Caldor: How to lead a congregation when your neighborhood is on fire

August 31, 2021 | by The Rev. Dr. Laura Barnes

Caldor: How to lead a congregation when your neighborhood is on fire

Placerville Federated Senior Pastor Dr. Laura Barnes regroups with the support of Doug and Mary Ellen Huey who serve as Emergency Response Trained Disaster Response Ministry volunteers with California-Nevada.

Editor's Note: As the Caldor Fire rages in the south Lake Tahoe region, California-Nevada Director of Disaster Response Ministries Sonja Edd-Bennett. Volunteers in Mission coordinator Steve Elliott, and volunteers Doug and Mary Ellen Huey are on the scene at the local relief center in Placerville.  CalFire officials report that the Calder and Dixie fires are a new brand of wildfires that have never been experienced in the state.

Give Now!  Right now, our financial support is crucial.  Our dollars make gift cards, hotel rooms, groceries, and clean water possible for our brothers and sisters affected by the Dixie Fire and their calls for help are coming.

  • Click here to donate to our California-Nevada Conference Disaster Relief Fund.
  • Click here to send your financial support to UMCOR which supports fire relief and recovery throughout the Western US. 

Where is the book, “How to Lead a Congregation During a Pandemic When Your Neighborhood is on Fire?” I asked the congregation that first Sunday of the firestorm. We had just come through a horrific week together. Over thirty of our families had to evacuate due to the Caldor Fire and many more were under an evacuation warning. The air quality index surrounding our beautiful mountain town had exceeded 1200 and we were still in the midst of a surge in our hospitals due to the Delta variant of Covid19.
This was indeed, a “baptism by fire” as I had just begun my ministry with this incredible congregation about a month before. A blend of hearty United Methodists and Presbyterians, here in Placerville, adjacent to the El Dorado National Forest, have been through many forest fires. This one was different and much larger, frightening even the most experienced members of the church.
Methodists founded their first church here in 1848, just before the Gold Rush of 1849. Federated Church came into being in the 1920s, making us the oldest religious community in our area. The community of Placerville and Federated Church have a long history of working together to provide for our neighbors. I felt the weight of that responsibility as the firestorm threatened our community. We had to prepare to evacuate our church if necessary – what do you pack when you have over 170 years of history?
So, when Steve Elliott, from the California-Nevada Conference United Methodist Disaster Response Team, called me to offer assistance, support and resources, it was the breath of fresh air we needed. It was such a relief just to talk with someone who had experience dealing with a community under the threat of a wildfire. Not only did Steve offer support, but a team of volunteers willing to come be with us, bringing much needed supplies and donations from the United Methodists in California and Nevada. They were coming to teach us how to be a part of the solution when our citizens could return to their homes, if they had a home to return to.
This week we have been working with our United Methodist Disaster Response Team to staff a Local Assistance Center at our local community college. Together we are a listening presence for victims of this horrible fire. Together we will provide assistance to those in need. Together we will be able to journey alongside those who are returning to burned out communities. Together we will bring the good news of God’s unconditional love by living out the commandment to love one another.
As a brand-new pastor in the middle of a disaster AND a pandemic, I cannot share enough gratitude and for the ongoing commitment to partnering with our churches in times like these. Perhaps we don’t need that book after all, perhaps all we need is our California-Nevada UMC Disaster Response Team to share what they have learned so that we might, in turn, do the same.
Thanks be to God for our UMC siblings in Christ!


The Rev. Dr Laura Barnes serves as Senior Minister with  El Dorado County Federated Church of Placerville, A United Methodist and Presbyterian USA Congregation.

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