How do you prepare for losing half of your congregation to a new church? For starters, initiate a tutoring program. That is what Westminster Presbyterian in Roakoke, Va., did.
For years, as the PCA’s “only game in town,” Westminster strove to accommodate members and visitors from across the city. But during the year leading up to the January 2006 birth of Christ the King Presbyterian, pastor John Furman realized the congregation he had led for 12 years would decrease substantially. Westminster members that commuted from southwestern Roanoke would gravitate to the new church, reducing the parent church’s Sunday morning attendance from 200 to about 100.
Anticipating this, Westminster determined to focus on needs in the local community. “I knew the church plant would leave us in an area where we did not have much ministry,” he said. “Few of our people were from this part of town. We had to do something to establish a presence here.”
“The population to the left of our church is heavily white. To the right, residents are predominantly African-American. We could have remained lily white by turning left and focusing on that group. But I felt our church should be mercy-driven, and we had been working on that for a couple of years.”
In the months prior to Christ the King’s first service, Furman and congregation leaders met weekly to redefine a ministry philosophy and establish goals. One was to start a tutoring program with nearby Westside Elementary School.
“Most children at the school come from disadvantaged homes, and the school was failing to achieve the ‘Standards of Learning’ (SOL) set by the state. The principal was trying to turn the school around, and we began praying about how we could help.”
Furman’s wife, Martha, who had a special interest in the tutoring idea, scheduled an appointment with the principal.
“We met with Dr. Belcher the Wednesday prior to our last full congregation service,” Furman said. “After about two minutes she looked at us and said, ‘When can you start?’ I replied, ‘We’re here to serve you.’ She asked, ‘How many students would you like?’ After a brief discussion, we agreed on 15 students, five each from the third, fourth, and fifth grades,” Furman said. (Later, they added a 16th student.)
“On the outside I was saying, ‘Sure,’ but on the inside I was thinking, ‘This will never work. Where are we going to find 15 tutors?’”
The next Sunday evening, however, approximately 40 people attended the final joint service for the congregations. The following Wednesday, January 18, each child had a tutor and separate room. Other members greeted students as they arrived at 3 p.m., gave them hugs, walked them down the hall for snacks, organized games, and prepared dinner for children, their parents, and volunteers.
“I can’t say we did a phenomenal job of planning—we were flying by the seat of our pants. But God worked it out beautifully, and tutor-student relationships came together very easily. One tutor asked his child how many were in his family, and he replied that he had eight brothers and sisters. The tutor, who also had grown up in a large family, responded, ‘Do you ever worry about having a bed at night?’ That simple question forged an instant bond.”
A byproduct of the tutoring effort was an easier transition after the new startup, Furman noted. “The next Sunday, as expected, our attendance was about 100, in a sanctuary big enough for 400. I expected complaining and disheartened people,” Furman said, “but with so many involved in tutoring, all I heard were comments about ‘my kid,’ referring to a child someone had tutored the Wednesday before.”
The initial meeting with Dr. Belcher spawned another idea to solidify ties between the school and the church. “I noticed a bicycle next to the principal’s office, and asked about it,” Furman recalled. “She said she planned to use the bicycle as an incentive to encourage students, awarding it to a child with the best grades and best attendance. But she said she really wanted to give a boy’s bike and a girl’s bike for every grade, from kindergarten through fifth grade.
“I asked her to give me a week and see what I could do to help. I’ve never seen people respond so eagerly. It was just phenomenal. A car dealership donated two bikes and 12 safety helmets. Other businesses donated individual bikes. Before long we had bikes and helmets for the best boy and girl students in each grade.”
Becoming the Tutoring Catalyst
She is the pastor’s wife, but Martha Furman didn’t become a catalyst for the tutoring program because she had nothing else to do. She maintains a private counseling practice and leads grief support groups for a local hospice. However, the more she prayed about providing tutoring for children at Westside Elementary, the more excited she became.
“As our group discussed how best to reach out to the community, the idea of tutoring seemed natural. Many people in our church had gifts and experience in teaching, along with a love for kids. The school was so close, and it seemed an ideal way to get back in touch with the community.”
