GATLINBURG, Tenn. -- The Rev. Will Shelton was proud when he saw 11 youth from the Ceres Circuit on stage at Gatlinburg Convention Center. Shelton hasn’t been their pastor since 2012, but it warmed his heart to see teenagers from five different churches in Tazewell District, sharing their talents as a group with thousands attending the first weekend of Resurrection youth retreat.
“We worked a lot on them being together,” Shelton said. “We talked about how their future is together. But their pastor now -- he’s got those kids committed. It thrills me to work on something and have someone else come along and build on that.”
Something connectional is happening in Ceres, Va., and the youth “stick dance” performed at Resurrection on Jan. 17 was a glimpse of how church members are working and worshiping together, said the Rev. Leon O’Quinn, pastor of the five congregations.
“We’re trying to pull the whole community together through the youth,” O’Quinn said. “We saw the need when we got here, but other people also saw it. God has put this together.”
The Ceres Circuit includes Goodman’s Chapel, Ezelle, Zion, Bethany and Red Oak congregations. The largest is Red Oak United Methodist Church with 35 in average worship attendance. The smallest are Bethany UMC and Goodman’s Chapel UMC, each with about 12 in average worship attendance.
The congregations are located in a circumference of about 25 miles, with three in Smyth County and two in Bland County, O’Quinn said. He noticed the Smyth County churches sometimes combined for activities separately from the Bland churches.
The pastor also noticed the home next to his parsonage had several children. The O’Quinns have three children at home; the next-door neighbors have four.
“If we don’t invite people to church, they’re never going to come,” O’Quinn said. So the pastor’s family invited and began picking up their neighbors to attend church.
After six years as Ceres Circuit pastor, Shelton departed in June 2012 for a new appointment as associate pastor at Keith Memorial United Methodist Church in Athens, Tenn. O’Quinn arrived in Ceres and continued to work on connecting the five churches by encouraging his youth to share their talents.
One youth member, Maika Atwell, began playing her flute for her church and the other congregations. At Christmas time, youth from all five congregations combined for a mime performance. The youth later joined for singing and drama performances and fundraisers to support their combined activities.
“We are all close, and we’ve made a more consistent effort to get together,” said Atwell. “Our youth group has really grown with the combination of our last two preachers. They both tried hard to start communities and to work in the community.”
The five Ceres congregations became more connected through “Fifth Sunday” combined worship services, held alternately at community centers in Bland and Smyth Counties, O’Quinn said. The United Methodist churches also joined area Lutheran and Church of God members to offer Vacation Bible School. In 2012, they hosted 18 kids. In 2014, 109 children attended.
In summer 2013, Ceres Circuit youth decided to vie for the chance to represent Tazewell District during the talent segment of Resurrection, Holston Conference’s annual winter spiritual weekend for 11,000 in Gatlinburg, Tenn. With the help of their pastor’s wife, Debra O’Quinn, 11 teens from Ceres did a “stick dance” performance to “Arise My Love” by Newsong – and won their district’s competition. Two of the performing youth were the pastor’s neighbors.
However, when the Ceres group arrived at Resurrection in January 2014, they did not get to perform on stage because of a paperwork delay. The pastor quickly put the disappointing situation into perspective for his congregants.
“I said, ‘We can handle this one of two ways. We can sit here and cry about it, or we can act like the people of God and set an example,” O’Quinn said. The youth – and their parents – resolved to wait patiently another year to present their talent at Resurrection 2015.
“They’ve grown so much in the Lord,” O’Quinn said.
When the five churches of Ceres Circuit arrived in Gatlinburg last month for Resurrection 2015, their group of 44 included 26 youth. When the 11 performers finally stepped on the stage, there were many who celebrated with them.
"First-time pastor from Knoxville adjusts to five-church appointment" (The Call, 10/20/06)
"Sweetwater church grieves loss of parent during youth trip to Gatlinburg" (The Call, 2/2/15)
"Christian youth retreat celebrates 30th anniversary" (The Call, 1/20/15)
"Ceres youth perform on Tennessee stage" (SW Virginia Today, 2/26/15)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.