Story by V. Michelle Bernard
Members of the Columbia Union Conference Executive Committee gathered last week via Zoom to discuss and reflect on the church’s work over the last two months. The main topic? How COVID-19 has impacted the mission and ministry across the eight-state territory.
Dan Jackson, president of the North American Division (NAD), shared a worship thought on Ruth. “There is a tempest blowing in our land. There is desolation in many places, but we have the hope, the faith and the promise that we may shelter under the wings of the Almighty with our kinsman redeemer, Jesus Christ,’’ he said.
Dave Weigley, Columbia Union president, then presented Jackson with a certificate of appreciation for his 48 years of faithful ministry. Jackson will retire in June.
Weigley also applauded pastors, conference leaders, educators and health care workers during his report. “We’ve really tried to continue ministry through the online method,” he said. “Despite the pandemic, we’re continuing to carry on the mission.”
From the Front Lines
Terry Forde, president and CEO of Adventist HealthCare (AHC), a network that operates four hospitals in Maryland and Washington, D.C., gave attendees an overview of the work their employees have been doing to extend God’s grace and care to patients. He noted that AHC’s newly acquired Fort Washington Medical Center (Md.) has been overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients and has collaborated with the Maryland Emergency Management Agency to set up three field hospitals to meet the growing needs.
“Our mission doesn’t stop when there is a crisis; our mission should flourish when there is a crisis,” he said.
Since Ohio-based Kettering Adventist HealthCare (KAHC) didn’t have many COVID-19 patients at their nine hospitals, they were able to share Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) with Adventist HealthCare and other hospitals. Due to safety regulations, many routine surgeries and procedures have been cancelled, and leaders are now looking at how to resume services safely. “God blessed us with years of plenty, and now we’re having to give back, and so we’re doing that,” shared KAHC CEO Fred Manchur.
Making Tough Decisions
Weymouth Spence, president of Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Md., reported that classes continued online, but 40 students without a place to go remained on campus. His team continues to dialogue as they deal with ramifications of the crisis, such as the 50 percent drop in summer enrollment.
He also shared recommendations from the Board of Trustees to adopt a new model for the school with proactive adjustments that call for the university to move to a more consolidated model. This would mean suspension of six programs and degrees (Education-Traditional, BioChem/Chemistry, Communication, History, Math and Political Science), with the possibility of reinstatement. The memorandum of understanding for Social Work with Andrews University (Mich.) ends June 30, 2020.
“There comes a time when the mission of the university is critical, and we want to be sustainable,” said Spence.
Keeping Mission Going Strong
For the first time in many years, the Columbia Union Conference experienced a drop in tithe, reported Treasurer Emmanuel Asiedu. Tithe was down 5.40 percent (approximately $1.6 million) from January to March, compared to last year.
Despite this drop, Asiedu says he has been impressed with members’ generosity during this hard time. “Their giving was more than my expectation, given the COVID-19 crisis and overall financial crisis we are experiencing,” he added.
Asiedu noted that he would still like to thank God, even though there is a loss and added that the union had also seen savings in other areas—including canceled events like a Human Resources conference, the North American Division Ministerium, the General Conference Session and other travel due to the coronavirus. The union also continues to operate with a 146 percent working capital, but will not implement the 1.6 percent cost-of-living increase for employees this year.
Weigley added, “We at the union are strong, so we can assist our conferences. … We depend on these funds to keep mission going strong.”
Conferences Report on Local Mission
Conference presidents gave reports on how the coronavirus has impacted their areas, and how they are meeting and ministering in creative and flexible ways.
As of May 7, the New Jersey Conference had lost 31 members to the virus, shared president Jorge Aguero. “But we celebrate that many members have recovered, and this is a blessing from God,” he said.
In addition to praying for and ministering to members, leaders are planning online evangelistic meetings with Pastor Dwight Nelson, and are actively distributing food in the community.
Allegheny East Conference President Henry Fordham is proud of his constituents, especially teachers teaching online. Conference leaders are staying connected through regular online meetings and worship.
The new Ohio Conference President Bob Cundiff, attending his first Columbia Union Executive Committee meeting, reported that Ohio’s Hispanic churches concluded an evangelistic series resulting in 21 baptisms. “One of the ways that we emerge differently is the appreciation for the virtual environment,” he shared, noting their new motto, “Ministry Does Not Stop.”
Ninety percent of Pennsylvania Conference churches are offering online worship or study options. President Gary Gibbs reported that 158 online Bible workers are reaching communities around the state, and they hope to eventually have 500 digital evangelists also working to share their faith.
Mike Hewitt, president of the Mountain View Conference, reported that one of their pastors hosted a full-length evangelistic meeting online, 90 percent of their churches have been hosting Zoom worship services and they have digital Bible workers who are continuing to evangelize. With most of their congregations located in West Virginia, theirs are some of the first churches in the union to start reopening due to the lessening restrictions.
