Last May Saint Paul UMC in Joplin lost several members, its surrounding neighborhood and its sanctuary in the tornado. The tornado did $3 - $4 million worth of damage to the church. The church has been built in stages, and the destroyed sanctuary was the newest part.
“We are just back to where we started,” Brown said, referring to worship in the multipurpose room, the older part of the church. “We’re a healthy church, poised to grow.”
The church was able to continue to host its children’s programs last summer, and moved back into its multipurpose room for worship on the first Sunday in October. They are waiting on steel to begin the construction of a new sanctuary, and hope to have it completed by the end of July.
About 15 families left Saint Paul UMC because they needed to relocate to another community following the tornado. But new people have been finding their way to the church through the rebuilding process. Attendance at the church is now back to what it was averaging before the tornado. More than 600 people are coming to the Wednesday night programs at the church. On Christmas Eve, 1,900 people worshipped at the church’s six services, up 300 from the year before.
“We’re continuing to receive a lot of first time guests,” said Rev. Aaron Brown. “Through all of this we have been able to keep our systems in place for welcoming people who are new to the church.”
The church continues to do well on the capital campaign that was launched in April. And it paid 100 percent of its apportionments, just like it has for all of the 17 years that Brown has been there.
While Brown looks forward to getting a new sanctuary built, he doesn’t want the congregation to focus on it too much.
“The building is not our mission, it’s just a tool,” Brown said.
St. James UMC in Joplin had its building totally destroyed by the tornado. Rev. Tommy Freeman said that the past seven months have been the hardest months he has had in a life-long career in ministry. But he didn’t consider the church not paying apportionments.
“In 40 years of ministry, the churches where I’ve been appointed have always paid apportionments 100 percent,” he said. “If I was ever at a church that wouldn’t pay 100 percent, I guess I would ask to be moved.”
The Sunday after the tornado, Freeman had 52 people worshipping in his basement. After that they moved to a room at Christ Community UMC.
“Christ Community was a real blessing to us,” Freeman said.
Although St. James UMC appreciated the hospitality, they were looking for somewhere else.
“We just felt we didn’t have any identity when we were using someone else’s church,” Freeman said.
But it was hard to find a place. Available properties either wanted high rent or long-term leases, neither of which was an option for the church. Then a member referred him to the current location.
“When I got the call, I went over there right away,” Freeman said.
In the congregation there was one loss of life. About 11 people lost their homes, cars, and all their possessions. Another nine had extensive damage on their homes. The toll was high, but now is a time of rebuilding.
“It’s starting to come back,” Freeman said as he looked around at the building projects underway in the neighborhood. “It’s going to take a lot of time.”
Freeman said the church gains some of its inspiration from the 13-month old triplets who are part of the congregation.
“Everyone felt we needed a place to raise those kids,” he said.
St. James has a $40,000 Annual Budget, yet each year the church gives $5,000 to special project. Last year it was Heifer Project International (see story on page 8A). The church is now planning on building a 10,500 square foot facility for about $1 million.
“Our former building is in a landfill in Kansas, but our church is still alive,” Freeman said.
Rev. Chris Sloan of Christ Community UMC has seen a lot of his congregation move away, some out of town and some out of state.
“One woman told me that her house was gone, her dog was gone, her car was gone and her job was gone. She felt like she didn’t have much reason to come back,” Sloan said.
An estimated 17,000 people were displaced by the tornado in Joplin. Many people are unemployed as a result of the damage.
Christ Community UMC did not receive any physical damage, but many in the congregation did have damaged homes, and one person was killed. Sloan estimates that about 20 families have moved since the tornado.
Despite the loss of the families, the church is on target financially, as some other families have stepped up their giving.
Sloan expected to be down a couple of hundred on Christmas Eve, but ended up having more than 1,000 people in worship, a record for the church.
Christ Community paid it’s apportionments at 100 percent again this year. Sloan said that’s been the case every year he’s been in ministry.
“We could have used that money for other things, but when the tornado happened, there were people from the Conference down here to help, offering to get us anything we needed,” Sloan said. “That connection is important.”
Kendall Waller, director of financial and administrative ministries for the Missouri Conference, appreciates the faithfulness of the many churches in the Missouri Conference that continued to pay apportionments in full despite 2011 being an exceptionally difficult, and for some, catastrophic year. Overall apportionment payouts were down in 2011, with the overall payout being 83.1 percent, compared to 85.2 percent that was paid the year before.
Of Missouri’s 835 churches, 580 paid apportionments at 100 percent, only four fewer than in 2010. In addition to those 580 churches, another 40 churches that paid more than 100 percent, bringing the total number paying 100 percent or more to 620. Waller was contacted by two churches that wished to remain anonymous that paid 110 percent to make up for churches that didn’t reach 100 percent.
“They are intentionally doing more than their part to help others in a difficult year,” Waller said. “We had natural disasters in different parts of the state last year, and some of the churches with the greatest challenges have been the most generous.”
Although the decrease in apportionment giving resulted in $270,000 less coming into the Conference budget, that doesn’t take into account the fact that Missouri Conference churches gave $791,000 for storm recovery in Joplin in 2011. When donations from individuals and other organizations are added in, the total giving for Joplin exceeded $1.1 million.
Waller has confidence that 2012 will be a better year, both in the overall economy and for Missouri Conference churches.
“I feel good about the overall health of our congregations,” he said. “A lot of our churches have now had the hard conversations that they had been putting off and are now ready to move forward. I think 2012 will be a good year.”
Southwest District Superintendent Sandra Nenadal noted that many of the churches in the Joplin area have had a loss of members, or an increase in expenses due to hosting volunteers. Byers Avenue in Joplin is hosting volunteers every week, and still managed to pay 100 percent of apportionments.
“It’s been a real blessing,” Nenadal said. “I didn’t know if they would be able to do it.”