LIMA — When thinking about our places of worship, it is only natural that most of us think first and foremost about the pastors, priests, rabbis and imams who lead them. But as Paul noted in his first letter to the Corinthians, every congregation is a body made up of many parts.
“If the whole body were an eye,” he wrote, “where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?”
And so, one might ask, where would Lima’s Westside United Methodist Church be were it not for Carol Blass? Pastor Bill Cronk does not go so far as to say the congregation would be without hearing, say. But without her contribution, the church would certainly be diminished.
“She’s been one of the key leaders in the church for years,” he told me. “I have found her to be a person I can always talk to. She’s a good listener and she will also share if she thinks I’m off-base. I really think you need somebody like that.”
Blass’s involvement with Westside dates back to 2001 when her own congregation — High Street United Methodist Church — merged with Sharon Park United Methodist to form the new Westside UMC. But the church has always been an important part of her life.
“It’s been kind of a lifelong call,” she said. “I’ve always been active in the church, from the time I was able, with my parents’ permission. They always encouraged us to give back to the church.”
As an adult, having retired from a career in education with stints served in Lima schools and Apollo Career Center, Blass has taken the idea of giving back to the church to a whole new level.
“After retirement,” she explained, “I decided to do a little bit more studying, which I did, at what they call an ‘academy,’ through the Methodist church. And it was a two-year process. It was just going a little bit deeper into the policies of the church, why we call ourselves Methodists, what do we stand for and all of those things. So I guess maybe [Pastor Bill] thought maybe I was capable of doing some leadership. I’ve worked on many different committees at the church and many different projects. So he and I have worked very closely together.”
Fifteen years ago Blass took on what she considers her greatest challenge, taking charge of the congregation’s effort to establish an after-school tutoring program.
“I said, ‘We can do this together,’ thinking I would develop the program and step back.” she said. “Well, that was 15 years ago. And now we’ve completed 15 years of tutoring after school, kindergarten through eighth grade. We do that on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from October through April.”
Her current duties include tutoring, of course, but she is also involved in developing that program, communicating with the schools, getting the volunteers, putting students together with the right volunteer, and other administrative chores. And on top of the tutoring program, she and Pastor Cronk have established programs that supplement the purely secular tutoring sessions with activities that focus on Christian education. These sessions feature a light meal, some games, and some type of Bible teaching that is applicable to the students’ lives.
The two programs, Blass noted, are separate and participation in one does not require participation in the other. But, she feels, the Christian education addresses needs that go well beyond academic achievement.
“Pastor Bill and I were watching the students and we felt that they really needed more than just support with their school work. It’s the relationships that we’re building that seem to be the most critical piece in the whole program.”
The programs are open to all interested students, regardless of school district or religious affiliation. Over the course of 15 years, more than 850 students have participated in the tutoring program, and in recent years attendance has averaged 40-50 students a year. The Christian education program draws an average of 15 kindergarten-through-fourth-graders and 12-15 middle schoolers.
Both programs are staffed by volunteers, people from all walks of life who are simply interested in helping kids.
“Last year I was blessed with 33 volunteers,” Blass said. “The majority of them are from my congregation, but last year a third of them were from the community. One was a teacher that I knew. Another lady and her husband, I knew her parents years ago. So it’s just though connections in the community. And [anyone] can call me if they want to volunteer.”
With Pastor Cronk retiring from his duties at Westside on Sept. 10, Blass is now preparing to welcome the congregation’s new pastor — the Rev. Josh Andrews — who will be splitting his time between Westside and Spencerville Trinity UMC. With characteristic optimism, she believes the transition will be an easy one, and that the work she and Pastor Cronk have started will go on.
“We are really excited about greeting our new leader,” she said. “I think it will be exciting. He’s a young man. He has a young family. I think he has a fresh vision for us, and I think he can help keep us focused on our mission to win converts for Jesus Christ.”
Reach Dayton Fandray at firstname.lastname@example.org.