‘Moments of deep grace’ after church fire

During the past nine months, fire destroyed or damaged more than a dozen United Methodist church properties across the United States. Arson was the cause of at least five fires. The insured property value ranged from $10,000 to $3.3 million, but several churches lacked adequate insurance to cover full replacement costs. This is the third in a series reporting on the damage from those fires, the response to the affected congregations and what churches can do to protect themselves.

Since this series published, three church fires have been reported. On Feb. 13, the fifth arson-related fire in the Western North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference since December struck Bethany United Methodist Church, Summerfield, N.C. That same day, First United Methodist Church, DeRidder, La., had a fire of accidental origin in the fellowship hall. The fire was contained to a small area, said the Rev. A. Wayne Evans. Frisco City United Methodist Church in the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference suffered damage due to a fire Feb. 24. An upstairs heating unit may have caused the blaze.

I've served as senior pastor of Taylor Chapel United Methodist Church in Fort Wayne, Ind., since July 2010. On Dec. 3, 2012, a fire of accidental origin destroyed our sanctuary.

Fortunately, the fire was contained to the sanctuary. The structure is still standing, but the inside sustained heavy damage. Firefighters told me that when they first arrived and saw what they had going, they were not confident they would be able to contain the fire, as it had reached 2,000-degree heat. It is not clear if the sanctuary is a total loss at this point; structural engineers and the insurance company are still doing their assessment.

Response has been astounding. On the day of the fire, I received emails from our bishop and phone calls from my district superintendent, other pastors and friends. Strangers stopped by and offered care. The first Sunday after the fire, New Haven, St. Joseph and Good Shepherd United Methodist churches loaned us resources, servants to staff our children's ministry, a sound system and a support person to run it. A prayer team spent the morning with us,and St. Joseph's worship leader, Amy Cox, helped to lead us in worship. District Superintendent Dave Michel brought greetings from the bishop and the Indiana Annual (regional) Conference.

The local news media were present, sharing our story in a caring way. I asked worshippers from other churches to stand and form a "perimeter of prayer" around the congregation and give an opening prayer as we began our service.The Rev. Larry Whitehead, a lifelong friend who grew up with me at Main Street United Methodist Church in Kokomo (which burnt in a fire when we were in eighth grade), drove down to worship with us. The Bob Evans restaurant, a business neighbor, provided coffee. Letters, emails and prayer notes from all over the community, state and country arrived to encourage us.

A UMNS Series

"Church fires: Damage, recovery, prevention"

Church fires challenge United Methodists (Part 1)
Arsonists torch four neighboring churches (Part 2)
How do you protect your church property? (Part 4)

Pastors and people from all denominations have rallied to our cause for prayer support, practical offers of assistance, and sincere concern and encouragement.

I pulled together a design team to think through how to set up our four-year-old family life center as "semi-permanent worship space." Supporting us were three media experts representing an independent church and a Baptist church in our community. They spent three hours with us, brainstorming how we could set up that space for worship and what resources we might use. We are so grateful for their support.

'God will see us through'

Frankly, I think that's been the biggest witness to the community - the story of the many congregations stepping up to help and support. So often, the secular community hears about divisiveness. Here they see the best of the body of Christ at work together.

We are simply going with this moment that has been put before us and riding this wave in a way that God leads, trusting God.

The Rev. Steven K. Conner. A web-only photo courtesy of Steven K. Conner.
The Rev. Steven K. Conner
A web-only photo courtesy of
Steven K. Conner.

I shared with the congregation three clips from Apollo 13. The first announced, "Houston, we have a problem." The second was the scene where the engineers gather in a room and face the challenge of how to make a square peg fit into a round hole, using available random material thrown on the table. The third was the team effort to keep the Earth, a fixed point in space, in the crosshairs in the window. That, I said, is our mission. That is what we have to keep always before us so we don't skip off into space.

On Epiphany Sunday, we had a service of baptismal renewal. I invited people to remember who they are, who God calls them to be and to whom they belong - and not to forget. I asked them to write a response to the question: What in your life are you willing to throw on the table of grace for God to use, to make something beautiful? People brought their responses forward as an offering during the baptismal renewal service.

There have been many moments of deep grace, and I am grateful for God's guidance. This situation is so far beyond us, and there is no road map. We haven't been here before, and we must simply step forward one step at a time, "looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12:2a, NRSV).

It's not all up to us. This is all in God's hands, and God will, in fact, guide and see us through.

*Conner is senior pastor of Taylor Chapel United Methodist Church, Fort Wayne, Ind.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].


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