When the Church Street Preschool closed last March at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in East Tennessee, Director Beth Cooper-Libby and the Preschool Board members expected a closure of two weeks. 

“It felt like I was standing on frozen water and the ice broke under me,” Libby says when it became unclear when the Preschool would open its doors again. “I had no idea of what we were going to do.” 

And while the Preschool’s closure did surpass two weeks, children returned to the classroom just 39 days after shutting down while most Knox County schools remained closed for the remainder of the spring semester. 

During the shutdown, it became evident to Libby the importance of the Preschool to the Knoxville community. Many of the school’s parents work in fields on the frontlines of the pandemic including as nurses, police officers and city and TVA employees. 

“I really had to look at what we do in a whole different way,” Libby says. “I always thought we were a mission of the church, but when we became the reason parents were able to go to work during a crisis, I was just like, ‘This is way more mission than I had really thought about.’”

As Libby explored options to help parents by reopening the Preschool, many obstacles created a tense couple weeks filled with uncertainty. The Preschool board, church members and church administrators all helped plan for a safe reopening.

“We kept our sense of humor. We realized that we were all working toward the same goal,” Libby says. “And when we opened, it was nothing but good.” 

Libby says the excitement from the students once the Preschool reopened its doors was infectious, as kids played with joy in their classrooms and with their friends. 

In addition to wearing masks, student temperatures are checked at the front door before the entry for each day. The two younger classrooms and two older classrooms often participated in activities together like playing on the playground, Easter Egg hunts and Santa visits, but now each classroom operates on its own so there is minimized risk to the larger Preschool population if someone were to contract Covid-19 .

Parents are also not allowed in the building, which Libby says has been a downside to reopening during the pandemic. 

“I always felt the students benefited from the teachers and the parents being able to communicate with each other face to face,” Libby says. “…Like Church Street had to learn how to go online [for worship and small groups], Preschool had to figure out what to do when we weren’t having that face to face interaction.” 

Now Libby communicates with parents using Remind, a communication platform for teachers and parents, and the Church Street Preschool Facebook page. Also, teachers will often meet and greet with parents in the outdoor breezeway to mitigate risk. 

In addition to limited contact between teachers and parents, parents were also asked to pack lunches for students when the Preschool reopened to limit the amount of surfaces touched by outside sources like caterers. The catering staff returned a few months later, and has been serving boxed lunches for students. 

Libby says there will be nothing sweeter than returning to the lunchroom. Each classroom now eats in their own room at 12 pm instead of all the students, teachers and staff eating at the same time in the lunchroom.

“The acoustics in the lunchroom are fantastic. I don’t know what Tim’s got up there in the choir room, but trust me, the acoustics in the lunchroom must be 100 times better,” Libby jokes. “I never thought I’d say I miss the lunchroom being so noisy, but I miss the lunchroom being so noisy.” 

In addition to following CDC guidelines, extra safety measures have been taken to keep students and staff safe. The lunchroom tables and playground are cleaned in between each use using a Department of Health and Human Services solution, and toys are cleaned and rotated in each classroom during nap time. 

An additional door greeter staff position was added to help move children between their classroom and parents as needed throughout the day. Libby also ensured there were two staff members to help give breaks, one for the younger classrooms and one for the older classrooms. 

Over the course of the pandemic, Libby wrote and was awarded $20,122.94 in grants for the preschool, which has helped the preschool stay open and pay teachers during any unforeseen shutdowns. The grants were funded through the Tennessee Department of Human Services and The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. 

Some grant money was awarded specifically for equipment and supplies, which was used for items such as touchless trash cans. 

The preschool has only had to shut down two times since it reopened, and each time the parents didn’t have to pay and teachers continued to receive compensation. 

“We provided a safe place for parents – especially our essential workers – to leave their children,” Senior Pastor Catherine Nance says. “Children are resilient when they trust the adults around them and feel they are cared for and cared about.”

“I love watching them on the playground and look forward to the day when I can visit in the classroom and share a story.” 

