New Big Stone Gap super: "Small churches are good places to be"

New Big Stone Gap super: "Small churches are good places to be"

When Archer Coppedge began his ministry, he served inner-city ministries in Atlanta, Knoxville, and Chattanooga.

But in the last several years, the Rev. Coppedge's passion has been more directed toward small churches.

"Small churches are good places to be," says the current pastor of Decatur-Concord UMC in Cleveland District, which have 75 and 45, respectively, in average worship attendance.

"In larger churches we try to create small groups to help people develop intimate relationships. We already have those clusters of intimacy in small churches. What we need to do is to help small churches work together so they can provide all the ministry and outreach options that larger churches provide."

Coppedge, age 60, is projected for a June appointment as superintendent of the Big Stone Gap District. One of four Holston districts in southwest Virginia, Big Stone Gap is comprised of 66 churches, most small and rural.

Coppedge brings 41 years of experience in ministry, including 36 in Holston Conference. A native of Shawnee, Okla., he received his undergraduate degree at United Methodist affiliated-Oklahoma City University.

In 1970 he left his home state to become one of six white students attending Gammon Theological Seminary, a historically African American institution in Atlanta. The Rev. Doug Fairbanks, Knoxville District superintendent, was also one of the six.

"We wanted to gain experince in inner-city ministry, and we did," said Coppedge, referring to his wife Mary. After serving three pastoral years in Atlanta as a seminary student, Coppedge was beckoned to Holston Conference by then Bishop Scott Allen.

In Holston his first appointment was associate pastor at Central UMC in Knoxville (1972-'73), followed by Pigeon Forge-Huskey's Grove (1973-74), then director of inner-city ministries at First-Centenary in Chattanooga (1974-'79). Other appointments include Lincoln Park, Kodak Circuit, Inskip, and St. Andrews. He has served Decatur-Concord since 2002.

He and his son were returning from a visit with his ill mother in Oklahoma, when he received a telephone call from Bishop James Swanson on Feb. 5. Coppedge says he was stunned to learn of his selection as leader for the Big Stone Gap District, following the Rev. Daniel Taylor.

"Are you OK?" his son asked, when he got off the phone with Swanson. "Because all the color has drained from your face, and you are as white as a sheet."

"I never expected it, never wanted it, never wished for it, never dreamed of it," says Coppedge of his superintendency appointment. "But I am delighted, honored, privileged. A lot of my friends and family are now asking, 'How does it feel to eat those words?' There's been a lot of teasing."

He never visited the Big Stone Gap area before, except for a meeting in Gate City, Va. However, a recent tour of his future home left him with a good impression. "It's beautiful," he said. "I'm excited, and I can't wait to get there."

Coppedge and wife Mary, who is finishing her undergraduate degree at Tennessee Wesleyan College, have five grown children, including three birth sons and two adopted daughters. Their six grandchildren range from ages five to 10. His mother, Mary Louise Coppedge, died in Shawnee, Okla., on Palm Sunday, March 16, at age 84.