The Rev. Gloria McKinney started making plans to move in late April, when she first got word from her district superintendent that she’d soon be heading to a new charge.
“I got the call on April 22, and I knew the Lord was opening a new door for me,” said McKinney, an Amory native who for the past five years has served as senior pastor at Weems Chapel United Methodist Church in Picayune.
On the last Sunday in June she’ll take over as senior pastor at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Tupelo, replacing the Rev. Jimmy Barnes who will become the new superintendent of the church’s Tupelo district, one of 10 in the state.
According to United Methodist protocol, which the church calls an “itinerant” ministry system, the decision to move McKinney came first from the conference’s resident bishop, the Rev. Hope Morgan Ward.
Each year, in consultation with the faithful throughout the state, Ward makes the decision whether or not to move pastors like McKinney, or her more than 840 colleagues, in order to most effectively serve the needs of the conference’s 186,000 members.
Those ministers who will be moving have known about it for weeks, and most announced it to their home churches shortly after getting the word, but things won’t be made official until the statewide Annual Conference, which is June 11-13 in Jackson.
That’s when Methodists will come together to handle business, as well as to ordain and commission new ministers and to solidify the personal relationships that give the denomination its “connectional” character.
The theme of this year’s conference is “Arise, Shine, Grow,” a slogan that speaks to the church’s organic view of ministry, one that’s being exemplified in the innovative work United Methodists are doing in Northeast Mississippi.
New people, new places
In the world of Methodism, the term “conference” refers both to a geographical and administrative area, much like a diocese in the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches, as well as to an annual meeting of the church.
As an administrative body the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church is composed mostly of small, country churches with a few large congregations in cities like Tupelo, Jackson and along the Gulf Coast.
Seventy-five percent of the state’s Methodist churches have 100 members or less, a configuration that presents challenges as well as opportunities for collaboration.
As Bishop Morgan Ward put it, the church today is trying to reach more people, more younger people, and more diverse people.
Ward’s assistant, the Rev. Embra Jackson, reiterated that emphasis, adding that some of the ideas contained in Bishop Robert Schnase’s book, “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations,” have influenced the planning and conversations leading up to this year’s conference.
Embracing new members, as well as building bridges between churches of different racial and socioeconomic makeup is a major theme of the book.
This summer three relatively small area churches are living that theme through youth ministry. They’re joining with the larger congregations of Wesley United Methodist and the mostly black St. Paul United Methodist in Tupelo to help their youth make some new friends.
Youth from the churches of Cornerstone, St. Mark and Oak Hill, all of which have less than 200 attendees, will join with youth from Wesley and St. Paul in rotating from church to church on a weekly basis, sharing a program of prayer, fellowship and contemporary praise music.
The Rev. Donny Riley, who pastors the two point charge of St. Mark and Oak Hill, said that in addition to building stronger friendships the program will help the Tupelo District share resources at a time when every dollar counts.
Meanwhile the fastest growing United Methodist congregation in the state finds itself in a somewhat different situation.
In a little more than a decade The Orchard, which first met in the Tupelo Furniture Market, has grown to more than 2,000 attendees.
In keeping with its mission of “Growing deep, branching out,” the church first expanded to an Oxford campus in 2007.
In October of last year it launched a site between Baldwyn and Guntown on Highway 45, in the old Grisanti Ford building, called The Orchard NorthSide. Several dozen people gather there each Sunday at 10:30 a.m. with site pastor Jay Stanley to watch a live video feed of services from the Tupelo campus.
The point, according to Will Rambo, The Orchard’s teaching pastor, is to reach people where they’re at – both literally and figuratively.
The Orchard has always been known for its non-traditional approach, and for favoring a techno-savy, “emerging” worship style over formal, liturgical expressions.
Rambo said the NorthSide campus saves members who live in northern counties from driving to Tupelo while offering them on-site pastoral attention in an informal environment.
The same can be said of The Orchard’s latest expansion called “Origins,” which usually meets Sunday nights at Joe Joe’s Espresso on South Gloster Street.
