in your own community: Last summer, when Forest Hills UMC learned that a planned mission trip was cancelled because of coronavirus, Director of Youth Ministries Cassi Betker wasn’t willing to throw in the towel, so she decided to do something really local instead. The church had a five-day mission trip that involved serving agencies and families in its own community. They landscaped the church grounds, cleaned up an elderly member’s yard, helped with a Vacation Bible School-type program at the church, sorted donations at a local thrift shop and food bank, unloaded and sorted food for a local food giveaway, and distributed food boxes to families. Fourteen people from the church participated, ranging in age from 13 to mid-60s. Each night, after serving others, they came together for a devotion and to debrief their experience. Toward the end of the week, one teen told Betker, “This was better than I expected. It was really good being able to help so many people right here in Forest Lake." Betker felt the week provided a good reminder that there are myriad ways to serve in any and every location. “My hope with mission trips…is that we begin to see there are needs all around us—whether we are at home, off to college, on vacation, or visiting a new place,” she said. “We need to stop and take a look around and see where we can be the hands and feet of Jesus right where we are.”
2. Host creative drive-throughs for church and community members: UMC of Anoka has hosted a huge and well-attended back-to-school event for its community for several years. When COVID-19 prevented such a gathering this year, the church pivoted and instead hosted a drive-through event. Vehicles drove through the church parking lot, and volunteers placed supply- and community resource-filled backpacks for children into each one. About a dozen children also received a bicycle. “I hope that this year, the folks that participated experienced a small spark of hope in the midst of a difficult year,” said Rev. Laura Hannah, who coordinated the event. “There are still people and churches in the community that are committed to the thriving of all people.” The church has already planned its next drive-through event: an ecumenical, community-wide experience called “Luminaries for Loved Ones” that will take place the evening of All Saints Day, Nov. 1.  Six area churches are participating, and each one will collect decorated white bags in honor of people’s loved ones who have died. During the event, the bags will be lit and set up in each church parking lot. Families will be able to drive through the parking lot to see the luminaries while listening to music and prayers transmitted over the radio. “The pandemic has prevented funerals from happening as they normally would,” said Hannah. “This event allows space for folks to be able to honor those lost in the last year and have a sense that others are able to share in the grief of the lives lost.”
3. Participate in an existing food giveaway program: Staples UMC became aware of many families’ increased need for food amid the pandemic, so the church became a sponsor for Ruby’s Pantry, an organization that gathers various food overages, surpluses, and bumper crops into generous food bundles for families in need. For a $20 contribution (only required of those who are able to provide it), families receive a food share worth more than $100. Anyone can participate, and there are no income or residency requirements. Staples UMC joined with a nearby college to operate the pantry from the college’s parking lot once a month, and about 50 volunteers from both organizations work together. On Aug. 4, the first time Staples UMC operated the pantry, they expected 200 to 300 households but instead served more than 500. “We are called to the community to find ways to show God’s grace…we are a small church but found a way with partnering with someone else to make it happen,” said Rev. Greg Leslie. “When it comes to Ruby’s, it is not just about people buying food, it is not just about who’s getting that food. Rather it is about the opportunity to see people working for the greater good of God’s kingdom—different people coming together to see and have an opportunity to spread God’s love and grace.” Any church can become a Ruby’s Pantry sponsor, which requires no financial contribution. “Doing Ruby’s Pantry has been one the easiest, most fulfilling parts of my ministry,” said Leslie.
4. Spotlight and partner with local organizations: Recognizing that many local nonprofits lost income amid the pandemic and the stay-at-home order in the spring, Wesley UMC in Winona embarked on a new ministry to support them. Called “Wesley 4 Winona,” it spotlights a different organization each month and encourages the congregation to support that organization in a variety of ways. “The intent was to focus attention away from Wesley and to invite other organizations to educate us as to the good work they do to help our community,” said Rev. Robert Hicks. Each time a new organization is featured, the church interviews its director about the organization’s mission, the population it serves, and how COVID-19 has restricted its work and income; the interview is shared as a short segment during online worship. “We make sure we celebrate their work, we pray for them, and we urge people to contribute to every organization we feature,” said Hicks. “We want to focus during these days beyond our pain and our survival to the greater good of the community in which we are called to live out our discipleship as servants to God's vast work of healing within all world systems that are hurting.” In the coming months, Wesley UMC will partner with Habitat for Humanity and other organizations on a “longest-night luminary” fundraiser to address housing insecurity in its area.

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.


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