KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (5/1/14) -- When the Rev. Stephen DeFur realized that his co-worker, mentor, and best friend was close to death, he immediately reached out to his congregation with news updates and appeals for prayer.
In the dark days before the Rev. Steven Sallee died on May 2, 2013, the messages from DeFur -- through the website and social media of Cokesbury United Methodist Church – served as a lifeline for a stunned congregation. The associate pastor, who ultimately succeeded the senior pastor, created a hashtag to mark his online updates: #cokesburystrong.
“It was intended to be a uniting phrase to remind ourselves that even with this magnitude of loss, God has not forsaken the people of Cokesbury Church,” said DeFur.
One year after 62-year-old Sallee departed as leader of the denomination’s then 13th largest church, Cokesbury seems to be #strongerthanever.
Since November 2013, Cokesbury’s average worship attendance increased from 2,900 to 3,859, making it the largest congregation in the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. This past Easter, Cokesbury’s total worship attendance was 8,099, more than 2,000 above its Easter 2013 attendance of 6,043.
“It’s been like a tsunami, in the positive sense,” says DeFur, age 43, on a recent Friday morning in his office. “Something crashed down on our church, and it hasn’t stopped since.”
A new Saturday night worship service, launched on March 22, is averaging 300 in attendance. Church member giving has increased, and a church-wide goal to lead 1,000 new people to Christ in 2014 (reflected through worship attendance) was 70 percent accomplished by late April. Membership is 4,725.
“People are aggressively inviting their friends,” DeFur says. “There are some Sundays when you can’t get another body into this place.”
What’s going on? “Nothing has changed, but everything has changed,” says the pastor. “Our philosophy has remained the same: to try to position ourselves to meet and engage with as many people as we can so that we can love them into a relationship with Jesus Christ to change the world.”
The difference is the staff and congregation are moving forward without the person who originally “cast the vision” for Cokesbury United Methodist Church.
“Steve was such a huge part of the history of this church, so foundational in setting the mission and ministry,” DeFur says. “It's been difficult, but our people are so incredibly resilient. It’s just like Steve to leave and cause a revival to happen.”
BEHIND THE IMAGE
DeFur has served as a pastor at Cokesbury for 18 years, since he graduated from Candler School of Theology in 1996. A native of Chattanooga, Tenn., his home church is Hixson United Methodist, where he “came to Christ” under the leadership of the Rev. Bob Walker and Youth Pastor David Graves.
It’s unusual for a bishop to appoint the associate pastor as immediate successor to the senior pastor. However, Bishop Mary Virginia Taylor, resident bishop of Holston Conference, did just that a few weeks after Sallee’s death.
“It was like somebody grabbed my shoulders and shook me to get my attention,” says DeFur, “and that has completely refocused me on my ministry.”
To outsiders, Cokesbury and its leaders have been successful for years, since Sallee convinced Lowe’s Home Improvement to sell its former store at a reduced price to the United Methodist congregation across the street in 1998. The church would eventually multiply into three locations: the south campus (original building on Kingston Pike), north campus (“Cokesbury Center,” former Lowe’s building), and Hardin Valley campus (10 miles away).
Despite its image, DeFur says Sallee believed the congregation had hit a plateau in recent years (although Cokesbury’s worship attendance had quadrupled since he was appointed there in 1996). Sallee often spoke of how easy it was for large churches to become complacent and stagnant.
“Some of our most significant churches in Holston have remained the same size as when I got into this conference,” Sallee told Holston pastors at a 2008 conference, when Cokesbury had 2,700 in average worship attendance. “Well, that certainly tells you they’re in a plateau or even in a decline.”
In 2003, Steve Sallee received a diagnosis of cardiomyopathy and realized his days might be numbered. However, he didn’t expect to leave Cokesbury before finishing the job, DeFur said.
“He said he wouldn’t get to see his grandkids marry, but he thought he would get to leave the church and retire,” DeFur said.
“He took it very seriously; he put his health in the first spot. With his particular illness you didn’t know how sick he really was, but Steve worked very hard to stay in right relations with folks because of it.”
On Sunday, April 28, 2013, Cokesbury got a wake-up call. Over the years, Sallee had several hospital bouts with pneumonia from which he recovered. This time, DeFur could see how ill he was and how the worst might happen. DeFur immediately began communicating to his congregation.
“It was a very intense time,” he says. “Folks were almost hourly checking our posts to see what was going on.”
When Sallee died four days later, “there was a tremendous sense of loss,” said DeFur. “But there was also a tangible feeling of our people saying, ‘OK, we’re not going to let this stop us.’ It was almost like a rally cry.”
"People have been more willing to step up and serve where God is calling them," Lee said. "I think there is an increased commitment to serving overall."
For weeks, volunteers have been helping to prepare the former Wesley House Community Center for the opening of "Susannah's House." The new faith-based organization was envisioned by the Rev. Rebekah Fetzer, minister of discipleship, who in spring 2013 saw a need to help mothers recovering from substance abuse and their prenatally exposed babies.
Shortly before Sallee died, Cokesbury celebrated the 10-year anniversary of its recovery program, now averaging 400 to 500 worshipers each Thursday night. In the last year, the Rev. Mark Beebe, director of recovery ministries, has led his team in starting satellite ministries in churches and prisons from Lebanon, Va., to Ringgold, Ga. Seven satellites already exist in the Recovery at Cokesbury Network; others are in progress. (See related story.)
In fall 2013, Cokesbury launched its online campus at Cokesbury.TV, which DeFur says is a “grassroots movement” reaching people all over the country. At Easter, Cokesbury unveiled a video wall in the north campus worship space, part of a “monster upgrade” of lights, sound, and video capabilities.
After four years of worship at a high school, the church is preparing the Hardin Valley congregation to make a permanent home on the 22-acre tract purchased by Holston Conference in 2008.
As for the money, “we always struggled to meet budget,” admits Business Manager Mel Stripling. Church leaders were unpleasantly surprised in spring 2013 when the denomination’s Cokesbury Bookstore chain closed all its brick and mortar stores.
“We obviously lost a large source of rental revenue,” Stripling said, referring to the store that closed on the north campus.
Yet so far this year, revenue from church member donations is six percent higher than the same period last year, Stripling said, and the loss of the bookstore has been overcome in this year’s $4 million budget. The abandoned rental space is now occupied by a newly renovated area for children’s ministry and child care.
HOPE OF THE WORLD
DeFur and the rest of the 45-member staff are busy. He admits the pressure is on.
“These last 10 months have been a blessing,” he said in March, “but I feel like I’ve aged 10 years.”
Around the edges of the adrenaline and hard work, grief seeps in. Fetzer, who is working overtime on Susannah’s House, says that everyone feels it. “But we’re going to be OK,” she says. “If God wants this to happen, it will.”
For DeFur, the challenge is both global and personal.
“The church is facing a very volatile time, but I believe it’s the hope of the world,” he said. “A relationship with Jesus can change everything … Steve cared deeply for the United Methodist Church and he wanted it to succeed.”
Stephen DeFur doesn’t want Steve Sallee to be forgotten. “I didn’t just lose a co-worker and mentor,” he said. “I literally lost my best friend. I think about him and miss him heavily.”
But as time goes by, he says, “there is less of the loss and more of the appreciation for what he did.”
See also: "Steve Sallee: Pastor behind Holston's two largest churches" (The Call, 5/2/13)
"Recovery at Cokesbury: Network paves pathway to reach hundreds with gospel" (The Call, 5/12/14)
"Outcasts: Susannah's House helps moms recovering from drug abuse and their children" (The Call, 7/16/14)