Nine small churches from the Cleveland District demonstrate how working together helps them accomplish greater things.
It’s dinnertime at Ten Mile United Methodist Church, immediately following the Ash Wednesday service. Church members are sampling ham rolls, pecan bites, and other tempting foods spread out by the hosting congregation.
The people enjoy each other as if they’re from the same church, but they’re not. Nine churches are represented here, although they share several ministries of which they’re proud.
For example, if you ask somebody, “What’s the best part about being involved in this parish?” they usually talk about the Christmas cantata.
“We don’t have enough people to have a big choir, but we have about 50 people in our Christmas cantata," says a 40-year member of Decatur UMC. She declines to give her name but willingly shares her thoughts about the parish (along with the difficulty of filling dozens of miniature pie shells with pecan filling).
“They do it every year,” she adds. “I like the singing.”
After the Christmas cantata, members often mention Vacation Bible School as the best part of this parish ministry. Last summer, the nine United Methodist churches of Meigs County hosted 50 children for Vacation Bible School – a big success, considering that all but one church has fewer than 50 in average attendance.
“Two of the churches don’t have any children,” says the Rev. Hugh Bryan, parish director. Those two churches always provide the food for VBS.
Oak Grove UMC is known for providing elaborate backdrops for the annual summer children’s ministry as well as the children’s Christmas program.
“There’s an artist at Oak Grove who’s willing to tackle anything,” Bryan explains. “He basically has church members painting by the numbers so they can do it together.”
Located in Holston’s Cleveland District, the Meigs County United Methodist Churches operate as a “cooperative parish,” established in the Book of Discipline. The parish includes four circuits and four pastors:
- Bryan pastors the Goodfield Circuit, including the Mt. Carmel, Goodfield, and Mt. Olivet churches, all with fewer than 30 in average worship attendance.
- The Rev. Michael Johnson, associate parish director, pastors the largest churches, Decatur and Concord, with 65 and 48 in average attendance, respectively.
- The Rev. Doug Brown pastors Ten Mile and Oak Grove, with 30 or fewer in average attendance.
- The Rev. Rodney Dunn pastors Pleasant Hill and Burkett’s Chapel, with 37 and 10 in average attendance, respectively.
A hallmark of United Methodism is its “connectionalism.” Churches are organized to work together and accomplish greater things. Yet, many churches are reluctant to collaborate with others for various reasons.
Organized in 2003, the Meigs County churches have found they can retain their separateness while reaping the benefits of participating in bigger, more diverse groups.
“It’s that fear factor,” says Ilene Bryan of the Goodfield Circuit. “Small churches are afraid the conference or bishop will try to merge or close them down if they work too well together.”
“Churches have to feel like a parish ministry is a blessing,” says the Rev. Archer Coppedge, the parish’s first director, now Big Stone Gap District superintendent. “The more it meets their needs and it succeeds, the more they say it’s good.”
The cooperative arrangement was initiated by then Cleveland District Superintendent Mary Virginia Taylor, now resident bishop for the South Carolina Annual Conference. “Her dream was to gather the nine churches into a ministry that would give them new life and vital growth,” says Coppedge.
Coppedge – who had served in parishes in the Knoxville District, Oklahoma, and Texas – was appointed to lead the new parish. Bryan served as associate director.
From shaky to sharing
The first months were shaky, church members admit. “We were real fortunate to have Archer and Hugh to help us come together,” says Connie Pride of Mt. Carmel UMC. “Each church is totally different, so it took somebody to listen and make it work.”
“A big part of taking any step is tradition: getting people to change from what they’re used to,” says Bryan, who worked 25 years in research and development before entering full-time ministry. “There was a fear of the unknown. They were comfortable with their own churches, and we were asking them to step out and do something different.”
The circuits and churches are loosely organized; they don’t share apportionments and pastors, although the pastors cover for each other as needed. They do share ministries. The first to succeed was the youth ministry, started before the parish organization was complete.
