Covenant group’s latest challenge: Extreme makeover, OWF edition

By Jessica Connor

ORANGEBURG—One clergy covenant group put its collective energies to good use over the summer, tackling a daylong full-scale makeover for the Orangeburg Wesley Foundation’s facility.

The Body Challenge/Spirit Challenge covenant group is a team of S.C. United Methodist pastors who fulfill their continuing education requirements by challenging themselves in physical ways, building covenant time around outdoor activities—hiking, kayaking, biking—while wrestling with deep theological issues as they engage.

But on July 31, they decided their “body challenge” should involve helping one of their own group members: the Rev. Connie Barnes. Barnes is campus minister for the Orangeburg Wesley Foundation, and its building was in sore disrepair. Situated directly across the street from Claflin University, the building serves a sizeable student population, and Barnes was trying to reach out to those students while also dealing with a host of site issues—peeling paint, overgrown shrubbery and troublesome light fixtures, not to mention the same old carpet, furniture and other features since the building was completed in 1985.

Barnes was feeling frustrated, discouraged and at times overwhelmed by the building’s disrepair, and while ministry was certainly happening within those walls, “If you’re doing ministry with young people, you really want the place to be inviting,” she said.

Looking around her at the flurry of fellow clergy—all wearing old paint-spattered jeans and carrying brushes, spackling tools and smiles—Barnes began to cry, ticking off the list of improvements her covenant group had already done that day, from pressure-washing the front steps to repainting the exterior signage.

“It’s just beyond my belief—now we can really start the new school year strong!” Barnes said, tears rolling down her cheeks. “I literally cannot wait to see the look on their faces when the students come back; I want our students to feel loved, feel special and feel safe. They can see God through us, and we want to make that very evident: we are the light of the world.”

Between the covenant group’s help, some help from United Methodist Women and some major work by the United Methodist Men, who cut tree limbs on top of the building and cleared many small trees that had fallen in the yard from a storm, today the Orangeburg Wesley Foundation is ready for a brand-new start in ministry to students.

“It’s been quite a journey but a blessed journey—a good faith journey. And the Connection really shows up in this,” Barnes said.

‘We’re there for each other’

The Rev. Michael Henderson, who started the statewide covenant group, said the work on the Wesley Foundation was a big undertaking for the group, but one that members were very willing to handle.

“We always do something that challenges us, and we’ll set a really big goal every year, like hiking Table Rock or Panthertown Valley,” Henderson said. “We walk, we share what’s going on in our lives, and a different person leads discussion each time. We figure Jesus and His disciples walked and talked, so that’s what we do.”

Henderson said the idea to fix up the Wesley Foundation came during one such walk. Barnes had been sharing her difficulties with the group, and the Rev. Stephen Taylor suggested they gather during the off-season and pitch in to help.

“We’d planned to foot the bill ourselves, but then our generous churches supported it, too,” Henderson said.

The Rev. Eric Shepherd’s churches, Armenia and Bethel United Methodist churches in Chester, are two of those churches. Both contributed strongly through special offerings to help some of the repairs at the Wesley Foundation, doing what they could to reduce the building’s energy consumption by 20 percent through changing the fluorescent ballasts to electronic and the fluorescent bulbs to T8s, saving 70 watts per fixture.

Taylor said that sort of support represents the community of trust the covenant group maintains.

“We’re there for each other, and this (repair day) is an outgrowth of that—Connie’s got some challenges; how then can we be of help?” Taylor said, taking a break from pressure-washing the front steps. “Plus, it’s nice to spend the day cleaning something and you can see what you accomplished.”

Like night and day

That sort of tangible sense of accomplishment is something many of the pastors can relate to. After all, they are called by God to do difficult, sometimes thankless work surrounded by a flock of people who sometimes cannot understand exactly what it is like to walk in a pastor’s shoes. While they love their call, it can be a very solitary existence. That is where covenant groups like Body Challenge/Spirit Challenge can be not only helpful but critical.

“Here, we can talk about anything; we are a mutual support group, and in ministry you need that. You can only be so close a friend with your parishioners. Here, we can air anything,” said the Rev. Jack Vickers. “A lot of it is celebrating, too—the calling, the life we live, supporting each other in a fallen world. … None of us can exist on an island.”

The Rev. Paul Wood agreed. “It almost means the world to me to be with people I care for and who care for me and who share the exact same ideals as I do,” he said about the group. “We’re in covenant, so the big word is confidentiality. … It’s a safe setting for hot topics that we normally don’t get to talk about.”

The Rev. MJ Shoemaker, who is now retired, said the group helps her in so many ways.

“I can call on the group if I need anything—special prayer, anything,” Shoemaker said as she painted an office wall. “There’s so much I learn from others. It’s an isolating profession, so it’s really good to get together with people and share.”

And for Barnes, that help came in the form of 20 of her closest pastor friends turning out on a Thursday to help fix up her Wesley Foundation building for a fresh new sea of college students needed to walk with Jesus.

“It’s like night and day,” Barnes said, pointing out the work her covenant group did. “Sometimes you don’t know what to be specific about when you pray, and you just trust God to know your heart. He did. It’s a miracle (what they did.) It really is a miracle.”

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