By Jessica Connor
EASTOVER—Some churches get dealt a blow and sink to their knees, frozen. Some tuck into their shells until the storm passes.
But one United Methodist church in South Carolina has allowed what could have been a crippling experience to become an utterly transforming one. And two years later, they are achieving the kind of membership, missions and outreach growth they d always prayed for.
Lebanon UMC, Eastover, had to demolish its sanctuary in August after learning it had massive termite infestation because of long-term water damage. With 400 members and an average worship attendance of 165, the country church is situated downslope in an area with few trees, so it was fully exposed to the elements.
As pastor the Rev. Mark Williams explained, the 89-year-old church got clobbered anytime it rained. Structural engineers told the congregation they needed to tear it down and start over ”they would need to find new office space and a different place to worship, not to mention raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to plan and build a new sanctuary.
It would be enough to make some people throw up their hands and surrender, Williams said, but not Lebanon. The church decided to kick into full gear, committing on faith to the new building and upping its commitment to Lebanon s host of missional projects, from partnering with Killingsworth to helping Epworth Children s Home and Salkehatchie Summer Service. This coming summer they will even host a Salkehatchie camp for the first time ever.
We ll literally be building houses for the poor while we re rebuilding our church, Williams said. That speaks volumes about what God is doing at Lebanon.
Instead of turning their focus inward, Williams and his flock said the experience has brought out the best in God s people at Lebanon.
At first, we felt we all got punched in the gut, but then we learned some hidden blessings in what God brought before us, Williams said. This sort of thing pushes people outside their comfort zones and causes them to rally together in ways they wouldn t if it was just life as usual.
I wouldn t wish termites on any church, but the hidden blessings have outweighed all of it.
When they weren t upping their mission zeal, the congregation was spending the last two years raising startup money and developing architectural plans for the new building, then going through the permitting process. In August, they demolished the church and then broke ground on the new sanctuary in September.
Now, as of the Advocate s press time, the foundation and framing are up, and they expect to be worshipping in the new sanctuary by summer. They are keeping just two things from their old building: the steeple and the stained glass windows.
To see a sanctuary coming up from the ground is so powerful, and as you can imagine, folks are so excited, Williams said.
In addition to the increased membership and commitment to mission, Lebanon is also seeing other surprise perks from their ordeal: the new facility will have updated technology, better acoustics for their choir and instrumentalists, significantly better seating (now able to accommodate 298 instead of 185), and the building is also physically closer to the road, which Williams said is a metaphor for how the church is moving closer to the community in all ways.
Leslie Fields, the church treasurer and a lifelong member, said Lebanon s journey has been invigorating for her and the other members.
It s almost like a rebirth, Fields said, noting the children of the church feel extremely invested in the new sanctuary. Her son, 8, asks for weekly updates on the building status.
He s always asking, ˜Mom, did we get enough money for the church this week? Fields said, laughing. It s uplifting.
It s also a vivid real-life example of how when you trust God, He delivers.
We ve been displaced two years, yet we ve grown new members, done more benevolence projects and more mission projects, Fields said, shaking her head at the irony. The old saying is true: When God closes one door, He opens another. We d been talking 10 years about how to grow our congregation, and now here we are.
The rebirth comes at no small price. Williams and Fields estimate the total project cost at $1.05 million ”hefty particularly for a church that only has a yearly operating budget of $223,000. But somehow, they re making it. While they are approved for a construction loan, so far they haven t had to borrow against it. They ve even been able to pay 100 percent of their apportionments every year.
Nancy Frierson and her husband, Roy, joined Lebanon after the infestation and have only known the church in its present state. They consider it to be a welcoming, big-hearted church that somehow has a different, refreshing feel from other churches they have attended.
Frierson is excited about being able to worship this summer in the new Lebanon sanctuary: I see it growing even more.
Lonnie Caughman, lay delegate and Lebanon member since the 1980s, said the experience brought the already strong missional nature of the church to the fore, enabling it to understand in bold new ways that it makes no difference whether you worship in a big sanctuary or crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in a tighter space ”the church is the people.
Since all this happened and we ve had to live in our kitchen and sit close to each other we ve found out we are all very much on the same page, Caughman said. If anything, the benefit was that, by circumstances, we were more or less forced to work even closer to each other than we had been, and yet we ve had zero conflict. We didn't have to argue for two years about what to do. ¦ Right from the get-go we were together.
Caughman said the community has become much more aware of Lebanon s mission work since the infestation and demolition, and now more and more people are drawn to its doors each week.
We re not a big church, but we ve been blessed with some people who are wiling to give their time, talents and resources without question, he said. We ve just learned we don't need all that pomp and circumstance to do what we know we re supposed to be doing.
As for Williams, he expects great things for Lebanon, which is gifted with people who fully understand that amazing, unexpected things happen when you allow God to work through you in spite of so-called setbacks.
When a church gets out of its comfort zones and gels together, God can work, Williams
said. God doesn t need a lot to be God.