Preschool to celebrate 50th anniversary of the Week of the Young Child

Each year, the National Association of the Education for Young Children encourages early learning facilities to participate in Week of the Young Child. This week, the Preschool is celebrating students, teachers, families and the Knoxville community. 

Keep your eyes on the Preschool Facebook page to see the children participate in a spirit week with dress-up days like Favorite Color Day and Pajama Day. Each class will end the week with ice cream and cake at snack time to celebrate the end of Week of the Young Child and the Preschool’s 52nd birthday.

If you haven’t had a need for a Stephen Minister, you may not know what powerful work this 15-person ministry of Church Street does, or that their work has expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

They call themselves the “after” people, comforting grieving church members after a loved one dies or crisis occurs. After the ministers visit, the family goes home and the loneliness of grief settles in, the Stephen Minister’s work begins. Each Stephen Minister is assigned one care receiver at a time to help walk that person through life after a crisis. 

Each relationship between a Stephen Minister and care receiver is confidential. A typical relationship lasts anywhere from one to two years, although some care receivers may only need guidance for 6 months. Every once in a while a relationship will last more than two years as additional crises occur after the first. 

“I can’t stress how rewarding it is to have a care receiver,” Stephen Leader of almost 10 years Doug Spencer says. “Just that relationship with a care receiver and as you watch God work in their lives and in the situation and see the healing that they go through.” 

Before the pandemic, most Stephen Ministers met with their care receiver at least once a week. Now, phone calls and Zoom meetings are more common, and happen more frequently than once a week in some situations. 

Rev. Pat Clendenen, who served as an Associate Pastor at Church Street from 1989 to 1994, offered to help the Stephen Ministry program at Church Street this year. She stepped in as the designated clergy in February, just as the pandemic started.

“It really is a calling. It’s not something that you just decide, ‘okay I think I’ll go and work in this area of the church this year. I’ll just volunteer here.’” Clendenen says. “ It truly is a calling.” 

Becoming a Stephen Minister 

Those who feel called to be a Stephen Minister participate in 50 hours of structured, intensive training developed by Stephen Ministries St. Louis. This training includes education of how to respond in certain situations, and roleplaying activities to put those lessons into action. 

In addition to these 50 hours, a Stephen Minister may decide to train to be a Stephen Leader and attend an additional week of immersive training offsite, usually in St. Louis or Orlando. These Stephen Leaders provide ongoing leadership to Church Street like Clendenen, Elaine Doss and Spencer. 

Doss, a two-time cancer patient, started her training at Fort Sanders Hospital in September 2018 with no intention to visit hospital patients because she was worried that she would not be able to minister to someone going through cancer. 

“But by the time I got through the training, I was over all of that,” Doss says. “I think that God just shows up in every single hospital room.”

Once a Church Street Stephen Minister completes training, they are assigned a care receiver by Clendenen. Most care receivers are referred by a clergy member and first contact is made by Clendenen. 

Making assignments isn’t taken lightly, and Clendenen has done her best during the pandemic to get to know both the Stephen Minister and the care receiver through phone or Zoom conversations before making an assignment.

“It has to be the right match and I have to trust that. A lot of prayer and thought goes into that,” Clendenen says. “It’s important for me to know the Stephen Minister well.” 

Each Stephen Minister participates in mandatory Peer Supervision meetings, currently over Zoom, once a month and education offerings to stay up-to-date on ways to respond to different crises. 

During Peer Supervision meetings, each Stephen Minister with a care receiver will give a non-specific check-in statement. The check-in statements allow Stephen Ministers to bring to the group any issues they have in their relationship and for other Stephen Ministers to offer support. 

“The wisdom of many instead of the guesswork of a few is found in those peer supervision meetings,” Spencer says. 

In addition to the short check-ins, one Stephen Minister each month gives an in-depth report that dives deeper into the situation, relationship and any setbacks or celebrations. The group listens to these in-depth situations and also provides support and feedback. 

Working as a team with other ministries and clergy 

There are often situations where a Stephen Minister cannot provide all of the necessary support needed for a care receiver, which is often brought to the attention of the ministry during the monthly Peer Supervision meetings. 

