State of the Church Report
Delivered January 3, 2021
by Rev. Dr. Gregory R. Coates
What a remarkably tumultuous year for the Glasford United Methodist Church! Not only have we undergone a pastoral transition, but we have twice had to go into lockdown due to this horrible coronavirus. Nevertheless, the ministry of this church carries forward in remarkable ways. Due to precautions we have taken to insure that our church does not contribute to the spread of this deadly pandemic, we have been forced to go online like many churches. Of course, meeting virtually through computers is not the same thing as meeting in person, and let me very clear: we all want that. None of us delight in staying home throughout this lockdown, just like none of us enjoy wearing facemasks, yet we do so for the protection of others. But much of what we love about church has been taken from us by this pandemic: We are not able to sing with one another, to eat meals together, to gather in each other’s homes… all of which we would normally be doing, especially in the midst of hard times. Nevertheless, despite all that we have faced, I as your new pastor have not heard grumbling and complaining (as I might expect) but instead a patient willingness to follow my lead and the lead of our bishop here in the IGRC. I cannot convey to you how much that has meant to me personally because I am keenly aware of the sacrifice we are all making in order to follow that first principal of Wesleyanism to do no harm. A pastor friend of mine took a photo of his empty sanctuary on Christmas Eve and shared it on Instagram with the caption, “This is what a church that loves their neighbor looks like.” It deeply moved me.
In July I took over for Pastor Ethan Carnes, who had served as your appointed pastor for five years. Pastor Ethan was deeply loved and he worked very hard to organize and administrate this church with excellence. His tireless efforts have made my job far less difficult, and he deserves plenty of thanks and credit for his efforts. But, of course, the pastor is not the church. YOU are the church, and I have found you to be very earnest and sincere in your desire to “be the church with a servant’s heart.” This fall, before COVID got in the way, we initiated an effort to rescue food from being thrown away, instead salvaging it, sanitizing it, and using it to bless people in the community who could use it. Our Grocery Assistance Program (GAP for short) has also expanded both in the numbers of recipients and in the number of buyers willing to help provide the food. This church has demonstrated time and time again through programs such as this, the Spirit Snacks for Tiger Tummies, Hope’s Hats, and so forth that it desires to be the hands and feet of Jesus and to care for “the least of these” who are in our midst.
As your pastor for the past six months, I have attempted to build on the positive momentum established by my predecessor. I generally subscribe to the philosophy that a pastor should not introduce any major changes within their first twelve months as pastor. Being Methodists, we practice the itinerant system, meaning our pastors get moved around frequently. This does have upsides — for example, it can give the lay people a greater sense of ownership over the church since they are the ones that stick around for the long haul — but one of the downsides is a feeling of instability and constant change. For this reason, I have tried to remain in continuity with the work that Pastor Ethan did. This has, of course, also been quite an adjustment for me. As you know, for the past eight years, I have not been working as a pastor, but rather as a doctoral student and teacher at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL. I had worried before coming here that my more urban and academic background might create a barrier between myself and the congregation, but I have instead sensed that you all value my teaching and preaching and remain open to hearing my perspective. I’ve been very deliberate in my attempts to teach and preach about matters that are practical to everyday life, and I am very pleased with how it has been received here. I want you all to know that I spend a great deal of time, energy, thought, and prayer in preparation for the things I share with you each Sunday morning and Tuesday evening. I hope that such efforts are evident to you. I take very seriously the responsibility of opening up the Word of God and teaching from it. My preaching professor in seminary once said, “If you go to a baker, you don’t want to buy bread that is a week old. You want to buy fresh bread. In the same way, preachers need to offer their people something fresh and new, not something stale and old.” My job, week after week, is to offer you fresh spiritual bread through my words. My hope and prayer is that it has fed your souls and will continue to.
Unfortunately, while we are in lockdown we cannot do many of the things we so want to do: passing the peace, singing together, taking communion, praying for each other, and so on. But the preaching of the Word is something we CAN do virtually, and the good news is that I am hearing from people all over the area who say they have been listening to our online services. Many of these are people who would never darken the doorstep of a church, but they are willing to click on a link and listen to my words. And as Christians we believe that the word of God will not return void. Who knows what seeds are being planted now that may germinate in future years? One effort we are making right now is to upgrade our online streaming services by installing a new camera that will improve both the visual and audio quality of our services, especially once we are back worshipping in the sanctuary again. Our church is making this investment because we believe in the message of the good news of Jesus Christ and want to share it as broadly and as clearly as we are able.
