CEDAR BLUFF, Va. – When the Rev. Annette Warren was appointed to Cedar Bluff United Methodist Church nine years ago, she did not know she was going to a white church in a community that was 99 percent white.
When she did realize, she was scared at first: “I had only pastored Black churches for 15 to 20 years.”
But then she set out with the same determination and dedication that also carried her through 30 years of teaching school: “When I got here I had one goal in mind: Just trying to be the best pastor I could be and to just love people.”
To be a Black pastor in Holston Conference is to be outnumbered. Of 624 total appointed pastors in Holston, 28 are Black, or less than 5 percent.
Of 853 total congregations in Holston Conference, about 38 self-identify as Black, according to Holston’s Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century team.
The lack of diversity among United Methodists in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia leaves Warren concerned for the remaining Black churches in Holston. The two Black churches she pastored between 1993 and 2012 in Tennessee have since merged with white congregations.
Mount Tabor United Methodist in Soddy-Daisy and Mount Olive United Methodist in Dayton no longer exist. The buildings were sold.
After the mergers, most of the members of Mount Tabor and Mount Olive began attending non-United Methodist churches or no church at all, says Warren. The distance gap between existing Black United Methodist churches in the area was extended.
“I can’t even imagine -- it just breaks my heart still -- that you have to drive 50 miles to find another Black church to worship in,” she said.
Warren said she is not advocating for segregated churches. “It’s too extreme to say that we need to keep Black pastors with Black churches and white pastors with white churches,” she said. “If we do that, then we don’t look like the Kingdom of God ... People need to be exposed to all different cultures, because heaven is not going to be designed for one race of people.”
However, a culture and history of Black worship and Black churches, already minimized, will be lost if Black churches are absorbed into white churches.
“We are more likely to lose our inheritance,” Warren said. “The majority of the time, we do the moving. And during the moving, we lose who we are. We lose our buildings. We lose our people.”
When membership and finances are stretched thin, Warren would like to see more church buildings converted into mission centers, rather than closing the church altogether, to at least keep a United Methodist presence within Black neighborhoods.
“Can we not try?” she said. “Don’t be too quick to close us because when you close those who are presently there, then you have closed a community.”
Warren, age 64, grew up in a Black United Methodist church, Midget Chapel, in Alamo, Tennessee. (The church is now known as Lighthouse United Methodist.) After college, she left home to take a job in Dayton, Tennessee, as a teacher of science and health for the department of children’s services. She has a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Tennessee at Martin and a master’s degree in administration and supervision from Tennessee Tech.
After serving as a bi-vocational pastor for 19 years, Warren became a full-time pastor in 2012 when she moved to Cedar Bluff. A highlight of her current ministry is an infant mission started in 2015, providing diapers and clothing for needy families in the community. So far this year, the church has distributed 3,330 diaper packages along with other necessities.
“I’m not a desk pastor. I like to get out and know people,” the pastor said. “Our infant mission has given me the opportunity to meet all kinds of people ... We have a lot of biracial children and biracial couples. I don’t know where they come from, but they’re in this community and we have them coming to church.”
Cedar Bluff United Methodist has embraced and cared for her, says Warren, and so has the second congregation recently added to her appointment, Cleaview United Methodist Church in Doran, Virginia.
“They have supported me. They have spoken up on my behalf,” Warren said. “I sometimes ask, ‘God, is this real?’ He’s blessed me so to have such fine churches and fine people. I love my people. I love them, and I’m probably having the most fun as a pastor in ministry than I ever have.”
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Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.