“Our pastors, teachers and principals are the frontline heroes to maintain the momentum of what God is doing,” said Bill Miller, Potomac Conference president. He noted the flexibility and growth of their staff, including how Takoma Academy Principal Carla Thrower and her team traveled to each graduating senior’s home to celebrate them with graduation regalia and parades.
Chesapeake Conference Adventist Community Services and local churches have stepped up to meet the increased need for food with 20 food pantries in the territory, noted President Rick Remmers. Members and churches have also been making increased connections in the community.
Pastor John Coaxum, who shared on behalf of Allegheny West Conference President William T. Cox Sr., reported that conference leadership has made prayer a priority during this time, and has maintained strong communication among the conference staff. They are now planning their first virtual camp meeting and will transform a pre-scheduled evangelism event to distribute clothing, household items and food for the community.
Education Extends Accreditations, Contracts
Office of Education Vice President Donovan Ross shared that he has postponed school accreditation visits until next year and received approval to extend current accreditations by one year so that schools that are up for accreditation can continue operating.
Ross commended the responsiveness and flexibility of teachers in meeting the needs of students via distance learning. “Throughout all of this, there has been a concerted effort to support each other and our students,” he said, noting how some schools have deployed tutoring, teachers have been driving to students’ homes to drop off/pick up materials, some are hosting online graduations and others are even making and distributing bread to student families and hospital staff.
He also noted that despite the uncertainty, most of the conferences have extended teacher contracts for the next school year.
Conferences, Schools Apply for Coronavirus Aid
Vice president and general counsel, Walter Carson, shared that he studied the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which will provide $2.2 trillion to the American economy. Part of the act is the Paycheck Protection Program, designed to help small businesses in the United States keep employees. In total, there is $599 billion set aside to help small businesses. Under the act, church organizations with fewer than 500 employees may participate.
While they had some initial concerns, Carson says, “There are a number of reasons why we concluded that it would be appropriate for church organizations, including Seventh-day Adventist institutions, to participate in the program.”
He listed the following reasons:
1. The authors of the program clearly intended the program would be available to religious organizations, with 500 or fewer employees.
2. The administrator of the program assured religious organizations that religious freedom, the concepts of separation of church and state and core religious values would continue to be protected and respected under this program.
3. There are existing Supreme Court decisions that uphold the constitutionality of the program insofar as it benefits religious organizations.
4. The government caused the problem that we are suffering from, so it would be appropriate for it to help solve the problem.
Most of the conferences in the Columbia Union and WAU opted to participate in the program.
Ministries Lend Support
Union vice presidents Frank Bondurant, Rubén Ramos and Celeste Ryan Blyden also shared reports about how their ministries are lending support during the crisis.
Bondurant, vice president for Ministries Development, who oversees Youth, Pathfinders, Adventist Community Services and Disaster Response and other departments for the union, noted, “Moments of crisis offer opportunities for reinvention. This crisis, which threatened to interrupt and possibly derail mission, has actually provided fertile ground for how we can do church differently and reach out to people differently. It has actually provided new birth for how we do ministry.”
Ramos, vice president for Multilingual Ministries, shared that some of the Hispanic churches and Adventist Community Services centers have positioned themselves to help the community, with some churches distributing a ton of food each week and hosting prayer and evangelism meetings online.
“The Lord has been so good,” said Ramos. “At the beginning of the quinquennium (2015), our prayer was to see 100 new multilingual church plants in our territory. … We now have 280, and, in spite of this difficult time, the church is moving forward.”
Celeste Ryan Blyden, vice president for Strategic Communication and Public Relations, said the “Visitor magazine provides a strong sense of community and connection among members. That’s been our role for 125 years, and, during the pandemic, with word that our press was temporarily closed, we sought ways to continue engaging with members.” To do so, she and her team hosted a five-week conversation series on Facebook Live, where 34 guests discussed various topics: mental health and anxiety; how members have been impacted by the virus; how education moved online; frontline health care efforts; how churches are staying connected; and how ACS leaders and volunteers are responding to increased need.
Blyden also shared Visitor archives from 1918–20, the last time there was a global pandemic. “In October 1918 alone, 195,000 Americans died,” she said. “In the November 7, 1918, edition of the Visitor, leaders reported that ‘all churches are closed and some lines of work are at a standstill. The plague … is raging everywhere and there are many dead bodies in every place.’ And just like we have done during this pandemic, they called for prayer.”
Committee Members Urge Caution and Compassion
Milton Brown, MD, who has a doctorate in Organic Chemistry and is the CEO, chairman and co-founder of Trocar Pharma, Inc., and is researching therapeutic drug treatments for COVID-19, said, “We want no life lost because of our decisions.”
He shared that until 70 percent of the country has either been infected or researchers have found a safe and effective vaccine or treatment that mitigates or reverses the impact of the disease, the virus will not go away.
He emphasized that no lives should be lost as a result of reentering our schools and churches too soon. “We have to take caution,” he advised.
Committee members then proceeded to vote their commitment to prioritizing this goal.