When the pandemic hit in early March, First UMC of Williamstown, like most churches, was caught off guard and unsure what the future held, but through constant prayers and careful discernment the church kept moving forward.
In October the rural church was selected to receive an assortment of promotional items as part of a $4 thousand relaunch grant sponsored by United Methodist Communications, aimed at fostering more growth in a church that has already shown an exemplary response to adapting to the COVID-19 environment.
“The church we selected had to have a minimum average worship attendance of 100, has accomplished significant success in vitality and has grown steadily in worship attendance over the last 10 years,” said GNJ’s Director of Congregational Vitality & Sustainability Ed Bowen. “In addition to the minimum criteria, the church we selected also has an outstanding internet presence, a demonstrated highly successful virtual service, portrays emphasis on youth and adults of all ages and is thriving during the present COVID-19 situation.”
Rev. Joshua Mularksi, who has been the lead pastor at First UMC since 2016 and was among those ordained in October, said, “We hope that what God has been doing in our church can be shared more widely. We hope people can come to meet Christ.”
The church in Gloucester County, NJ, will receive customized banners, hats, shirts, magnets and more so that it can continue to bolster its online presence and other marketing efforts so that its ministries can continue to grow and become more vital.
“This pandemic has everyone operating in a diminished capacity in some way, but we hope for a day when we all can be operating at our full potential,” said Craig Catlett, manager of the Local Church Services Team at UMCOM. “This grant may allow a church to come out of the gate more powerfully instead of crawling back to normalcy.”
First UMC, with a congregation that tops 100, has shown an 11 percent growth from 2015-19, up from four percent from 2010-15.
“We’re grateful for God’s provision that enables us to do new ministry,” said Mularski who added that although they have had to put their monthly meal on hold, they are still distributing food through the food pantry, planning to provide Christmas gifts for local families in need through its Angel Tree ministry and continuing to offer Small Groups via Zoom. One group of women go for a virtual walk together every week.
Mularksi credited much of the success in recent months to church member Heather Fullerton who is a co-coordinator of the Vacation Bible School at the church as well as instrumental in driving the marketing efforts.
“It was a lot of trial and error. All the credit goes to Heather who is really gifted in those areas,” he said. Outside of the church, she is a full-time director of communications for a nonprofit.
“We focused on streamlining our website, mobile app and email tools to create clean, clear and easily digestible information,” said Fullerton who added that updating their database also helped them be able to send group texts when needed, and the addition of services like Outreach Digital and Shift Worship allowed them to refine Facebook engagement and online worship.
Keeping in mind that not everyone is using digital, Fullerton said, “Good ol’ fashioned phone calls by a group of volunteers on a regular schedule to check in on each other has really helped keep us connected. Our next big project is a permanent live streaming solution to replace our current simulated stream that we’ve been using throughout the pandemic.”
Working as a team, First UMC has stayed connected to its congregation since the onset of the pandemic through two online worship services, Sunday School, Small Groups on Wednesday evening, emails and an informative reopening video.
Also, using Zoom Breakout rooms and adhering to all Safe Sanctuary guidelines, their VBS program in July was divided into households instead of age groups, so the curriculum was overarching instead of targeted. Supplies were provided to registrants during designated pick-up nights at the church prior to the start of the VBS.
Check out their website at https://1umcwilliamstown.com/ or the Facebook page to see what they are doing.
As a side note, the town with a population of about 15,000 was once inhabited by the Lenni-Lenape tribe of Native Americans, from whom the town derived its original name, “Squankum.” The name was changed to Williamstown when the town’s first post office was established in 1842, due to postal regulations that prohibited two towns from having the same name and there was an older Squankum located 60 miles northeast. The earliest faith to be established in the town was the Methodist denomination. After several moves a church was erected at the present location of the First UMC, and a town clock was placed in its tower.