Meeting on Sunday nights in different churches, the youth group pools 10 on a typical night. Congregations rotate in hosting and providing meals for the teenagers. In January, the parish sent nine youth to attend Holston’s Resurrection in Gatlinburg.
The parish also sent six senior adults from three different churches to Jubilation in April and supports active United Methodist Men and Women’s groups.
The United Methodist Men evolved into an ecumenical community group that meets monthly for breakfast. In May 2008, the UMW re-chartered their individual church groups into the unified “Meigs County Parish United Methodist Women.”
When the Meigs women contacted the denomination's Women's Division office to ask for a parish charter, "They didn't know what to do with that," says a grinning Betty Carolyn Ward. "I guess they don’t get that request very often.”
Ward is a member of Decatur UMC who has developed a parish web site at http://holston.org/churches/meigs-county-parish-meigs-county-tn/
A ramp-building ministry has also emerged. Working through the Tri-State Resource and Advocacy Corporation, church members join to build ramps for the physically impaired. In all, about 30 men have helped, but on any one project, 10 to 15 members representing about five churches will take up hammer and nails for a good cause, Bryan says.
Members who can’t offer physical assistance often step up with financial assistance – as several people did when the Meigs County churches sent a mission team to Biloxi following hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“They’ll say, ‘I can’t go with you, but here’s some money,’” says Bryan, with tears in his eyes. “We’re like our own little mission, where people can feel like they accomplish something."
Standing room only
Lay members drive most of the joint ministries, while the clergy organize the Bible studies and worship, Bryan said.
The fact that parishioners will drive 20 miles on a cold Wednesday night to worship at a sister church is evidence the collaboration is working, says the Rev. Mike Travis, Cleveland District superintendent.
On Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25, the Ten Mile sanctuary had standing room only with 120 worshipers. Attendance remained high throughout the series, until the sunrise service conclusion at Meigs County Fairgrounds on Easter morning.
“How would you like to be involved in worship services or Bible studies led by pastors with over 70 years of combined preaching and teaching experience?” Travis says. “These churches are thrilled if 25 people are present on Sunday morning. If they’ve got 75 or 100, they think they’re in a big church.”
The pastors bring their unique gifts and backgrounds to the planning meetings, Bryan says. Brown, who is retired, is “pastor emeritus” with 50 years of experience. “A lot of times we’ll look to him because he’s been in for so long,” Bryan says.
Johnson brings 27 years of United Methodist pastoral experience to the table, while Dunn is appointed to his two churches as a full clergy member of the Church of God.
Dunn is also African-American, serving in a cross-racial appointment to the African-American congregation at Burkett’s Chapel and the white congregation at Pleasant Hill. The diversity further enriches the life of the parish, church leaders say.
“I grew up in an all-white church,” says Dunn, (whose preaching is “more lively” than most United Methodist pastors, parishioners admit). “I was called to be well-received in the parish after I was well-received at Pleasant Hill.” Many parishioners remembered Dunn as a well-liked former high-school basketball player in Charleston, Tenn., Bryan said.
The pastors preach on different nights at different churches for the Lenten series. In the fall, they select four topics for six-week Bible studies. Each preacher takes one topic to teach at his own church, offering it to the entire parish.
The most popular topics attract about 20 parishioners and have included “Being United Methodist in the Bible Belt” and Adam Hamilton’s “Christianity and World Religions,” Bryan said.
The parish structure doesn’t solve all problems. Many small churches still struggle with financial shortages and all members don’t join in parish activities, church leaders say.
However, Travis says that forming cooperative parishes could strengthen some of the small churches that are perishing in Holston.
“It lets them be who they are, while letting them be part of the larger church. Which is the way the rest of the United Methodist Church is – all over the world,” Travis said.
“Everything doesn’t work, but anything is worth trying,” says Bryan. “My job is to publicize and let the people know about the opportunities. The way rural ministry works – you can’t come in and dictate. It’s more about listening, encouraging, and knowing when to get out of the way.”
Annette Spence is editor of The Call.