Site pastor Jason McAnally and musician Cody Hickman lead what can best be described as a larger, small group gathering that includes praise music, personal testimony and what Rambo described as “contemporary, relevant preaching that stirs up conversation.”
Rambo said The Orchard never intended to be a multi-site church, but he likes to think they’ve stayed open to God’s calling on their ministry, and that’s included branching out in order to avoid growing so large in one location that they became impersonal.
In keeping with the agrarian theme of the upcoming Annual Conference, Rambo said he hopes the alternative forms of worship The Orchard offers will “allow people to dig deep roots in their understanding of who Christ is.”
Tupelo First United Methodist Church has also broadened its ministerial horizons this year.
Following the conference’s initiative called “Knock on Nine,” members of the First Methodist recently fanned out into the neighborhood, going door to door asking what they could do for their neighbors.
Last summer 24-year-old Kevin Murriel, a Brandon native and student at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology interned at First Methodist and helped the church develop a plan for the “Mile of Grace.”
The church’s first black minister envisioned a one square mile area around the church where members are doing whatever they can, including mowing, painting or just witnessing about their faith in order to reach people.
Last month church members spent a bright spring morning, during the hours when they’d normally be worshiping, performing random acts of kindness throughout the neighborhood.
Murriel also came back this spring, and he’s been working with the newest addition to First Methodist’s staff, the Rev. Sapada Thomas, in developing a ministerial vision for reaching those in the Mile of Grace who don’t have a church home.
Murriel and Thomas hope to start a weekly service on the grounds of the Helping Hands ministry on Church Street.
“We’ve been brainstorming about what the actual service will look like, and we know we’re trying to reach a racially diverse, largely poor demographic, those who regularly seek assistance from Helping Hands,” said Murriel, who has been certified as a minister but not yet ordained. He’ll take over as pastor of a church in the North Georgia Conference after the annual meeting in Jackson.
“We want to look at who has a seat at the table and ask how we can make sure everybody is invited,” he said.
Thomas, 36, comes to Tupelo after serving six years as pastor of Mt. Moriah United Methodist Church in Corinth.
He’ll join First Methodist as a part-time pastor once he receives his charge at Annual Conference, and he’s excited about bringing his enthusiastic style of ministry to the All American City.
“I love working with youth, and I love things like drama praise teams, as well as dancing and the whole praise and worship style,” said the father of three. “I love to sing, too.”
As with other denominations, much of what takes place at the Methodists’ Annual Conference is denominational business that is of little interest to the average parishioner.
There are, however, nine official resolutions currently slated to be voted on, two of which refer to a controversial speech, given at last year’s conference by a lesbian couple.
Within the United Methodist Church, as in many mainline Protestant denominations, the issue of homosexuality is one that crops up every year but one that most clergy say isn’t likely to be resolved anytime soon.
For most clergy as well as for the lay delegates, one of whom is appointed from each charge, Annual Conference is a time for fellowship.
“There will be some discussion about green initiatives, as well as about health and wellness and other items that are important to the church, and, of course, finance,” said John Reed, 50, who will be attending his fist conference as a lay delegate from St. Luke United Methodist Church in Tupelo.
“But, I’m hoping it will be primarily a celebration of our call to be in the fellowship of faith and networking, a celebration of Methodism,” he said.
This year the conference will commission 16 members into the field of ministry, and it will ordain 14 members into full connection as elders or deacons.
As for the rest of the state’s 800-plus clergy, as they do every year, they’re preparing after conference either to remain at their current charges or to move on.
Moving day is June 22, and for new arrivals their first Sunday in the pulpit will be June 27.
Bishop Morgan Ward has repeatedly said the church is trying to encourage longer tenures for pastors in their charges because it promotes stability, but the important thing is to make good fits between the gifts of pastors and the character and needs of local congregations. The average tenure for a pastor in any one place is about six years.
McKinney, for one, thinks the itinerant system is a pretty good one, and that’s not just because this year she’ll be coming home.
“I love it,” said McKinney, whose first assignment in ministry was a five point charge in Pontotoc County.
“We’re under the guidelines that John Wesley established, and we all need to go out and not stay in one place for too long.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal