By Bishop Peggy Johnson
The parking lot was full when I arrived at the Nelsons UMC in Hebron, Maryland. The annual “Sweet Potato Roll Sale” was in full swing on that crisp fall day in late October. For many years the members of the church have worked for an entire week preparing for this fundraiser that garners over $30,000 annually for their many mission projects.
Some people actually take a week of vacation from their secular employment to help out. I came to visit the church on “pick up” day for a promised gift of two dozen of these highly-coveted homemade delights. I learned that some people who have moved out of the area drive long distances to the church each year to continue to make their purchases.
The pastor, the Rev. Dr. Becky Collison, explained that the whole church gets involved in this process. There are those who cook, peel, mix, roll-out, cut, butter, package, label, and sell. On the day I was there the fellowship hall was filled with church folks engaged in making rolls.
The room was buzzing with a spirit of joy and cooperation. Everyone was using their talents to accomplish this great work of making 4,900 dozen rolls—58,800 in total. All had been pre-ordered, and many requests had to be turned down.
People were arriving at their assigned pick-up time, and some were purchasing quite a few dozen. They said they would freeze them and bake them for Thanksgiving Dinner. These rolls were a popular family tradition during the holidays.
The curious thing about these rolls is that they are square and not round as one would expect. For years the church folks made round rolls, but at some point they realized that they could make them more efficiently if they were square, placed in a rectangular pan and scored.
The new shape took some getting used to, but when some ingenious member of the church made a contraption that actually scores the slab of sweet potato dough, the speed of the production took off. After all, a square roll tastes the same as a round roll. The benefits of the new shape outweighed the need for it to adhere to tradition.
In churches we have an old saying “We’ve never done it that way before.” Sadly, that attitude keeps us from doing something new and better that the Lord is calling us to do. Our ministries and missions are good but sometimes they need a creative new edge, perhaps using some new talent, new kinds of outreach, more diversity, a broader reach.
Nelson UMC uses some of its profits from the roll sale to fund an after-school program for children at risk in the community. The whole town is experiencing the benefits of this ministry. They have also paid for the installation of a wheelchair ramp and donated to a number of overseas mission projects.
What new thing can you be doing at your church? How can you “sing to the Lord a NEW song?” (Psalm 96:1) Who does God want you to reach for Jesus Christ that requires you to change the way you do things?
I know a church that does Vacation Bible School the whole day on the Saturdays before school starts, so that parents are free to go out shopping. They have doubled their attendance.
Many churches are beginning to use credit-card machines to accept donations because increasingly people do not carry cash or check books. A church in Texas has installed washers and dryers in its education building to help the homeless population have clean clothes. Some of our churches are studying their carbon footprint and are beginning to use china dishes and cloth tablecloths instead of disposable paper and plastic products.
The possibilities are endless. Our God is a God of new ideas, a God who longs for us to invent new ways for people to experience divine love.
“Behold I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up. Do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:19) May you follow the example of the square sweet potato roll-makers at Nelsons UMC. May you go out to start something new!