Being One with God
Our beginning as a parish followed a familiar path. In 2012 we were thrown off course.
In 1969, St. Stephen’s began as a summer chapel of Trinity Episcopal Church in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Membership grew; in 1974, St. Stephen’s became a year-round congregation and mission of the Diocese and eventually a parish in North Myrtle Beach (Horry County). When the Diocese of South Carolina broke away from The Episcopal Church in 2012, St. Stephen’s was the only congregation left in the county. Today, in addition to St. Stephen’s parish, there are two missions in Horry County – St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Conway and The Church of the Messiah in Myrtle Beach. This historical perspective is important because Horry County, South Carolina continues to grow in population as more retirees choose Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach, and the surrounding communities as their new home.
Due to the 2012 split, St. Stephen’s congregation experienced a departure of about 30 parishioners. Many of these members were active members and leaders. Their absence created a vacuum in some areas of leadership, however their departure provided an opportunity for other parishioners and new members to step up and become more involved. One of the ways we build up leadership is through our parish council. Council membership consists of all lay leaders in the parish: the officers from every commission, committee, or group. The vestry, which meets monthly also meets every other month with the parish council providing a way to share information, raise issues, and to bring questions or recommendations to the vestry.
As an active worshipping congregation of about 200 on Sunday mornings, in order to continue our involvement and partnership with other organizations in the community, our congregation had to regroup. This is not to underestimate the painful experience we had to deal with, both as individuals and as a parish. Those who chose to leave were more than just parishioners. We saw them as family members, and this event fractured our parish family.
One example of the strength of these relationships is the story of a parishioner who left the congregation but requested, and, in fact, insisted that at his death, our rector would preside at the celebration of his life. Our rector was the celebrant at his wife’s funeral, a few years earlier, and he wanted the same celebration. Two years later, when this former parishioner died, the celebration of his life did take place at St. Stephen’s, even though he had not worshipped there in over two years. Many of those who left the parish returned and joined the congregation for this funeral service. Our rector reminds us that, regardless of our position on issues, we as Christians should welcome all persons as Jesus did in his earthly ministry. As a parish, we are strongly encouraged to welcome all -- especially those who had walked away from us.
In the midst of dealing with the painful split, remaining parishioners felt compelled to demonstrate that we could, and would, continue to be a vibrant and active congregation in Horry County. Over the years, we have worked intentionally at the way we welcome visitors into our congregation on Sunday mornings. Assigned greeters and ushers offer welcome and assistance at both services. Every first-time visitor is given a gift bag and invited to join us for fellowship and refreshment at the end of the worship service. This is just one of the ways we have continued to attract individuals and families into our congregation. New members have shared with us the experience of their first visit, speaking highly about the way in which they felt welcomed.
Supporting ministry and mission
Our rector, vestry, parish council, and congregation have also continued to support our ministry and mission through annual pledges. Year-round appreciation of the “Triple Ts” – time, talent, and treasure – from our members is practiced in many ways. A hallmark of our fifth Sunday combined worship service is the public recognition of one of our volunteer ministries, one month greeters and ushers, another flower and altar guilds, and so on, recognizing all ministry groups each year. In October, we kick off our month-long pledge campaign, beginning the first Sunday of the month with our rector’s message of gratitude for all we have been given by God, distribution of pledge envelopes, and instructions to prayerfully consider our gifts. Our worship services on the last Sunday of the month include the collection and blessing of all pledges as a symbol of our faithfulness in becoming one with God and humanity in Jesus Christ.
Our gifts of time, talent, and treasure encompass much more than our annual pledge drive. In 1969, in an effort to raise funds for the new chapel, parishioners began a community yard sale. Over the years, it has grown to the point where St. Stephen’s now has one of the largest yard sales in the county. The actual sale takes place the first full weekend of May and October every year with as many as 75 volunteers working the sales. This ministry was deeply impacted by the departure of some of the key leaders when the split took place, yet, once again, we were able to regroup. You may be wondering how much we make during the year. In 2015, we made a little more than $70,000 from the May and October sale. So, as you can see, this is not your typical garage/yard sale. The Rummage Sale serves a three-fold purpose:
1. It is a major fundraising effort and, as such, the proceeds support the parish and other charities.
2. It has become a social gathering. The social aspect allows parishioners to interact with one another casually as they work as a team, diligently sorting the rummage every Tuesday from 9:00 am to noon.
