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Church Anticipates Needs, Pays the Bills

Knowing that deferred utility bills were hanging over the heads of families already in need, Willmar Assembly of God stepped in and made a difference.
For months, COVID-19 has created fear around the world and across the United States. But there is another threat looming for many struggling U.S. households just outside of the pandemic – when the bills that have been deferred come due.

But now, thanks to Willmar Assembly of God, 151 Willmar households have one less bill to worry about.

For the past 19 years, ever since Keith Kerstetter became lead pastor at Willmar AG, the Minnesota church has placed an extra emphasis on meeting needs through a ministry they call the Deacon’s Blessing.

“Regardless of the status of our church finances,” Kerstetter says, “we want to be sure that we’re constantly a blessing. Each month, at the end of the deacon’s meeting, either I or a board member brings a request and lays it out. The amount given varies, depending on the need and situation.”

Kerstetter explains that the Deacon’s Blessing gifts have been given for a variety of reasons and to a variety of recipients. Sometimes the gift goes to meet a known need for an individual or group and other times to be an encouragement to someone who is doing a great job; sometimes to a city organization and at other times to a ministry.

“It’s one of the most fun things we do,” Kerstetter states with convincing enthusiasm.

But recently, Kerstetter says, the discussion at a deacon’s meeting turned to anticipating a need in their community of about 20,000.

“Like everybody else, we have been reacting and pivoting to circumstances in this time,” he says. “It would be nice to get out in front for once.”

The community was already aware that for many families struggling near or below the poverty line, a grant had helped pay electricity bills to keep the lights on — however, water and sewer were not covered. The church turned to Justin Mattern, the president of the Willmar City Utilities Commission who also attends the church.

“We asked him if he was aware of any COVID delinquencies in the city,” Kerstetter says. “He told us that, in fact, they were working on that right now and so far had identified $14,000 of delinquencies.”

Under the direction of the board and Kerstetter, Mattern took the idea of the church paying off those bills to the city utilities general manager.

“We had to look into the legalities,” Mattern says. “We got it cleared by legal counsel and the commission was thrilled with what the church was willing to do.”

After prayerful consideration, the church cut a check of $20,000 to give city utilities some “wiggle room” in case more delinquencies were discovered.

“By the time we presented the check on July 20, we learned that the delinquencies had actually risen to $20,000,” Kerstetter says. “The check covered the debt in full.”

Later that week, the utilities company mailed out a letter to 151 households that said in part that through a gift from Willmar AG, their bill had been paid in full.

Mattern says the church and the city utilities hope that the gift inspires others. “We’re hoping and anticipating that this will spur others to give — to other organizations as well — when they’re able to, which would be great at this time,” he says.

“We have no idea who the money went to,” Kerstetter says, “But our goal here has always been to pastor the community, not just the church . . . to come alongside what the community is doing and be a blessing . . . and what we’ve found is that it seems the more we shovel it (blessings) out, the more God shovels it back — and He has a bigger shovel!”

Kerstetter has statistics to back up his claim.

“In my time here, we have either built or purchased four buildings, we are debt free, we support 100 missionaries, and we are able to help other churches — we also still have a full musical at Christmas that sells out every year.”

Kerstetter mentions the musical because for the past 16 years they’ve taken the freewill offerings from the musical and invested it back into the city, including gifts to the Salvation Army and homeless organizations. In that time span, more than $330,000 has been given back to the community through the musical.

The church also allows its facilities to be used by schools and city organizations at no charge.

Kerstetter believes a reason for the congregation’s generosity is that they have come to understand biblical stewardship as a lifestyle, not a financial decision.

“We have worked hard to be a partner,” he says. “We want to be the type of church that if we weren’t here, people would miss us . . . we want to be seen as their neighbor, that we care about this community and care about you because your life matters to God, so it matters to us.”

Dan Van Veen

Dan Van Veen is news editor of AG News. Prior to transitioning to AG News in 2001, Van Veen served as managing editor of AG U.S. Missions American Horizon magazine for five years. He attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, where he and his wife, Lori, teach preschool Sunday School and 4- and 5-year-old Rainbows boys and girls on Wednesdays.