The full extent of the coronavirus pandemic’s debilitating effects on everything from the industrial supply chain to mental health to school learning is still becoming evident.
And for America’s houses of worship, which, even before the pandemic, struggled with dwindling church attendance, the struggles are far from over.
When churches closed their doors to in-person services as Covid-19 surged, some churches were late in adapting to the change and have been losing steam ever since.
Valley Stream Presbyterian Church hoped to emerge from the pandemic crisis unscathed, but instead is losing its pastor. The Rev. Kymberley Clemons-Jones, who brought transformative changes to the church since launching her ministry in August 2008, is stepping down on Oct. 30, citing the church’s current financial pressure.
“My salary, you know, is a hit to the congregation, because it’s just something that we have to worry about every two weeks,” said Clemons-Jones, who felt that eliminating her salary would ultimately be one fewer source of financial stress for the church.
Valley Stream Presbyterian, a mainstay of the community, has been around since 1927.
Throughout the pandemic, while families were hunkered down in their homes, “Rev. Kymberley Clemons-Jones set about making sure people would still be able to worship,” said Sami Martin, clerk of session for the church. “Instead of recording or uploading a 10-minute sermon, she and her husband, Minister Phillip Jones, along with our worship leader, would go into the church and record an entire service, as if it was any other Sunday.”
The service streaming drew an international following, Martin said, and it was this nimble thinking and ingenuity that kept the congregation engaged and the church afloat.
Clemons-Jones has been nothing short of instrumental in the church’s sustained longevity over the years.
“When I came in 2008, there were 27 parishioners on the roll. There was no Sunday school. Bible study was sporadic,” said Clemons-Jones.
Under her leadership, the church swelled to a little over 100 congregants at its highest point and brought in a host of new or expanded ministerial programs including a Youth Ministry for all ages; weekly Bible Study; Lectio Divina; Women’s Ministry, and a rousing music ministry that all continue to this day.
One of her most celebrated programs is the WANTED Project, originally conceived as a free seven-week program, funded by donations and grants, to teach young black men between the ages of 12 to 18 to be good and responsible citizens.
The program, hosted at the church’s fellowship hall, has evolved by popular demand over the course of the pandemic into a boys and girls of color mentoring program
“For obvious reasons, boys and girls of color have additional challenges in growing up in this day and age,” Clemons-Jones said. “And so I feel like they need a little extra care to let them know that they are wanted.
“Since 2011, we’ve probably seen over 200 youth come through our program, and they have become more accountable to their families, to their schoolwork, grades and self-esteem have boosted.”
Getting these programs back to their pre-pandemic status has been an uphill challenge, Clemons-Jones admits. Her congregation currently dipped to roughly 77 members.
“People are still afraid to come out,” Clemons-Jones said. “Our tithes and offerings have taken such a huge hit.” The extent of the church’s financial trouble is less clear as they refused to provide the Herald with a copy of their latest financial report.
But the church will survive, assured Clemons-Jones, who is currently making some last-minute arrangements with leadership to ensure services remain running smoothly in her absence.
“She’s providing lists of all she does so that nothing falls by the wayside and has further opened lines of communication between the church and the Presbytery of Long Island,” the leading regional governing body, Martin said.
Many parishioners will no less grieve not having her distinctly humane, down-to-earth, kind-hearted touch from and off the pulpit.
“She always makes the person she’s speaking with the sole focus of conversation, as if they’re the most important person in the world,” Martin said. “We’ll need time to grieve.”
The church members “are rightfully worried (about the change),” said Clemons-Jones. “But sometimes you have to do what’s hard in order to make things continue to live. I hope that makes sense.”
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