Church Innovation in the Midst of the Covid-19 Pandemic

March 26, 2020
By Rev. Kaury C. Edwards
As Wesleyan Heights United Methodist Church entered into the 2020 Lenten season, I had a feeling that we, as a congregation, needed to focus our time over the next 40 days on prayer. I began to sense God’s nudges upon the type of ministerial impact that this focus might have and the need my congregation had to develop a deeper understanding and zeal for prayer. I had no idea that within a matter of two weeks after launching into our Lenten season, the world would dynamically shift and change in such a way that would shake the very foundations and definitions of what church is. New obstacles, constraints, and barriers began to arise on every single front as we moved from a socially connected culture to a culture of social distancing. 

During this crisis, I was reminded of the words of Adam Morgan in his book, A Beautiful Constraint:  “A constraint should be regarded as a stimulus for positive change — we can choose to use it as an impetus to explore something new and arrive at a breakthrough.” As my congregation faced new constraints, I was presented with an opportunity to utilize adaptive leadership and see this as a real stimulus for positive change within the structures, ministries, and life of Wesleyan Heights United Methodist Church.
The first breakthrough was through positive change in an established ministry at Wesleyan Heights called Operation Matthew. Based on Matthew 25:31-46, this ministry was begun at the church more than 25 years ago by a lay member. After recently moving to Owensboro and transferring his membership to Wesleyan Heights, the lay member sought to replicate a beloved ministry at his former church. Encouraged by the pastor and ministry leadership, the lay member launched a food ministry for needy families in the community during Christmas. The birth of Operation Matthew established a long-standing ministry that, at Christmas time, collects non-perishable food items and delivers these food items in overflowing laundry baskets to the most vulnerable and needy families connected in the Owensboro city and Daviess County school systems. 

At its inception, Operation Matthew was one of the only food services during Christmas time.  However, over the past 25 years, this ministry has continued to grow, and other churches have joined in creating Christmas baskets for the community. As a result, Wesleyan Heights identified the need that Operation Matthew once met solely was no longer needed in the same capacity, as others were supplying the community adequately. Furthermore, the families we once served no longer needed our Christmas food gift. We were faced with a constraint to our long-standing ministry, but we did not embrace defeat and instead sought to explore something new and arrive at an innovation. Thus, we started asking the question of where God might be leading us to transform and to further innovate this ministry to connecting into an unreached area of our community.
Through our exploration, we discovered that nothing was being done for kids by any institution during spring and fall break. We decided to discontinue our Christmas time ministry and transition to a modified version of Operation Matthew during spring break and fall break of 2020. Additionally, we set a goal of collecting and distributing 30 baskets each break for a total of 60 baskets. 

We thought the only constraint Operation Matthew would experience was around Christmas and the delivery time adjustment; however, we had no idea that COVID-19 would affect the world in such a profound way. Since the closing of schools, the statewide quarantine, and social distancing practices have taken place, the realization of the deep need of families throughout the community became ever more real. Committed to collecting items for 30 baskets, our church members rallied and began donating purchased items quickly, even amid grocery store shortage and scarcity. We continue to have food pouring in, and we have been able to pack and deliver over 50 baskets of food with each basket having well over a month's supply of food for a family of four. Amid scarcity and hoarding of resources, we have been able to turn what seemed to be a momentous constraint into a brilliant opportunity to provide not only physical sustenance but an image of the abundance of the kingdom of God and new hope to the hopeless. 

Wesleyan Heights has continued to strive to look for other areas of innovation and use adaptive leadership to serve the vulnerable and forgotten throughout the community. In response to the constraints COVID-19 has placed on the community, Wesleyan Heights launched a new ministry on March 17 called GDS –  grocery delivery service. Many people in our congregation fit the criteria for being some of the most vulnerable and susceptible to the COVID-19 virus due to age and pre-existing health conditions. Due to this circumstance, we had a group of people in our congregation to develop a ministry to go to the grocery store curbside pickup and deliver food to the very doorsteps of our needy members. This ministry allows these most vulnerable in our community not to have to leave the safety of their front doors, while also allowing them to feel connected to their church family. Ultimately, the members of Wesleyan Heights are embodying the church profoundly and innovatively – and will not be defeated by the constraints of the recent pandemic. 

Finally, as the pastor, I have also had the opportunity to connect with people who are part of our church family and extended church family around the world through daily Facebook Live sessions where I have been able to give a word of hope, encouragement, and even resource and ministry information. The way I practice ministry has transitioned dynamically from one focused on in-person contact to one heavily dependent on technology. With Facebook Live, video streaming, texting, and email, I am able to spiritually and emotionally connect with my congregation in the midst of our social distancing practice.
 Worship, pastoral care, and spiritual guidance are not hindered but continue in different and creative ways. Whether I am leading pre-marital counseling through Facetime or streaming a worship service on Facebook Live, the constraints of social distancing have prompted the positive change and new ministerial connections. In fact, Wesleyan Heights has been able to connect not only to its local congregation through streamed worship services, but greater connection throughout the world due to social media influence and reach of its members. Viewers from Oregon to Nigeria and other places around the globe joined Wesleyan Heights in worship on Sunday. COVID-19 would not restrict our worship or ministerial reach; in fact, it seemed to strengthen our reach like never before. 

This unique time of pandemic, fear, and scarcity is changing the world in radical ways. While it is constraining and stifling the world and local communities, Wesleyan Heights has responded in innovative and dynamic approaches to ensure the kingdom of God is known. Though the doors of the church are closed for now, our faith in God is wide open. The year that started in prayer continues in prayer – a prayer seeking to invite God to break through and help us explore something new.