With her full-time responsibilities, Mrs. Furman said, “I kept thinking, ‘This isn’t my thing,’ but I was the one most excited about it. When I called to discuss tutoring and Dr. Belcher suggested meeting the next day, I quickly typed up a proposal, and when she asked if we could start the following week, we really had to get our act together in a hurry.
“Amazingly, 39 of our 100 members came regularly for the tutoring program. Everyone found a little niche. We shared the attitude, ‘Hey, we’re all in this together—see what you can do.’”
Involvement in the tutoring program necessitated some sacrifice for everyone.
“Two men left their construction business early on Wednesdays so they could tutor. They don’t get paid when they’re not working. Other people had to take time off from work as well. Veteran teachers feeling burned out were renewed and smiling again, doing creative things on a one-on-one basis that they could not do in a class of 30 children. We had businessmen sitting down and playing games with the children they were tutoring. And a highly structured retired businessman and a girl with a real free spirit proved to be a perfect match.”
Introduction to Another World
One week, Westminster hosted the “Hands in Praise” team from the Caribbean Christian Centre for the Deaf in Jamaica. For years, members from Westminster have participated in short-term missions trips to work at the school’s three campuses; in return, Jamaican youngsters gave a Wednesday night concert at the church, singing hymns and praise music in sign language.
In preparation for the group’s visit, the tutoring students received instruction in sign language, learning the alphabet and how to say their names. They surprised the visitors by signing “Our God Is An Awesome God.”
“Before the concert, the Hands in Praise children spent the afternoon with our tutoring kids, communicating through an interpreter,” Mrs. Furman said. “They told what it’s like to be deaf and how God is working in their lives. When the children were playing games together, you never would have known one group was deaf.”
Receiving Widespread Approval
When the church first approached her about tutoring, Dr. Belcher consulted with the third, fourth, and fifth-grade teachers. They felt personalized tutoring would be “an extra piece for helping our students, in addition to regular instruction and our after-school remediation program. We selected students in our after-school program whose parents worked late or could not assist them for a variety of reasons.”
In early August, the principal had yet to see the SOL scores, but she commented, “From daily observation and feedback from our teachers, performance in every area—attendance, homework completion, grades, reading scores, and a desire to do well in school—were much improved.
“The children loved it, including being introduced to other cultural pieces by tutors who had visited other countries. The tutors were just outstanding.”
Randall Eakin, the school counselor who coordinated the tutoring program with Westminster, noted, “Parents appreciated the time and energy the church volunteers gave, and enjoyed the family meal after the tutoring time that allowed them to meet other parents and the volunteers working with their children.”
Asked if she was looking forward to Westminster helping to tutor her students during the 2006-07 school year, Dr. Belcher responded, “If they’re willing, oh yes!”
Special Week at Ridge Haven
An extra benefit was that 10 of the Westside tutoring children accepted invitations to attend a summer camp at the Ridge Haven Conference and Retreat Center in North Carolina.
To help with the cost, Westminster obtained scholarship assistance from Ridge Haven. The deacon board took $2,000 from the annual budget, a tutor in the Christ the King congregation donated $200, the new church itself gave more than $800, and smaller gifts came from other sources. And during the week at camp, several of the children made professions of faith in Christ.
“It meant a lot to receive Christ the King’s support, knowing they were behind what we were doing,” Furman said.
Looking back over their first year, Westminster members realize they may not have changed the world, but they began making an impact in the lives of a group of children and their families.
“We only had 16 kids, and that’s just a drop in the bucket,” Mrs. Furman said. “But I feel like we did a really good job with those 16 kids. We did what we could with the manpower we had to give.”
Robert J. Tamasy is vice president of communications for Leaders Legacy, Inc., a ministry to business and professional leaders, based in Atlanta, Ga. He is the author of Business At Its Best: Timeless Wisdom from Proverbs for Today’s Workplace (River City Press) and co-author of The Heart of Mentoring with David A. Stoddard (NavPress).