'We needed something to bring back our 'focus'
On Sept. 4, the Sunday after Hurricane Katrina's landfall, Ohio's Andover UCC was eager to respond.
Preaching to his rural, 80-member congregation, the Rev. Scott Ressman said he felt "a real urging from God to challenge the congregation to do something extraordinary."
At the close of worship, the church's offering plates were filled with $1,266 in gifts designated for the UCC's Hope Shall Bloom hurricane recovery fund. But that was just the beginning.
"Our congregation received help from the Western Reserve Association's Mission Priorities Working Group many years ago at a time when [the church] was struggling to survive," Ressman said. "I spoke with [the trustees and church council] and suggested to them that it was time that we gave back in gratitude by helping others in need."
Although he didn't suggest a specific monetary goal, the trustees met and suggested the church's members raise $7,500, an amount that would be matched dollar for dollar from the church's reserves. Later that night, however, the church council decided to up the goal to $10,000 — with the same matching formula — making it possible that this small church could contribute a big $20,000 check.
"While there was excitement, there was also a sense that the goal, while impressive, was a bit out of reach," Ressman said. But by Oct. 9, the campaign's official ending date, members had contributed $7,500 — before the match.
"However, during the next week an individual from the church approached me saying that she wanted to make up the difference," Ressman said, "saying she felt called and inspired by God to help the church reach the goal, insisting though that the gift be anonymous."
On the next Sunday, the ceremonial $15,000 check — which had been celebrated the Sunday prior — was torn into pieces, making way for the new, larger $20,000 goal-reaching check to be commissioned for hurricane recovery.
"What was the driving force in the campaign?" the pastor reflected. "An urgent need for our sisters and brothers in the Gulf Coast, and because Hope Shall Bloom guaranteed that 100 percent of the donations would go to the affected area."
As of Oct. 26, Andover UCC's gift was the largest contribution of any church in Ohio, an impressive stat for a church that averages only 50 in attendance each Sunday.
"I believe that we were inspired to give by each other," the pastor said. "It's improved our self-esteem significantly, and it has showed us what can be done when God calls us to be courageous and bold."
Organized in 1832, the church had reached a membership peak of 200 in the 1960s, but it nearly closed its doors due to decline in the 1990s. But today, the church is stronger, has attracted younger, more-diverse members, and has great hope for the future. The pastor says part of the credit is due to its strengthened denominational ties during the past five years.
"We lost more than a few families and individuals following the equality-in-marriage proposal approved at the last General Synod," Ressman said. "We needed something to bring back our focus, to help us realize that our mission is to proclaim a radical Gospel as we help others, whether they live in our neighborhood or thousands of miles away. The congregation has never given so unselfishly."