The ministry will often dovetail with the Parish Health Ministry Team, with many care receivers accepting care and guidance from both ministries. Additional resources like legal support, home repairs and healthcare can also be arranged using the resources of the church congregation. 

“It’s great when we can make that happen and bring it all together,” Clendenen says. “That has been a good outcome in certain situations.” 

Clendenen’s familiarity with Stephen Ministry and Church Street has allowed her to lead the ministry with ease during the pandemic. At her first appointment following her time at Church Street in Brentwood, Tennessee, she was quickly immersed into Stephen Ministry training. 

“I’ve really enjoyed getting back into it. It’s a really great set of Stephen Ministers,” Clendenen says, “a very unique, diverse group and this year during the pandemic it’s been tough. We’ve had some ongoing crisis situations.” 

During the leadership training process, it is stressed how important it is to have clergy support Stephen Ministers, and Spencer says that he has been extremely impressed by Clendenen’s support. 

“I’m so thankful for Rev. Pat Clendenen. She’s done a wonderful job,” Spencer says. “We’ve had some good clergy involved with this, and Pat has knocked it out of the ballpark. She’s doing a really, really fine job.”

Clendenen agrees that without clergy support, operating a Stephen Ministry program is tough, and that she has appreciated the support of clergy like Revs. Catherine Nance, Tim Best, Palmer Cantler and Jan Buxton Wade. 

No matter when a person touches the Stephen Minister program’s process, Spencer says it’s a blessing to help those in the Church Street community see change and grow. 

“We are not the fixers. God is the fixer,” Spencer says. “We are privileged to be able to be there to watch it happen.”

The COVID-19 pandemic sent businesses, organizations and communities to a screeching halt last March, including the vibrant community of Church Street choirs. 

An active ministry, the adult choir boasts 60 members, the youth choir 50 and the children’s choir 25, and the handbells choir, on average, has 12 members at a time. Although each choir member hasn’t been present during each Zoom, the adult choir has gained three new members during the pandemic. 

Once it was evident that a shutdown would cause a shift to virtual worship, Director of Music Tim Ward knew recording would be the natural starting place. 

Virtual worship quickly became the norm. Organist Edie Johnson coordinated singers and musicians, while Ward recorded and music secretary Eileen Weber edited the audio and video of each virtual piece.

“We decided a long time ago, ‘we’ve got to make this work,’ and so we did,” Ward says.

Making it work has relied heavily on the creativity of Ward, Johnson, Weber and the members of each choir. Johnson says she’s enjoyed including all ages, even if it has to be virtually. 

“We’ve really kept the entire community engaged even when we can’t meet in person,” Johnson says. “By having the children and the youth in the virtual choirs, it’s been able to involve a lot of people.” 

Each choir soon found a way after the shutdown to sing or play to a new tune, with five recitals and countless virtual choirs produced since March 2020. 

Learning new skills, getting creative

Weber wasn’t a video and audio editor prior to the shutdown. Although her previous experience was limited, she quickly learned how to separate audio from video, combine audio to make individual voices blend into one choir and then add back the video previously separated.

Each virtual choir member is sent a video or audio file to practice before recording. Weber then takes each individual member’s video submission to create the final combined piece.

“It’s been a creative outlet that I think has been so rewarding for me,” Weber says. “I’ve been more excited about this kind of work and I’m so grateful to Tim and Edie and the ideas that spring from their minds to keep all this going.”

As a member of the adult choir, Weber has also taken on a teaching role, as she helps choir members understand the best lighting and sound setups to get the highest quality video and sound.

In addition to at-home recordings, Ward has been lead cameraman on the recording of soloists in the nave and Johnson’s organ playing for worship services, and he has learned new ways to capture each music presentation. Soloists have been recorded by as many as three cameras at once, and a dancer for one of the virtual recitals was recorded from six different angles. 

“I wanted to make everything up close and personal and didn’t want to record from far away,” Ward says. 

Another way that virtual worship has allowed for more personal connections is through the organ pieces. Each recording shows Johnson’s face, hands and feet as she plays. 