This past year, we have had to get creative in how we operate sometimes. At the beginning of the school year we offered a drive-through blessing of the backpacks. We gave away Halloween treats with gloves on and practicing social distancing, we have filmed and broadcast advent candle lightings, we sang Christmas carols through facemasks, and live-streamed a Christmas Eve concert on Facebook from the sanctuary, a concert that has reached over 1,300 people through out Facebook page. On January 20 we will have a virtual love feast, and I will soon be in conversation with Jacque Young and Jenny Ulrich about the formation of small covenant groups centered around prayer and accountability. We remain hopeful that the church will be able to re-open soon, especially in light of the vaccines being administered, but in the meantime the work of the church carries forward. For many people this season of COVID and its many disruptions to our normal life patterns have created something of a spiritual crisis. People are hungry for spiritual truth and hearts that were once completely closed to the message of the gospel are now opening up as those battling despair are looking for a source of hope. As I have said before, I don’t believe COVID to be some kind of divine judgment, but I do believe that God can bring good out of all of the bad. And inasmuch as it is driving people to God, whether that be through the church or not, it seems the Spirit is gently inviting people unto herself.
As we look ahead into 2021 and beyond, I have great hopes for this church. Even though United Methodism on a national level is quite deeply divided, I have found that locally the Glasford UMC has been able to hold together even in the midst of political or theological disagreements. As your pastor, I will endeavor to continue to offer you biblically and theologically sound teaching and preaching, and to remind us of the centrality of love to the Christian life. I have tried and will continue to try to be a pastor to people all along the political spectrum. I believe Jesus loves Republicans and Democrats just the same and that his gospel speaks to us all. Though I certainly have my own political leanings, I try very hard as your pastor to preach Scripture first and foremost since it speaks universally to us all. Though sometimes the gospel does have political implications, I try very hard to speak as a "uniter" rather than a divider because the world desperately needs a place where people from all sides can join hands and call one another brothers and sisters.
Looking beyond the church, I also want to continue to nurture relationships with the Illini Bluffs schools, community leaders, and village residents. Many people have witnessed for themselves the desire of our faith community to be the church with a servant’s heart. As St. Francis once said, “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words.” We are attempting to be the kind of church that preaches the gospel not just with words, but with our deeds.
I am a strong believer in the power of prayer, especially prayers prayed in communion with other believers, and so I will try to find ways to encourage us to meet together and pray with one another, even if it is done virtually for a time. Hebrews 10:23-25 says, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Let me remind you from these verses that, first, it is not us who will save the world or even Glasford. That job belongs to God alone, and God is faithful. Our great privilege is that we get to co-operate with God in the bringing of his kingdom to earth here and now. One effort I hope to accomplish, with God’s help, is to establish a support group for those struggling with addiction and substance abuse. In conjunction with our parish nurse Christa Fuller, I am in the process of learning about how to begin such a group, though such an effort will probably need to begin in earnest after lockdown has lifted. As I have shared with you before, addiction has touched my own life and I know firsthand of its destructive potential. Small groups of accountability have been essential to my own recovery process and I hope to use these experiences to help others in this community who need an anonymous place to come and share their burdens with others.
In the meantime, we need to be praying about how we can better “spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” The writer of Hebrews instructed his reader to “not give up meeting together.” Well, he or she (we don’t know who the author was) could not have foreseen that meeting together is precisely what we cannot do in the middle of a pandemic. However, we can connect with one another in other ways and we ought to do so, especially in a time marked by so much loneliness and isolation. What that looks like may appear very different than it once did, but we can still encourage one another without being physically present.
Let me sum up what I’m trying to say. First, I really have fallen in love with this church and with the village of Glasford. I am so grateful that after over a year of prayer, God brought me to this place. I want you to know that I’m committed to this church for the long haul and will request to be reappointed here as long as they will allow me to. Even in spite of all the challenges we have faced in 2020, your warmth and generosity has greeted me at every turn. Obviously I pictured my first year among you a little differently, but I believe that by supporting one another through this difficult season, we can emerge on the other side as an even stronger church than ever before. During a time when many churches are closing, the Glasford United Methodist Church continues to thrive even in the face of adversity. Second, let us not forget to lean on the promises of God in times like these. Jesus said of the church “the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” We are under siege from the enemy, but we will endure. And we believe by faith that Jesus is the ultimate victor over all of the evils we are facing. As the hymnist writes, “Though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”