Congregational Update from Pastor David McEntire
Dear Friends,

Covid-19, the elections, hurricane season, the economy, racial struggles, scams -- it seems that we are besieged by challenges and unprecedented struggles. Yet, we are not and will not be the first to face huge challenges. God understands that we can be quickly overwhelmed and scripture speaks to the hope God provides. Paul caught hold of the hope we have in Christ when he wrote to the Corinthian church, expressing feelings that could easily be a description of this present time, coupled with a remarkable promise which we must use as our anchor.

“We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies… That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.” (I Corinthians 4:8-10, 16-18, NLT)

You remain in our prayers and I hope that you spend time each day in prayer. We pray that you are not crushed, despairing, feeling abandoned or destroyed. We pray that you are connected to God, realizing the incredible gift of knowing that you are loved, encouraged and sustained by God’s mercy.

The last onsite activities and worship at our church occurred 5 months ago. This has been more challenging and far longer than most of us could have imagined. While it is still hard to know what tomorrow will bring, we know this will end. The ministry of our church may look different, but it is still very important and meaningful. Keeping that focus on God’s call to bear witness to His love and power is one reason the leadership of your church continues to meet and plan regularly (online).

Decisions about in-person worship and ministry are reviewed regularly. In this letter we want to share with you some of the changes which have unfolded. As well, we want to share with you how we will progress over time. It is also important that we make safe determinations which affect you, our church and our community. In this letter you will find updates about what has been happening and about moving forward. 
Peace and Grace,
David McEntire                                                          John Curtis
Senior Pastor                                                           Chair, Church Council
First United Methodist Church                                 First United Methodist Church
Lakeland, Fl.                                                               Lakeland, Fl.
What Have We Accomplished? (A partial listing):
Preschool reopening: The Preschool opened on August 3, with a reduced number of children, staff and hours. The plan for opening, cleaning and safety was very complex, yet has given us the opportunity to safely serve working parents and their children.
Support groups gatherings: Several AA, NA and ACOA groups are now meeting in an outdoor, socially distanced setting at our church. This much needed recovery support is important as the stress of the pandemic has resulted in an increase in addiction struggles and related deaths.
Tuesday Tigers moving forward: Our volunteer group which provides wheelchair ramps and minor (outside) home repairs is now working to catch up with the many requests for help. This group is very careful to wear masks, socially distance and sanitize.
Outreach funding (ministry partners) and Apportionments paid at 70%: This vital support of our ministry partners is now more important than ever. Thank you for your generous giving which allows us to offer this critical support.
Giving beyond the budget: During this time of social isolation we have been able to give over and beyond our budgeted commitments to ministries such as KidsPACK, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (disaster relief), the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home and a special gift to Talbot House of $25,000 for the groundbreaking of Vermont Place (apartment housing for homeless families).
New Ministry-Connect and Check: We have trained over 25 volunteers who are expanding our list of calls to families in our congregation. Currently we have enough help to call over 500 families every two weeks, connecting with them and checking on their needs. This program will continue as an ongoing ministry of our church well after the pandemic is over.
Trafficking Free Zone Proclamation: Human trafficking is sadly increasing. The exploitation of men, women and children continues to grow. This sin against others is why our city, other churches and our own Church Council adopted a Proclamation on July 27. In part it reads, “NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that First United Methodist Church, Lakeland, Florida will serve to abolish commercial sexual exploitation and labor exploitation of our children and vulnerable adults in our community in collaboration with the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking (USIAHT) and other anti-trafficking organizations through comprehensive education of all engaged in ministry of First United Methodist Church, Lakeland, Florida, and the implementation of initiatives supporting increasing awareness, victim services, and holding sex buyers accountable.”
Scholarships: Our church has given in 2020 (so far) over $45,000 in scholarship to college and seminary students from our church.
Upgrades to technology: Now that online worship, small groups and activities are well established and will be included in our future ministry offerings, we have enhanced and upgraded vital equipment and technology, such as cameras, online platform equipment, and in the fiber optic connections. This will aid online worship and other small groups such as children, youth and adult ministries, including Sunday school.
Ultra Violet AC light systems have been installed and ready for current use (preschool) and in future use areas (worship, class, youth and administrative areas). These systems kill bacteria, viruses, mold and mildew passing through our AC duct work, keeping the circulated air cleaner and safer.
Relaunching Lay Leadership Academy (LLA): The unique and highly successful leadership training program (LLA) was put on hold in March. Next week we restart the Academy with online learning and experience. This will strengthen future leaders for the ministry of our church.  
Neighborhood Ministries: Our ministry to “at-risk” children, Neighborhood Ministries (NhM) has been on hold as has our schools. With the reopening of our schools this month, NhM will reopen with a limited number of students being served. This will allow safe care of these children and youth, helping the working parent(s) who often do not have the means to provide after school care for their children.
Who is Making Decisions as We Move Forward?
The Executive Committee of our church will continue to make important and timely decisions. Future considerations include outdoor worship experiences, small group gatherings (initially in an outdoor setting), and the eventual restart of larger group gatherings, such as onsite/indoor worship. The restart of these “phased” activities and gatherings will depend on public health safety, careful consideration of the scope of the pandemic in our area and the safety of our congregation and staff.

We know after hearing from many of our congregational members that about 98% support this approach and have strongly encouraged a wise, careful approach to any resumption of onsite activities and worship. A few have voiced a strong desire for onsite opportunities. Your pastors and the Executive Committee value each opinion and are careful in each decision made, using the best science, theological wisdom and guidance we can collectively discern.
While we are not yet ready to resume onsite worship and activities, we ask for your continued prayers and encouragement. Ministry is much more complicated and often more challenging. While we have a heavy and important responsibility, we are blessed with faithful and wise leaders. We are grateful for their prayerful and reasoned discernment. Please be in prayer for them and for the responsibility they have undertaken. 

Eventually this will end and our “new normal” will offer more challenges. Yet, as Paul wrote, “we never give up.”