“That’s a new connection that people have made,” Ward says. “They’re able to see what Edie does, and before, no one saw it unless you got to sit by her in the choir.” 

Making new connections, even over Zoom 

While many have felt less connected than before the pandemic, Ward and Johnson have made sure that members’ needs are put before singing and presentations. 

Rehearsals and meetings immediately started to provide connection for each choir. Ward met nearly every  Wednesday night with the adult choir, and Johnson with the children’s choir every other week in the summer and weekly during the spring and fall.

In a typical year, members usually arrive, practice and then leave and don’t normally stick around to chat or get to know one another outside of who they sit next to each week. 

“In the adult choir, it’s amazing to me that people knew faces, but they didn’t know names,” Ward says. “This has really allowed people to put a name with a face. I had several people say, ‘You know, I know more now.’”

Weber says she’s also created more connections in the youth and children’s choirs and the handbell choir than she had previously. 

“I’ve actually learned more people than I knew before at Church Street. That’s been very rewarding to me,” Weber says. “Now I feel like I know some of the youth choir and have had a really good time joshing around with them or exchanging comments.” 

Members of the adult choir are now known for offering any and all information they can about vaccines, and offer help when it comes to groceries and other tasks. Ward says that they’ve included time on each Zoom to connect and check in with each other before singing in order to provide a bridge while apart. 

Johnson also invited a teacher to lead conversation related to the Alexander Technique, which is a way of learning how you can get rid of harmful tension in the body. Members learned more about ways to cope with anxiety, loneliness and other issues produced by the pandemic.

Looking forward to in-person worship opportunities, new recitals

As the church reopens for Sunday worship opportunities, Ward is excited to have in-person music at both the 8:30 am and 11 am services. 

On March 14, an eight-piece ensemble sang all musical pieces for the service , and that will stay the same until Easter Sunday when additional choir members will join in the balconies.

“Your vocal chords are a muscle,” Ward says. “Just like with weight lifting, if you don’t use them every week, the muscles go away.”

Johnson and Weber echo the sentiment, adding that singing together again will help singers strengthen skills they have lost and get back in the practice of having a conductor to follow. 

In addition to a return to worship, a special recital, “Mother Goose, Nursery Tunes and More” will feature clergy and staff members as characters in a variety of well-known children’s tunes, as well as the opportunity to get to know the organ in a more whimsical way 

“I guarantee anyone who watches this won’t be able to help but smile,” Ward says. 

The special recital will premiere on YouTube at 3:30 pm on Sunday, March 21, and a special Meet and Greet will start 30 minutes prior to the premiere on Zoom. 

In a typical year, maintenance includes what you might expect in an old church building: changing filters, mopping floors, ensuring anything broken is replaced, and triaging emergencies that pop up. But 2020 wasn’t a typical year. 

Church Street Maintenance Supervisor Keith Bailey, who has been at Church Street for almost six years, says the time without in-person meetings has allowed for both long-overdue and pop-up projects to be finished easily. 

There’s a plethora of projects that Bailey and the maintenance team have worked on during the shutdown, but there are a few that members are sure to notice once they return to the church this month. 

Welcome Center water damage 

Wainscotting off the wall following water intrustion.

At the beginning of 2020, water damage in the basement of the church created what has easily been the biggest building project in the past year. 

Rainwater gathered on the roof of the church, before overpowering the infrastructure of the ground below it and opening between the courtyard and building. The influx of water caused the back wall to buckle, and the wainscotting was removed from the wall.

After rerouting the water to avoid any further damage, the floor was stripped and waxed, and the wall was patched before attaching new wood paneling.  

 

 

Basement wainscotting following repairs.

New look for preschool, children’s classrooms 

A new coat of paint, ceiling tiles and lights have created a brighter atmosphere for classrooms in the preschool and children’s classrooms. 

Parents, kids and teachers alike will remember the ceilings of the classrooms prior to their recent renovation and won’t be able to miss the new shine each room has. 

In addition to new paint, preschool classrooms also received new toilets and sinks, and the floors in the hallways and classrooms were stripped and waxed. A camera system has been added to the front door of the preschool, as well, to help add security.

