By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal
Though they may be new to the pulpit, some of Northeast Mississippi’s newest pastors have big plans for their churches and communities. Coming from a wide variety of backgrounds – some even from other professions – each one brings a different set of skills, talents, and objectives to the table.
A different model
The Rev. Colby Cuevas, 26, in his first week as associate pastor at Tupelo’s First United Methodist Church, followed the call to ministry in high school. After graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi in his native Hattiesburg, he attended Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky before being assigned to Tupelo by the Mississippi Methodist Conference.
“The book of Acts talks about walking in fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit,” he said. “That’s kind of how I feel right now. Nervous and excited.”
For now, Colby said he is concentrating on building trust with his congregation and learning the ropes from his elders, but he hopes to foster a true team mentality for his church’s leaders.
“I want to rely on everyone’s gifts and strengths, not just my own. It’s a distinctly different approach from the CEO model, which relies on one person,” he said.
He said he also wants the church to rethink itself as a location, not a building, and referred to practice in Memphis, Tenn., and Louisville, Ky., where different pastors throughout the city rotate around to churches.
From a unified position, Cuevas said the church could effectively minister to long-term members in the church as well as people on the margins of society. He cited the revolutionary spirit of John Wesley, founder of Methodism who preached in the coal mines as much as from the pulpit, as his inspiration.
“For those who grew up in the church, I want to encourage a contemplative lifestyle that shows a desperation to fulfill God’s word,” he said. “God leads the church to places that are uncomfortable, but we have to remember that disciple-making is hard, messy work. We have to invest in the lives of others and hold ourselves to a high standard.”
Cuevas said he was most nervous about the preaching aspect of his position, but was excited about the lessons and adventures to come.
The Rev. Jason Webb, 28, was appointed to Ingram Baptist Church in Baldwyn in February 2012, after serving two other churches in youth pastor positions. Despite his outgoing disposition which was a hit with youth, he said he struggled to find his identity in the pulpit.
“Initially I tried to preach perfect. One Sunday my wife told me, ‘You’re doing a good job, but I haven’t heard Jason Webb preach yet,’ so I started being more open,” he said. “I realized that we aren’t called to be ‘professional Christians,’ that are perfect in a cookie-cutter sort of way, because that leads to apathy.”
Webb, now halfway through his Master’s of Divinity at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said it is often a pitfall of budding pastors to model themselves too closely after others.
“The Bible calls you to fulfill your own ministry, not try to become the next big thing or to play keep up with the Joneses. Even if a preacher can get away with imitating great pastors like Adrian Rogers or Mark Driscoll his whole career, he isn’t fulfilling the ministry that was intended for him,” he said.
For his congregation and denomination, Webb looks forward to breaking down barriers. Unlike Episcopal and Methodist denominations, who operate under the authority and direction of a bishop or diocese, the Baptist denomination is much more of a “free agent” environment. Webb said while this allows for more freedom and flexibility for an individual church, he has also noticed more rivalry.
“Church members are sometimes inclined to fall into a mindset of ‘this is my church and that’s their church’ and they lose focus on the universal body of Christ,” he said. “We have come to love our borders too much, I think.”
Webb also encourages his congregation to cross borders with one another.
“I ask my congregation every week to ‘do life’ with someone this week. This means getting together with someone in the church or not in the church, and getting coffee, helping someone move, watching a ball game,” he said. “Doing these every day life things together strengthens interpersonal relationships that will, in turn, strengthen the church within itself as well as within the world.”
The Rev. Stanford Adams, 35, came to All Saints’ Episcopal Church after a successful career as a health care regulation lawyer in Nashville. Though he felt called to the ministry in college, he said he did not know what steps to take toward it.
“After several years, the call was still there, and when I talked with my wife about exploring it officially, she was very excited,” Adams said. “It’s been a good change for us as a family.”
Raised in the Episcopal church, the Jackson, Miss., native attended seminary at Sewanee School of Theology before his assignment to All Saints’. He said his prior experience as a lawyer prepared him to communicate with his fellow staff members and congregation.
Adams said his desire for his congregation is to become more open to God in daily life, spending time in reflection learning to listen for the spirit.
“If we wait to encounter God in huge, miraculous moments, we are going to miss the tiny instances where he shows himself all the time,” he said. “I have a bad habit of being distracted, thinking about what’s next, and I have to remind myself how important it is to be present, to give up my own agenda to hear God’s call.”
The concept of being willing, open disciples will then hopefully spread through members’ lives and into the community. Adams said this fit perfectly with the Tupelo community and All Saints’, which boasts outreach efforts like Saints Brew, a daily breakfast for community members in need.
“When we open ourselves to God, we open ourselves to the margins of society that Jesus tried to reach – the unchurched, the powerless. The more we do that, the more we are following God’s message,” he said.