By: Christa Meland
Every Wednesday during the summer, on a quiet street in South Minneapolis, a couple dozen children, parents, grandparents, and a few nannies gather on the front lawn of Epworth UMC from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m.
Most don’t have a formal relationship with the church, but they come for Epworth’s “Weed and Water” program, which gives kids an opportunity to learn about the natural environment in a fun and engaging way. Each gathering is free for attendees and includes a craft, a lesson, a book read aloud, a snack, and ample time for open-ended exploration. Two small, raised garden beds are producing a wide variety of vegetables and herbs; families can both tend to the gardens and help themselves to the produce, and it sometimes finds its way into the crafts and lessons at Weed and Water.
ELI Intern Julia Clark, who spent the summer at Epworth UMC, has led Weed and Water this summer with the help of Pastor Steve Reiser and several church volunteers.
The topic at a recent Wednesday morning gathering was worms—and many activities reinforced the theme. For example, kids could inspect live worms up close with magnifying glasses, make worms with Play-Doh, and paint with pipe cleaners.
“Part of the goal or hope or dream was about raising the profile of the congregation among a different set of folks,” said Reiser. The church is more than 100 years old, and its annual pasty sale, rummage sale, and auction are popular among the 60-plus crowd. But the congregation wanted to start connecting with younger families too.
Although these families haven’t necessarily started attending worship at Epworth since participating in Weed and Water, Reiser mostly wants them to know the church exists, is a place of welcome, and is there to help in their moment of need or time of crisis.
Most of the families didn’t know each other before attending Weed and Water, but they have become a community. “The adults share about childcare, misery, challenges—they are sharing and bonding and building friendships,” Reiser said.
Annie is a young mother of one who also nannies her two godchildren. She heard about Weed and Water through an early childhood education group. “It keeps me sane,” she joked, adding that her daughter loves it and each Wednesday excitedly exclaims, “We get to go to play group!”
Weed and Water is in its second year, and it builds upon a “Cabin Fever” program that the church has been hosting for the past eight to 10 years. During the winter months, kids ages 0 to 5 are welcomed into the church on Wednesday mornings for playtime, crafts, and a healthy snack while their parents enjoy coffee and conversation. It’s a way to get out of the house even when it’s too cold to play outside.
Between Cabin Fever and Weed and Water, the church is getting close to having year-round Wednesday morning programming for children and their parents.
ELI intern reflects on learnings
Church volunteers came up with the idea for Weed and Water and also plan the curriculum and welcome guests—but Clark has been its key leader this summer. She’s one of the Minnesota Conference’s six 2019 ELI Project interns. The ELI Project, now in its fifth year, places college students at host churches for the summer; each intern takes a deep dive within their host congregation and gains experience planning worship, preaching or leading a Bible study, and providing pastoral care.
Clark, a member of The Grove in Woodbury, said the internship—and her experience leading Weed and Water—has helped her grow as a leader.
“I’ve gained a lot of confidence that I can not just be a participant but lead things,” she said.
At her first Weed and Water event, it struck Clark how little she and the other church volunteers talked about church and God and Jesus. It was more about building relationships than overtly sharing the gospel.
“At first, I was a little uncomfortable with that,” she acknowledged. “What place does that have in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? But this isn’t meant to be VBS and I’ve learned that it does have a place—we’re welcoming people, whether or not they start going to church on Sunday morning.”
Yet it’s prompted Clark to think about how to invite those involved with Weed and Water to become more deeply involved in the life of the church and ultimately enter into a relationship with God. At one of the last Weed and Water gatherings of the summer, participants were invited to attend a potluck with members of the congregation in an effort to help create that bridge.
Clark, who also led a congregational discussion in place of a sermon one week and practiced worship planning, isn’t so sure pastoral ministry is for her—but the internship definitely helped her discover her gifts and passions and reinforced that she is called to share her love of Christ with those she encounters.
“It’s been wonderful to get to know Epworth,” she said. “There’s such a community and so much history here. It’s a hidden gem.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church