First floor cleaning in 10+ years 

It’s been over 10 years since the floors of Church Street were last completely stripped and waxed. 

Waxing the floors is a time-consuming process, as you use a large floor machine to strip away existing wax before applying a new coat. If you haven’t removed the previous wax completely, the wax will build up.

Members will notice a difference in the shine of the floors, especially on the third floor where every space has been stripped and waxed. With typical foot traffic, the floors are mopped regularly. 

Pop-up projects 

There are several other projects that have taken the time and dedication of Bailey and the maintenance team, which includes Jeffery Rose, Robin Crain, Kevin Bailey and Jacob Jenne. 

The elevator entrance in the breezeway and elevator doors have all been painted, and repairs have been made to stained glass in the doors on the Henley Street side of the church. 

Additional lights and cameras have been placed outside to ensure security and protect the church, while also providing a glow on the church at night. 

 

 

 

Throughout the month of March, we are telling the stories of the Church Street Connectors, those in the church body who have exemplified “being the church” since the Covid-19 pandemic first hit in March 2020. When the church building closed, their ministries continued in new and thriving ways. Stay tuned for more stories all month and throughout the year.

When you hear of the Congregational Care Committee, it’s easy to imagine what their day-to-day looks like: caring for the congregation. 

But, during the last year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the care provided by the committee has reached new lengths.

This is the first year of recollection that the committee has been chaired by two members — Barry Christmas and Judy Grubb — and the pair share responsibilities with 16 other church members. Most members serve three years on the committee, but it’s not unusual for a member to stick around for an additional year or two. This is the fourth year for Grubb. 

“It is a committee that a lot of people, they’ve heard of, but they don’t really know what the committee does and how far-reaching it is,” Grubb says. “I feel like it’s really important work that is done because we’re trying to maintain communication and to care about church members.

An active, hands-on church committee, Christmas, Grubb and the additional members take a very organized and detailed approach to reaching every member of the church in one way or another. 

“I love the work that we do because I know that it is touching people’s lives in a very meaningful way. It means a great deal to a lot of these people,” Christmas says. We get a blessing out of it, too. We are definitely blessed by the work.” 

Care Connect Ministry

The first responsibility of the Congregational Care Committee is the Care Connect Ministry. Each member selects their desired number of contacts off the contact list of 62 homebound members and members living in a care facility. 

Prior to the pandemic, members were encouraged to visit each contact at least once a month, sending cards and reaching out via phone call on occasion in between each visit. Now, members rely on cards and phone calls to connect with these congregation members, and it’s been encouraged to reach out more than ever before. 

“That contact is very important. It’s easy to fall into depression and be despondent and pull away from social interaction,” Christmas says. “As I tell the committee, these people can’t get too much love, so pour the love on.”

And the contact made is not just important to the member. Grubb, who has had the same contacts for the past four years, has begun receiving cards in return and always receives phone calls thanking her for her kind words. 

During the shutdown, Grubb has unfortunately lost one of her contacts, but before she died, her daughter passed along how much her mother appreciated the cards. Following her passing, Grubb sent a card to the daughter, and the daughter responded with a note saying the continued connection to the church meant more to her mom than she could have known. 

“That really makes you feel like you’re doing something good,” Grubb says.

Advent and Lenten Devotionals 

The devotions distributed each Advent and Lenten season are the work of the Congregational Care team, as well. In a typical year, devotions were only printed and distributed at the church, and mailed to congregation members who needed it. 

Now, with the help of the Communications team, Advent and Lenten devotions were delivered to members virtually through the Church Street website, email and social media. Anyone who still needed a printed copy could receive one via request. 

Barry Christmas shares advent devotions with community members picking up UMW Bake Sale items in November 2020.

Any devotionals mailed during the Advent season were sent by Christmas, and each person on the Care Connect Ministry contact list received a wooden cross and special Christmas letter. Christmas had the help of church staff members Doris Lively and Nancy Keen for the Lenten devotionals, and the pair sent to the Care Connect Ministry contact list a devotional and special Easter letter. 

