I have always been proud to be a United Methodist and to take part in a worship and fellowship experience whose traditions date back for over two centuries. My own church’s roots in the community go back to before the beginning of our county’s history and that history is steeped in spiritual communion with the Wesleyan doctrine. Four generations of my family, from my grandfather, who pastored the church in the mid 1960’s to my son who was baptized in the church nearly 10 years ago, have been a part of the church’s history and I feel a connection with the long, unbroken line of Methodists who have walked the gently sloping hills of our county since the early 19th century.
Over the past 48 years that I have been a member of the Jackson United Methodist Church, I have borne witness to a ritual that dates back to the early beginning of the church as a result of the itinerant ministry. It doesn’t happen regularly and there is no rhyme nor reason to the time when such changes occur but we know as United Methodists that there will come a day when we have to say goodbye to one pastor and say hello to another. The occasions are always marked with a range of conflicting emotions from among the flock of the church, from happiness and sadness, anxiousness and anticipation. It is human nature, after all, to both worry about change to come while at the same time anticipating the good that can come with change. We Methodists accept this as part of the church we have chosen to be be in fellowship with.
Our current pastor, Reverend John Brantley, arrived only a couple of months before I began writing The Literate Pen, in June of 2010. June is always the month that the United Methodist Church chooses to move its pastors and has been for as long as I can remember. I’m sure there are reasons for that…school is out by then, which means children won’t be moved from their school in the middle of a school year and is thus less disruptive to their families. It also gives the moving church family time to settle in during summer vacation and get used to their new surroundings before school starts back in the fall.
I have never been part of the itinerant ministry but I know something about it because I experienced it in a peripheral way a number of times. When I was born, my grandfather was finishing up his first year at the church in Rome, Georgia, which was his first appointment after leaving Jackson in 1965. I obviously couldn’t remember that particular move but I have a portrait of my grandfather baptizing me at the church in Rome, my official induction into the ways of Methodism. I do remember his move after that, to Asbury UMC in Augusta and the anticipation of going to visit him and my grandmother in “their” new home. There was the experience of seeing “my” room for the first time, checking out the yard, seeing who had kids close by and so forth.
Next was the trip to visit “his” new church and to see all that was cool about it. Asbury was a mid-century modern style building, maybe the only modern church he ever pastored. The people there were nice and I remember him introducing me to them on my first Sunday visiting there. Augusta was a big city even then and there was a lot for him to show me, including what had to be the world’s largest “Dixie” cup at the local cup factory.
My grandmother was a school teacher, which was a common vocation for many pastor’s wives because they too could finish their school year before the move and then have time to secure employment in a new school system. Both of them always made the best of a move and focused on the positives of meeting new people and spreading their ministry to new places. I’m sure though, looking back through older and more experienced eyes, that moving for them and for any pastor’s family is a bittersweet time…saying goodbye to friends made and saying hello to new ones to come.
His next move was to Clarkdale, a smaller church near Austell. My grandmother’s health was deteriorating and a smaller church brought less responsibility and enabled my grandfather to look after her more. Once again, I got to experience a new room, new people and a new church, this time right next door to the parsonage. She retired after leaving Augusta and a few years later, he retired from the active ministry. Clarkdale would be their last church but not their last move. I think they both became so accustomed to moving every few years that they decided to try new places, moving first to Cornelia for a few years, then to Jefferson, where they attended the church he had pastored before coming to Jackson. For me, the moves were an adventure but again, I realize I was seeing this through the wonder of a child’s eye…plus I didn’t have to load boxes either.
My father was not nearly as big a fan of pastoral moves as I was. In the 50’s and 60’s, when he was growing up, pastoral moves happened much more frequently than they do now. It was not uncommon to be moved after only 1, 2 or 3 years at one church. Dad remembers changing schools every few years and having to make new friends all the time. He never felt like he had roots anywhere because it was hard to claim a “hometown” when you moved every few years. Only when he entered high school in Jefferson was he able to stay in one place for four years as the Church was more accommodating towards pastors with children in high school.
