response September/October 2020 Issue

Lay Servant Ministry in a Time of Need

Deaconesses and home missioners adapt their ministries to help communities during a health crisis.

Lay Servant Ministry in a Time of Need
Deaconess Julie Smith serves as clinic coordinator for Smithville Community Clinic in Smithville, Texas.

When deaconesses and home missioners answer God’s call to serve in ministries of love, justice and service, they commit to vocations that enable them to bring the love of Jesus Christ to the world. They work in numerous fields: health care, community centers, education, disability ministries, church and nonprofit administration, senior ministries, services for homeless populations, food banks, communications and first response. Some advocate for the rights of marginalized people such as migrants, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, abused women and children, those with disabilities and many more. Deaconesses and home missioners are consecrated and administered through the United Methodist Women Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner.

Lives around the world have been altered in many ways since “novel coronavirus” and “COVID-19” became part of our vocabularies. For some deaconesses and home missioners, the pandemic has taken their ministries in different directions, requiring creative solutions to new challenges in order to meet the needs of those they serve.

Home missioner Matt Morgan, executive director of the nonprofit Journey Home in Hartford, Connecticut, coordinates efforts to end homelessness in the capital region. When asked what impact the global health crisis has had on his ministry, he said, “It has been the most challenging experience I’ve ever had at work. All of the work that we do has tripled. It’s been herculean efforts by many, many partner agencies working together to try and keep people as safe as possible and still provide them the services they need.”

The work of Journey Home normally includes matching clients’ needs with available emergency, temporary or permanent housing for those experiencing homelessness and improving access to health care, job training and mentoring. Journey Home also collects and distributes furniture to assist people who were homeless and are moving into apartments. He said one of the biggest parts of its work is facilitating homeless services through planning strategy meetings, coordinating the day-to-day efforts of getting people housed and managing the data on every aspect of homelessness.

Early in the pandemic, Morgan said they realized the shelters needed policies on cleaning and social distancing, and there was no personal protective equipment for the homeless population.

“We quickly decided we needed to ‘deconcentrate’ the shelters or they would be warehouses of COVID spreading,” he said. With people in bunk beds in large dormitory-style rooms and sharing bathrooms there was no way to implement social distancing, so they decided to relocate as many people as possible to hotels.

“We worked with the state of Connecticut on contracts with the hotels to place people and worked collaboratively with many shelters to plan this effort,” said Morgan. They moved the elderly and immune compromised into the hotels first and set up staffing to monitor the sites. Two weeks later, two-thirds of the homeless population had been relocated to hotels, with shelter staffing and food and health care services on-site. Some shelters have individual rooms and bathrooms, so their clients are able to isolate in their rooms.

When asked about what being a home missioner means to him now, Morgan said, “Part of the energy and determination and inspiration that I get is from knowing that there are United Methodist Women members and United Methodists all over the country praying for me. The cards and gift we receive on birthdays and holidays are a reminder that people believe in the work and ministry of the church and believe in creating social justice and spreading God’s love. It is a powerful force to know is behind me and supporting me.”

Journey Home became the hub for collecting and distributing the supplies needed by its partner agencies to protect people from the virus, and it had to get creative in sourcing them. With voice breaking, Morgan said, “It brought tears to my eyes when I saw a box full of masks that said ‘Simsbury United Methodist Church.’ They were hand-sewn masks, and I thought, wow, it is so awesome our churches are responding in this way.”

Belief in community

In Smithville, Texas, Deaconess Julie Smith serves as clinic coordinator for Smithville Community Clinic, a free clinic whose mission is “to provide hope and healing to those without means.” The clinic’s services, include preventative health-care education, a well-women’s clinic, dental services and behavioral health services.

The clinic was officially closed March 16 due to the pandemic, but telehealth enables the clinic to continue to serve its patients. Smith said the clinic’s executive director came up with a contact-free way to get consent forms signed, which is necessary for the assignment of patients to health care providers.

“I thought that closing the doors to the clinic and not having people in our waiting and exam rooms would cause the care-flow to stop,” Smith said. “Telehealth and listening, truly listening to people who call the clinic, has been surprising to me. During regular, non-COVID-19 days, with patients in the clinic, I do not have much time to talk to people on the phone. Now, when a call comes in to the clinic I have as much time as the person needs to listen, refer and make sure they are all right. I am thankful I have the time to listen to them.”

