Investing Leadership in Small Churches: A Story of Revitalization

July 19th, 2013
Rev. Vaughn and Bishop Looney

Telford UMC is the epitome of a small country church. It sits off State Route 34 in Telford, Tenn. Down the road and across the street is an abandoned train stop along a lonely track. Half a dozen or so businesses once served this little community. Now only Telford Diner still displays an “open” sign in the middle of many dilapidated storefronts. 

But don’t let the storefronts fool you. Something new and exciting is happening at Telford UMC.

During my interview with the leadership of Telford, they commented on the woes of itineracy. Many of the complaints sounded similar to a New York Times article from 1880.

The Methodist pastor comes suddenly, and comes a stranger; it is known that at the furthest he can stay but three years, and congregations naturally shrink from forming warm attachments which must be broken every three years. (NYT, Feb. 9, 1880)

The article and Telford leadership expressed disappointment that relationships of trust are not cultivated because pastors do not stay more than 3-4 years. Telford, as many churches in the denomination, has had a long history of pastoral changes.

Enter Bishop Richard Looney. Bishop Looney retired as bishop in 2000, and then served on the Foundation for Evangelism at Lake Junaluska for eight years. In 2008, he came to Telford at the request of Bishop Swanson, and then realized that he wanted to serve a small membership again. The Telford leadership joked with me about his desire. They claimed it was an item on his bucket list, since retired bishops rarely seek out small churches.

But Bishop Looney was open to something different. Telford UMC was too.

Telford soon discovered that doing something different meant giving up expectations. Bishop Looney came with strings attached. He had prior commitments to The United Methodist Church at large that would sometimes call him away on Sundays and even weeks at a time. Any other church may have complained or threaten a reduction in salary or turned him down. Once again, Telford was open to something new and different. For the first year, another retired pastor filled the pulpit when Bishop Looney was absent. After Bishop Looney had completed his traveling obligations, he returned to pastor Telford as a single pastor for two years. 

In 2012, Bishop Looney was feeling ready to retire again. The easiest maneuver for this 78-year-old pastor would have been to leave in June, and another pastor would be appointed. But something better evolved. Remember, Telford UMC is open to new things. 

Enter the Rev. Michael Vaughn. Michael Vaughn is a district manager for Pizza Hut, a father of five and a United Methodist local pastor. He came alongside Bishop Looney as associate pastor (part-time, of course). He and Bishop Looney swap responsibilities every Sunday morning and Wednesday night. Currently, Bishop Looney cares for the majority of pastoral needs. 

With this division of labor, amazing things have happened at Telford. Worship Leader and Lay Leader Mark Cutshall reports that he enjoys the diversity of preaching and teaching. Cutshall also has found time to train youth to work the sound booth because he has two pastors helping with worship planning. Rev. Vaughn had time to revitalize the praise band because he was aided by Bishop Looney in preaching and teaching responsibilities. This effort makes him more accessible to the youth, which is a growing bunch at Telford (and not just because of the addition of Rev. Vaughn’s family!).

Bishop Looney and Rev. Vaughn have a natural appreciation for one another. Both comment that they have been students each of the other from time to time. Bishop Looney has followed Rev. Vaughn’s lead by adopting a lapel mic and preaching out in front of the pulpit, and reports a better connection with the congregation with that practice. Rev. Vaughn has gleaned a great deal of wisdom from Bishop Looney’s years of service as well as his exhaustive expertise about The United Methodist Church. 

The explosion of excitement and growth causes me to conclude that maybe Telford has stumbled upon one of many answers as The United Methodist Church addresses the drawbacks of itineracy, which developed because the expanding Methodist movement needed pastors to could cover large territories. It further evolved as a result of the explosive growth Methodism experienced as our nation moved west.

However, from a modern standpoint, itineracy may have more draw backs as our culture changes. Itinerant preachers of Wesley’s day were usually single men. Today pastors have families that need dual incomes to survive. Moving a pastor is difficult when a spouse is employed. The view from the pew tells us that pastors need more time to build relationships, and research shows that a longer pastorate produces healthier congregations.

It seems obvious that The United Methodist Church would be wise to elongate pastoral appointments. I propose that in addition to that wisdom, a serious investigation be underway to create a pattern of interim ministry opportunities, such as the one Telford UMC created.

As Bishop Looney retires and Rev. Vaughn assists, a unique situation has birthed energy and excitement. Lay people have had a fresh breath of new leadership, while keeping consistency. They had a year to say “goodbye” and “thank you” to Bishop Looney. They also have had a year to adjust to Rev. Vaughn. Lay workers in the church have had a year of extra pastoral leadership times two, loosening them up to invest in the future (like training sound booth workers and starting a praise band). For Telford, this has been a one year blessing and a unique opportunity.

I propose we identify churches that would benefit from a pastoral leadership boost similar to Telford’s experience. Specific goals and time limits of a dual pastorate must be set. Intentionality is key. What could a small church benefit from a year or two of extra attention from two pastors (not necessarily full-time)? The church could start a new laity visitation program, a food pantry, begin ministry with a specific age group or ethnic group. The chosen goal must be one that is sustainable beyond the time limit of a dual pastorate to ensure long term growth. With this opportunity, churches could dream, set goals and accomplish big tasks, thus changing the church culture from a family chapel to a thriving missional community.

Another organic benefit is the feeling that the denomination is investing in the local church. No longer is the hierarchy something foreign. Rather, it becomes a group of caring officials that studiously monitor the process and using the information to benefit other churches. Bishops and District Superintendents glean insight, brag on the church’s efforts, and use those pioneering churches as shining examples when encouraging other small churches to dream.

We are blessed with many experts who study church trends and offer serious scriptural analysis for church revitalization. But sometimes I think God speaks to us through things happening right around the corner, like Telford United Methodist Church, located in Telford, Tennessee, population 10,745.

comments powered by Disqus