John Wesley, the founder of what is now known as the United Methodist Church, believed strongly in the itinerant system. If you look up the definition of the word itinerant, you will see that it means someone who travels from place to place and that is exactly the type of system that John Wesley envisioned for the pastors that he sent out to spread the Gospel. For many years, I have weighed the pros and cons of this type of system, especially in comparison to other mainline denominations that I’m familiar with such as the Baptist Church, who selects their own pastors.
The most readily apparent benefits to the itinerant pastoral system is that it allows the congregations of churches to experience the teachings of the gospel in new ways, as interpreted by those sent to the churches to lead them in the pastoral ministry. It also allows the pastor to gain new perspective and fresh vision when bringing the Word to a new congregation of followers. Still, it has its drawbacks as well. Congregations often become attached to pastors and their families and the sudden change that comes when a pastor is moved can range from disquieting to traumatic for members of the congregation.
Sometimes there are very good reasons for pastoral change in leadership. Sometimes pastors and their congregations just aren’t compatible and the system that the Methodist Church has ensures that this type of situation will not linger on longer than necessary. Sometimes though, a change can come when it is not expected nor anticipated and it can come when neither the church nor the pastor is ready for such a change to happen.
It is at times such as this that our faith and reliance on the Methodist system, the wisdom of our Bishop, and ultimately the very will of God has to be the determining factor. We as United Methodists, in choosing to be a part of that system, must accept when changes are made that might not always be what we would want.
In my time as a member of Jackson United Methodist Church, I have experienced the ministry of eleven pastors and come to know nine of them and their families quite well. For 18 years, I have served alongside four of them as Liturgist and Worship Leader, learning from each one of them as they each brought a unique perspective to a familiar theme of worship, liturgy, self exploration and faith. All eleven of them and especially the last four, have played an important part in both my spiritual life and my personal life.
I counted on them for support, for guidance, for instruction and most importantly, to remind me of my obligations as a Christian and my heritage as a Methodist. Their individual gifts and graces may have differed, each one having varying strengths and weaknesses but in their friendship and guidance to me, there was consistency and strength of character that I will always be grateful for.
Alice Rogers brought me into my role as Liturgist, molded my style and developed my deep affection for the traditional aspects of Methodist worship. She was our first female pastor, a big change for our church when she arrived here, yet she left the greatest impression on me in my first years in that role and she encouraged me to give my first sermon during her time here, though I was strongly opposed to doing it.
She reminded me that day to look at the cross that hung on the church wall behind me and told me to remember that with that behind me, I could face anything. Turns out she was right. I have since preached 56 times over the past 18 years, 51 of them in my own church as a fill-in. I was proud that she was the pastor who joined my wife and I in marriage while she was still in Jackson.
Layne Jenkins brought a cheerful sense of humor and a long history of pastoring to our church when he arrived here from Thomaston UMC. I always looked forward to our morning meetings every Sunday that I was the Liturgist, when we would meet to discuss the order of worship, special announcements and to catch up on what was going on with each of us.
It was a tradition that we had and for someone like me who values consistency (sometimes to my own detriment I’ll admit), I treasured those times we had together and the trust he placed in me to assist him, to fill in for him and even when he called me to come preach at his new church after he left Jackson. One of my proudest moments with Layne was when I assisted him in the baptism of our son Ethan and his introduction to the Methodist Church. Layne too was an important part of my Methodist upbringing.
Lisa Derrick came next, a soft-spoken, kind and gentle woman of enormous faith who often spoke on her unswerving belief in prevenient grace, the kind of grace that all Christians believe is given to us at birth and which we can choose to accept when our own free will exerts itself. Lisa taught the church by examples of humility, sacrifice and being in ministry to the poor and homeless.
She encouraged our church to pursue opportunities to be in ministry outside of our church, through missions to other countries and in our own community. As for me, she encouraged me personally to pursue more education in the ministry of the church and to attend courses at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology to better understand the nature of religion and the church. I’ll always be grateful to her for doing that.
John Brantley and his family arrived four years ago and from the very first day he arrived, I knew he was going to be different from the others. He liked to shake things up from time to time and I learned early on not to think of him as predictable. John has a wonderful sense of humor and the ability to find humor when it’s not always readily apparent. He also has an irreverent streak in his humor which closely matches my own so I relate well to him. If he has helped me with anything, it’s to loosen up a bit and find the humor in things, to laugh more in church and to be light-hearted. Worship should always be first a joyful experience.
