Visits that sing

Panelists tell how the Vital Congregations initiative helped prepare them to lead during pandemic

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Rebekah Carpenter (left) and Debra Levray sing in the lobby of a large apartment community in their church’s neighborhood. (Photo courtesy of Sion Presbyterian Church)

LOUISVILLE — On day one of the 2020 Virtual Vital Congregations Gathering on Tuesday, four panelists from Trinity Presbytery described how beginning the two-year VC initiative in January — and its Seven Marks of a Vital Congregation  — helped prepare them as church leaders for the pandemic.

The Rev. Rebekah Carpenter of Sion Presbyterian Church in Winnsboro, South Carolina, told nearly 100 participants she didn’t realize how quickly the seven marks and the Bible verses that go with them would become part of her thinking.

“I have to admit I didn’t know how much of this had sunk in,” she said. “But once you start looking at them, you naturally begin to embody the marks.”

Carpenter said when the pandemic hit, she found herself thinking about the mark “Outward Incarnational Focus” — and for ways Sion could get out of its comfort zone. Realizing church members and friends wouldn’t be able to do traditional pastoral care visits in the same way, she wanted the church to be aware of not only their own needs but the needs of their neighbors as well.

“Out of that focus we came up with the idea of singing visits,” Carpenter said. “We haven’t been refused by anyone.”

Together with Sion’s associate director of music, Debra Levray, Carpenter has joined small groups of choir members to sing at people’s businesses and in apartment buildings in the community. Carpenter described singing in an alleyway through a large glass window to a person in assisted living who rarely left the facility.

At Sion’s upcoming session retreat, Carpenter said church leaders will look more closely at the mark of Lifelong Discipleship Formation and then have conversations about each of their church programs around what has been working and what hasn’t.

“The pandemic is a perfect time to do this,” she said, “to tie it the church reformed and always reforming.”

The Rev. Leon Page Jr. preaches outdoors to those who drive-up to the church’s parking lot to worship. (Photo courtesy of Oak Grove Presbyterian Church)


The Rev. Leon Page Jr. of Oak Grove Presbyterian Church in Prosperity, South Carolina said the mark of “Spirit-Inspired Worship” helped him when in-person church services were canceled due to the coronavirus.  At first he worshiped with his congregation by phone via a conference call.

Now they’ve transitioned to drive-in church services. People come in their cars to the church parking lot, where a local disc jockey and member of the church has speakers and microphones set up.

“More and more elders and congregation members are participating in this new way of worship,” Page said. “They’re so excited to be back together as a congregation while following all of the procedures to keep us safe.”

The Rev. Jason Hammersley at South Aiken Presbyterian Church in Aiken, South Carolina said the mark of “Building Authentic Relationships” has been meaningful to him. Cultivating relationships of trust with other pastors has helped him to be able to say more than that he belongs to a connectional church.

“We’re not alone,” he said. “We’re connected to not only this presbytery but the whole global church.”

This knowledge has him thinking and talking with his congregation on how best to implement the VC initiative and its marks into the church’s long-range planning.

The Rev. Dr. Phyllis Sanders, the vital congregations coordinator for Trinity Presbytery, said it is more important than ever to experience vitality in the midst of the pandemics of COVID-19, poverty and racism.  She said that comes through prayer.

“It’s where God gives us unexpected surprises,” she said, “and answers to things we didn’t even pray for.”

As Sanders was wrestling with how to do digital training for the VC initiative at Trinity Presbytery, the idea came to her to adopt a “study buddy” approach to learning the seven marks during the pandemic. Instead of learning them in one large group digital setting, pastors work in pairs, changing buddies for each mark. Sanders believes the study buddy approach is one of the reasons why participating pastors have already begun to embody the VC initiative in the life of the congregations they serve.

Mel Tubb

During opening worship, Mel Tubb, mission specialist for loan repayment assistance in Financial Aid for Service, gave a short message on Exodus 16:1-12. Tubb preached from the New International Version, which uses the word “grumbling” instead of “complaining” to describe how the Israelites cried out to their leaders because of the lack of food in the wilderness.

“For me grumbling sits in my soul in heavy way. It’s deeper,” she said. “It’s easier to write off complaining as annoying — I mean, don’t they know how awesome God is?”

Tubb described a built-in formula for the people of God in the wilderness.  When faced with a devastating event, they grumble to their leaders, Moses and Aaron, who in turn grumble to God.

And God hears the deep grumblings of their hearts and acts by providing them with manna from heaven. Tubb compared this formula to the current dominant power structures that can be quick to write off the grumblers as a way to maintain the power they have.

“Grumbling is a form of resistance, a refusal to disappear and not have our voices heard,” she said. “Grumblers are trying to tell us of a deep need.”

Noting that the dominant structure makes life difficult for Blacks and other people of color, for the poor, for those experiencing mental health issues and for others on society’s margins, Tubb said that now is the time to join in the grumbling.

“We have the opportunity to dismantle what we’ve created,” she said. “While it may be hard to hear our churches have caused pain, we must create structures that examine that.  If we don’t, we won’t have vital congregations or have resilience for life in the pandemic.”

The Virtual Vital Congregations Gathering continues through August 20. Leaders engaged in the VC initiative continue to adapt and find  new creative ways of doing the work in covenant with the Office of Vital Congregations, housed in Theology, Formation & Evangelism ministries in the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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