“We’re learning how to do new and different things and calling on new people outside of our committee to help us keep our projects going,” Christmas says. “They’re so meaningful to all of our congregation.” 

In addition to a change in distribution, the way in which devotion writers were recruited changed. During Advent, congregation members dedicated time and attention to writing devotions for each day during the season. But, with an early 2021 Lent and Easter season approaching quickly, Church Street clergy suggested the Congregational Care team pull together a “Voices from the Past” for the 2021 Lenten season, reprinting devotions printed as far back as the 1970s from beloved Church Street members and saints. 

“I know it’s going to be meaningful, especially to people who have been members of the church for some time,” Christmas says. “They’re going to recognize all those names in that booklet. It’s a blast from the past.” 

Crafting with care

Many of the Congregational Care Committee members are crafty, using their skills in crochet, knitting and sewing to impact different congregation members. 

During the pandemic, Grubb has shared her work of creating monogrammed blankets for newborn babies in the church community with Betty Craig. Grubb started the project in 2010 and now gathers materials and sews the blanket as far as she can go until she reaches the monogram part, and then she drops off the blanket on Craig’s front door to finish. 

Once the full name and birth date has been added and Craig has monogrammed CSUMC, the blankets are given to Children’s Director Katryn Bancroft who assures the gift makes its way to the new parents. 

In addition to these blankets, volunteers knit or crochet prayer shawls to be given to members who are experiencing illness, chemotherapy, surgery or other life crisis where they need comfort of knowing prayers are being lifted up to them. 61 prayers shawls were distributed in 2020. 

When these shawls were delivered in person, a written prayer would be read over the person, creating a meaningful moment for both the recipient and the giver. Now a printed prayer is included with each shawl.

“I’ve taken shawls to people before, and you could just tell that they were very, very touched by that,” Christmas says. 

There are other small projects that the committee works on from time to time, including walker bags to attach to the walkers of older members of the congregation. 

New member assimilation 

If you’ve joined the church in recent years, you’ve likely come in contact with one of the Congregational Care Committee members. Each month Christmas and Grubb receive a new member report and pass along to the month’s volunteer. 

The volunteer for the month will make contact within three weeks with the new member either by email or phone call. After that initial conversation, the volunteer continues contact for an additional six weeks to answer questions and make sure that they have been connected with ministry and mission opportunities. 

Supporting military and their families

Another responsibility of the Congregational Care Committee is its dedication to military members and their families. 

Grubb remembers when the U.S. entered Iraq in 2003. Her son-in-law was in the Army and in the first surge, and Rev. Bill Fowler created a special support group for members who had family in the military at the time. 

Attending with her husband and daughter, she remembers how important the support meetings were, and likens the work Congregational Care does on a regular basis to these meaningful meetings. 

Loretta Best has led this work as long as Christmas has been with the committee, and in a typical year, she maintains the military display board in the church with a photograph of all the active duty members and family of members of the church. She has continued to keep the board updated at the church during the pandemic, and in 2021, the Committee is taking one further step by recognizing active duty members in the Messenger each member’s birthday month so that the congregation can lift that military member up in prayer (in 2020, the committee dedicated this space to members in their 90s and older).

In addition to maintaining the board, Best will send cards on occasion to military members, and each Christmas she sends them a care package on behalf of the committee. 

Bereavement 

Helping members with bereavement has been the most changed aspect of the Congregational Care Committee’s responsibilities. 

Care notes, which are small pamphlets that cover a wide variety of issues, are kept on a display rack in the church for public access. While the committee and community has not had access to these care notes, clergy have been encouraged to take advantage of those pamphlets, which are grounded in scripture, when opportunities are presented. 

“People have told me in the past that that’s been very meaningful to them and those little pamphlets have really helped them,” Christmas says. 

Throughout the month of March, we are telling the stories of the Church Street Connectors, those in the church body who have exemplified “being the church” since the Covid-19 pandemic first hit in March 2020. When the church building closed, their ministries continued in new and thriving ways. Stay tuned for more stories all month and throughout the year.