He was the first preacher we have had in many years to have a young child and it was always touching to see the affection and love he has for her, as well as his adult children, his wife and his father-in-law. He is a strong believer in family and it has been obvious in his online postings and in his sermons how much he enjoys his family.
A pastor draws strength from God in all things but a pastor also draws strength from his or her family, who supports and encourages their ministry to others. While God supplies spiritual strength, the family gives the physical, daily supportive strength a pastor must have to push on when they don’t feel like pushing on. John has taught me that too in his time at Jackson UMC.
He was also the first pastor we had to embrace the use of technology in the ministry to reach audiences in new ways and even to help him in his own ministry. He holds the distinction of being the first pastor to craft his sermon notes on an iPad and to use those tools to enhance his ministry. As a techno person myself, I was glad to follow his lead and not rely solely on printed materials, which doesn’t have the ability to “zoom” when your eyes are tired. Thank you John, for your service to our church, for being my friend, for always loaning me a purple stole from your vast collection at Lent because I lost mine and most of all, for your care and compassion towards my family and your church family.
Though I was closest to all four of these men and women of God, many of those who came before them were a large part of my spiritual life as well. I was happy to see them come and sad to see them go.
Phil DeMore, who stayed here longer than any pastor ever has, was the first pastor who was also my friend. He comforted me when my grandmother died and helped an 11-year-old boy understand the nature of dying, the hope of heaven and the promise of reuniting with her and others that have gone in the years since. He also taught me about being a Methodist and confirmed me as a member that same year. I treasured him then and I treasure our friendship today because he is the now the longest consistent link to my life as a Methodist.
Willie Mack Tribble brought unbounded joy and a spring in his step when he arrived some years later. I remember fondly our trips to Lindbergh’s in Macon and I still have the picture of him, Keith Phillips and myself eating steaks he cooked for us as a thank you for something we did for him once. His infectious humor and smile was always there, only dimmed when his beloved wife was tragically taken from him during his ministry in Jackson. I rejoice knowing that he is now at last with her in Heaven.
Ultimately though, it was Jim Cantrell who opened my eyes to the benefits of the itinerant system of ministry over our last lunch together. He knew I was unhappy that he was being reassigned and doubtful about our new pastor coming to Jackson. He told me that this was the choice that every Methodist pastor made when they accepted the calling to the ministry and that in doing so, they accepted the will of God to guide them where they were needed and where they would be most effective. He felt his ministry had been effective in Jackson but that we were ready for change and the new pastor would surely bring that with her.
He spoke of her dynamic preaching abilities and her passion for the ministry and that we would all benefit from that. It turns out he was as wise as I knew him to be and he was right. Alice Rogers brought a lot of good change to our church, just as Jim did when he came before her.
A few weeks ago, our church received that message that we knew would someday come again, just as it has come many times in the past. It was time for our pastor and his family to move on to a new ministry in another church. Knowing the inevitability of change, John has since been preparing us for it, both to let him and his family go and to welcome and embrace a new pastor and his family when they arrive in a few weeks.
Like those that have come and gone before him, there will be sadness but there will also be laughter, happiness and fellowship in memories shared, moments that we all experienced together and ministry that we witnessed during their time here. His ministry will again be fresh and new to a new congregation and ours will be reborn again as it has been countless times in the 197 years since Methodism first arrived in our community. We will be here to once again see that rebirth.
To John, Lisa, Layne, Alice, Jim, Willie Mack, Phil, my grandfather Marvin and all those pastors who have been a part of my spiritual life, I am deeply indebted and grateful for the lessons you taught me, the abilities you brought out in me and the pride you gave me in being a Christian and a United Methodist. I hope that I never become used to the itinerant system but at the same time, I hope that I will always continue to embrace it and the change each new pastor brings to us. I am still sad to say goodbye to old friends but I greatly anticipate saying hello to new ones, both in the coming weeks and in the years ahead. That’s part of what being a Methodist is all about.
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