3. It is outreach, which allows us to provide to individuals and families in our community who may have experienced a natural disaster, or who may need support because of their circumstances.
Visit our website, ststephensnmb.com and click on Rummage Sale to get a sense of the scope of our parish effort. As St. Stephen’s folks will tell you, at the beginning of every sale our rector reminds us during the prayer time that, “We are a church, and not a flea market.” During the sale we are to wear the face of Jesus, and treat everyone as Jesus would, because there is bound to be someone who will test our patience and humanity.
Living the Gospel
During the 2009-2010 school year, St. Stephen’s became an affiliate of Kids Hope USA. This mentoring program, which pairs churches and schools, began more than 20 years ago in Michigan. St. Stephen’s was the first congregation in South Carolina to become an affiliate, a result of our partnership with the Horry County School District. During our first school year, about 40 parishioners drove round trip 40 miles every week to Loris Elementary School to participate in one-on-one mentoring. The National Kids Hope USA organization expressed amazement at the number of mentors we had volunteering based on the size of our congregation. Perhaps the fact that our congregation is comprised of many retirees may have helped.
The Principal of Loris Elementary gave one of our best testimonials a few years ago. He wrote an article for the Diocese in which he said he could not envision Loris Elementary School without St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. This ministry was directly impacted by the departure of parishioners who were leaders and mentors. In order to avoid the disruption of the program mid-stream, those parishioners agreed to stay on for the last semester of the school year, even though they were no longer worshipping with us as a congregation. Although it felt very awkward for everyone at times, for the sake of the students we all did our best to keep things normal and cordial. Though we no longer have 40 mentors, we have kept our level at more than 25 mentors each school year since. We are excited that in the summer of 2016, we expanded this ministry by providing a free, seven-week summer program for students in the Loris Community.
About ten years ago, St. Stephen’s began hosting a golf tournament to raise funds, with proceeds distributed to charities in our community and beyond. The tournament is now named The Rich Jacobs Memorial Pro Am Golf Tournament, in memory of the beloved parishioner who was instrumental in organizing this event. In June of 2016, St. Stephen’s, in partnership with the Myrtle Beach Golf Desk and Arrowhead Country Club, hosted the tenth annual tournament. Approximately $12,900 was raised. Church leaders used outreach funds to round this amount up to $15,000; on August 14 our church awarded these proceeds to five local ministries.
One might ask how we have continued to grow stronger as a congregation in the midst of all of the uncertainties and challenges we have faced. Parishioners note that we have remained stable, and attribute this stability in large part to our rector and his commitment to the parish and community over the 15 years he has served us. We also believe we have been able to stay the course because the congregation trusts its leadership, although this has not always been an easy or smooth journey. As we continue to wait for the decision of the South Carolina Supreme Court regarding the properties of the Diocese, we know that we are fortunate to continue to be able to worship in our facilities and continue our ministries and partnerships with other organizations. Many of our brothers and sisters were not as fortunate because they were forced out of their facilities by those who broke away.
What happens to a parish after a diocesan split?
In the case of St. Stephen’s, we grieve but forge ahead with what God has called us to do. Our Mission at St. Stephen’s is to become one with God and humanity in Christ by living the Gospel with love and compassion. Our Vision is to become comfortable with Jesus Christ and boldly proclaim Him. So as we seek to live the gospel with love and compassion, we also, as Episcopalians, want to be comfortable with Jesus Christ, in that we make no apology for our bold proclamation of who He is as our Lord and Savior. So, if you will, this is the “Jesus movement” in Horry County, and we are excited by what God is doing in this place through this congregation. Should you find yourself on the Grand Strand in South Carolina, look us up and you just might realize why we are who we are – a faith-filled congregation, excited to live and worship in this part of God’s vineyard. God is good! All the time!
The Rev. Dr. Wilmot T. Merchant II is the rector and Sally Davis senior warden of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
At St. Stephen’s there’s a shared understanding of what God is calling them to do. This has carried them through a painful split and helped their church to grow and thrive.
Questions for reflection and discussion:
- What do the parishioners and members care about in the church and the world? What do you know about their caring commitments? How might you explore these together theologically? From a stewardship perspective?
- What opportunities are provided to help people reflect on what matters to them?
- Apart from your annual stewardship drive, what opportunities does your church provide for members to express their values and priorities financially?
- Basics of Annual Giving: Strategies that Work, an ECF webinar by Erin Weber-Johnson
- Funding Future Ministry, an ECF publication
- St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
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