Smith finds hope in the clinic’s behavioral health counselors who use telehealth to help their clients deal with the stress of job loss, sheltering in place and taking on the role of teacher for their children, which can lead to mental health issues. She finds hope in people and organizations stepping up to offer free PPE.

“I find hope in our deaconess and home missioner community. The clinic was awarded an emergency ministry relief grant from the Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner for frontline needs. As the clinic reopens, the demand for PPE will increase,” Smith said.

The only criteria to be seen at the Smithville Community Clinic is to be uninsured or underinsured. The clinic offers two Spanish-speaking providers and a bilingual patient navigator to help remove language barriers to care.

“Being a deaconess during COVID-19 continues to support my belief in community—a community that wraps its arms around you and is there when you need them,” Smith said.

Deaconess Susan Hunt serves as the director of mission and advocacy for the Alabama-West Florida Conference, a job she’s had since January 2009.

In mid-March, the conference staff began working from home to better facilitate social distancing, and Hunt said she misses her regular office. “But that’s minor. The bigger situation is that our conference budget has been cut by about 50 percent, which meant that some staff positions have been eliminated effective September 1, including mine. Now I am searching for a new job while winding down my current responsibilities and handing them off to others.”

Many people have reached out to Hunt by text, e-mail, phone calls and on social media since her job loss was announced. She said, “Every single one has been a powerful reminder of the community surrounding me. The love I have felt has given me courage, strength and hope. I believe that God is speaking to me through them, telling me that better days are ahead and to remain focused on God and God’s will and God’s faithfulness.”

Hunt said being a deaconess is a priority for her life.

“There are many ways to love and to be just and to serve, and I am grateful for a community of people who understand that and keep me focused on that calling.”

New possibilities

Melba McCallum is a deaconess in the North Carolina Conference and the executive director of Partners in Ministry, one of United Methodist Women’s newest national mission institutions and the first in the conference, offering a wide range of ministries to the area of the state known as the Gateway District: tutoring, summer camp, GED classes, housing rehabilitation, senior activities, food support and more.

As they navigate the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, McCallum said, PIM’s “primary mission is to continue to be a source for hope and support for the most vulnerable in our communities. We have adapted quickly to a new normal while remaining committed to serving those in need and vigilant in identifying those with new challenges. We may not know what the coming hours, days and weeks may bring, but we do know our communities need us now more than ever.”

With the advent of COVID-19, they began making handmade masks for students, parents and the community, providing employment opportunities for youth to help carry out PIM’s multiple ministries.

“PIM’s staff mobilized quickly to address the logistical challenges of social distancing and has expanded its reach to meet increased demands,” McCallum said.

The organization kept students engaged through online tutoring, projects and workshops and offered critical home repairs. PIM partnered with churches to provide food and essential needs.

“I am amazed by the peace that I have during this season,” said McCallum, who also recently served as member of the United Methodist Women Program Advisory Group. “During this time of new normal, I have had the opportunity to take advantage of this slowdown, seeking God, being open to hearing God’s voice and assessing the ministry, reflecting on services that are fruitful and those that need to be enhanced or redirected. It has been amazing to see how God’s provision has equipped PIM to adapt to this crisis and birth new ministries that address this new normal.”

Despite the challenges the pandemic brings, Scripture, prayer, music and meditation help McCallum find hope.

“I see signs of hope through the selfless acts of others as we understand during this pandemic how interconnected we are as a people,” she said. “Communities are coming together to support the greater good of all, advocating for the most vulnerable, caring for their neighbors, supporting the community and professionals that are taking care of the community. I find hope in knowing that we are all in this together and we will come out of this crisis together.

“During these uncertain times, our ministry is needed more than ever,” she continued. “Many people are confused, afraid and unsure of which direction to turn. Deaconesses and home missioners can play a vital role in serving as compassionate leaders by identifying needs, moving from the old way of doing ministry to seek new possibilities and adjusting as the crisis unfolds.”

No matter how or where they serve, deaconesses and home missioners continue to fulfill their calls to ministries of love, justice and service, as defined in ¶1913.1 of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church: “To make Jesus Christ known in the fullness of his ministry and mission, which mandate that his followers alleviate suffering; eradicate causes of injustice and all that robs life of dignity and worth; facilitate the development of full human potential; and share in building global community through the church universal.”­

Deaconess Laurel O’Connor Akin’s ministry is photography and writing for churches and nonprofit organizations.

Posted or updated: 9/12/2020 12:00:00 AM