ALCOA, Tenn. -- Patty Muse just gave up her spring weekend to sit in an office building with 17 other aspiring pastors. So did Greg Ezell, Edna Lopez, and Bill Pendergrass.
They are the students of Holston Conference’s 2014 Local Pastors School.
Some already work in the church. Muse is lay pastor of small groups and local outreach at Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church in Johnson City, Tenn. Ezell is pastoring the Rural Retreat Circuit in Wythe County, Va.
Other students work in the secular world: Car sales. Physical therapy. Housekeeping. Candy factory. Yet all have heard a call from God to serve as a pastor.
“There is so much power in our stories,” said Bill Pendergrass, 34, a physical therapist in Knoxville, Tenn. “We’re all so different and we answer the call in so many different ways.”
According to the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the local pastor is not ordained in the United Methodist Church but is licensed for pastoral ministry to perform the duties of a pastor.
In Holston Conference, candidates for Local Pastors School pay $650 plus $45 for books (sometimes with help from their local churches and districts) for three full weekends of classes in the first weeks of February, March, and April. In years past, training was held at Buffalo Mountain Camp. This year, the school was held at the Holston Conference Center in Alcoa, Tenn.
“Almost everybody who comes to us has been working in some other career. A lot of these folks are giving up vacation days or paychecks to be here,” said the Rev. Dale Gilbert, co-dean of Local Pastors School and senior pastor at Central United Methodist Church in Radford, Va.
“My dad was a bi-vocational pastor, and I saw how hard he had to work to get his education. So part of me really appreciates persons who are willing to work while taking on a pastorship,” Gilbert said. “I want to help them get off to a good start.”
The Local Pastor School students pass through other steps before gathering for their first weekend of classes. They are recommended by their home church and assigned to a mentor to explore their calling.
Once recommend by a district committee for local pastor school, the students attend class from Friday evening through Sunday at noon. The Book of Discipline requires 80 hours of study in four areas: worship and preaching, church administration, Christian education, and pastoral care. This year’s teachers included the Rev. Mike Sluder, the Rev. Laura Shearer, the Rev. Ken Lytton, and Michael Feely. The Rev. Kathie Wilson-Parker is co-dean.
Graduates are recognized and receive their licenses at Annual Conference in June. “They have a reasonable expectation that they will receive an appointment,” Gilbert said.
After eight years of teaching, Gilbert, an elder, is now in his second year as dean of Holston’s Local Pastor School.
“I know the material that’s going to be covered, yet this is always a time of spiritual renewal for me,” he said. “After years of dealing with a call to ministry, many of these people have finally said ‘yes.’ It’s a time of great joy for them.”
Pendergrass, a member at Fountain City United Methodist Church and father of three, said he only recently realized it was “OK” to hear and answer a bi-vocational or second-career calling. After completing local pastor school this spring, he plans to attend Asbury Theological Seminary in 2015.
“My current path has prepared me for this,” he said. “Instead of regret, I feel so much more prepared than if I went straight to seminary."
For the last two years, Edna Lopez has served as a volunteer co-pastor (with her husband Marvin Lopez) for the Hispanic congregation at First United Methodist Church of Gatlinburg, Tenn. She helps support her family and her ministry as a housekeeper.
“The Lord has been calling me to proceed with getting my local pastor license,” she said. “I would love to be able to accept new members to our congregation and offer the sacraments.”
Local pastors are in higher demand today than in recent years, Gilbert said. “A lot of our congregations are no longer able to afford to pay an elder. These individuals are willing to serve for the smaller salaries that churches can pay.”
The Ministry of Local Pastors (GBHEM)
Local Pastors School (Holston Conference)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.