A Genuine Good-Bye to the West Virginia Annual Conference: Thank You for these and many other great memories

So my pastoral ministry career in the West Virginia Annual Conference is officially closed. The Clergy Executive session approved my transfer to the Pacific Northwest Conference. I heard about it through a note on my Facebook page by the pastor who invited me into this life when I was 17. A few months later, as a sad, friendless teenager I skipped school to find out more. She gave me “The Christian as Minister” and I completed the first step in the ordination process. She then invited me to shadow her that summer as her intern. I made pastoral visits, babysat as she was beginning a ministry for low-income moms that later became Mary’s Cradle, wrote notes of thanks to various people. She also made me exercise and read the Bible in the morning.

I read her note at 11PM as I had kinda forgotten that Conference was in session in WV. It was a silent, surreal ending to a very long journey. No matter where I was in the last 23 years, I was a part of the WV annual conference. At least I thought so. Looking back I have more questions than answers. When I kept sending press releases to WV from my mission work, I wondered why no one ever replied. How come those mission experiences didn’t matter? Why this? Why that? It feels like a loss. But maybe they’re glad I’m gone.

Nevertheless, I know I did worthy work in WV. I certainly made mistakes and just plain did some wrong. I also know that I did many more things right than I did wrong. And I know I cared.

As I mark this transition, I am praising and thanking God for the 5 congregations I served in WV. Here is the best moment in each of them:

Mary McGinnis Joining Sabra United Methodist Church, Morgantown, WV

Sabra is a nice little congregation in the Jerome Park neighborhood of Morgantown. My favorite memory of Sabra was welcoming Mary McGinnis as a member. Mary had been a life-time resident of Jerome Park and had even attended Sabra when she was little. She married a Roman Catholic and they raised their kids in Catholicism. Mary was very fond of her husband, but dearly missed him after he passed. She finally decided to come back to church to reconnect with friends and rediscover her own faith. She and I had many discussions about church, Jesus, life, etc. Mary was very funny and her son Mark often worshiped with her. Welcoming Mary as a member was marked by joy and a real sense of welcome. To provide her a community of caring peers in her advanced age was a real treat.

Taking my Newborn Daughter to Highland Park United Methodist Church, Morgantown, WV

Highland Park, being the church that worshiped at 9am was really my first congregation, though they too often took a second billing to Sabra on the charge. My favorite moment at Highland Park came in my 4th year there. My wife and I each took some Family Leave time after the birth of my daughter Anna. I made it a point to worship at each congregation during my 8 weeks off. and each was delightful in their own ways. But Highland Park was a really close knit group. When I entered the church with Anna in her seat, the welcome they bestowed upon both of us was truly joyous. I had long felt welcomed, but on that morning, I could feel genuine, caring love coming our way. I still remember Dr. Rieder, my pastoral counselor, presiding over worship and everything just being peaceful and warm.

Being Ordained by Naomi Butler at Jones United Methodist Church, Morgantown, WV

Jones became my 3rd church my 2nd year of ministry. I was really excited to serve a predominantly African-American congregation and they welcomed me with almost overwhelming grace and respect. My favorite moment came in my last month there. Meredith and I had already announced that we were moving to southern WV. Jones was aware of the struggles I had had in the ordination process, especially their senior matriarch, Mrs. Naomi Butler. Mrs. Butler had served in every capacity a lay woman could serve in the conference. She had been UMW chair, on the district Council on Ministry, the conference mission board, etc., etc., etc. Other members of Jones called her Sarge and only to her face when she had passed age 90. Some people have authority of office, Mrs. Butler had authority of integrity, service and seniority. I was not surprised that Jones wanted to give me a gift. We had a good four years together. But I was stunned silent when Naomi pulled out a red stole and made me bend over as she placed it on my shoulders.

My first sermon at Jones had been about the story of Elisha picking up the mantle Elijah left behind. I encouraged the congregation to bring their ideas and pursue what God wanted them to do. They took that charge very seriously. I felt genuinely God-filled in that message. So for them to return the message and grant me their God-ordained authority…wow! I still can’t describe it. But I always tell people that I was ordained by a 93 year old black lay woman.

Paying Witness to the Multi-layered Health Crises in My Homeland while Pastoring at Greenview United Methodist Church, Bluefield, WV

Returning to my hometown to be a pastor was daunting. I had almost too much familiarity with the place and too much understanding of the ways of its suffering. I was invited to participate in the County Health Assessment. I knew that drugs were bad there. I knew that DUIs were high. There had been drug-related violence all around our home. When I sat among the few people in the county trying to stem the tide of disease and self-destruction, I felt a holy calling to simply pay attention. My home county led the nation in hepatitis infections, a leading marker of the drug epidemic that the nation is just now starting to notice. We also led the nation in babies born addicted to drugs. We couldn’t stop at poisoning ourselves; we went and poisoned our babies as well. The County Health Assessment named the problem and the needs, even if there was too much problem and not enough solution. It was plain, unassuming work with some heroic people. I was honored to participate.

I name this as my “best” moment in Bluefield for the fact that I was simply incapable to doing anything else. I was incapable of turning the tide of addiction, of warding off the incessant sadness of my hometown, of creating anything of hope or solace. BUT ALSO, I learned that paying attention to the pain was holy work. My prayer life began centering on the sex slaves walking the streets of Princeton near our house. I saw them when the police chose not too. I saw them when they got out of a truck crying. I saw them when they first appeared and when their worn out faces crawled down Thorn Street for the 45th day in a row. My attempts to preach on the problems, to organize for solutions were dismal and futile. But they were attempts. At this point, I hang on to that recollection: that I cared, even if it was the only thing I could do.

Baptizing Joshua at Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, Parkersburg, WV.

I served Cedar Grove for 1 year. Cedar Grove is a great church on the southern end of Parkersburg. Through a member, they had cultivated a nice relationship with a half-way house for recovering addicts in town called the Fellowship House. The Fellowship did remarkable work helping people fight their addictions. Cedar Grove regularly welcomed friends from the Fellowship House for worship.

Shortly after I arrived, we welcomed a young woman who was very serious about defeating her addictions. Katrina* [fake name of a real woman] was wise, funny and dedicated. She came to church and bible study regularly. We soon learned that due to her addictions and incarcerations, her 8 year old son had been housed in a residential care facility in Tennessee. As Katrina progressed in her recovery, she began speaking of being reunited with her son Joshua* [name also changed]. We began praying for Joshua and sending coloring pages and other tokens of our prevenient love for him. To make matters even more miraculous, Joshua’s dad had returned to the picture and was successfully working on his own issues. The time came for Joshua to arrive and I couldn’t believe how beautiful and well–holy–he looked. He had a great little accent, dark questioning eyes and enough bashfulness to affirm his innocence. Personally, I know that little boy had seen way too much for his 8 years. And as he settled in with his mom and got reacquainted with his dad, you could see the promise in his demeanor.

Toward the end of my year at Cedar Grove, I had the opportunity to baptize a brother and sister in the congregation. I am fond of including children in baptism as a teaching moment and as they add great joy to a joyous sacrament. I taught about baptism during the children’s message and then baptized the brother and sister. All of the kids were genuinely enthralled with the process of pouring water and laying hands on the brother and sister. I invited the congregation to pass the peace and greet the brother and sister and their parents. Joshua then looked at me and said, “When is it my turn?” I went to Katrina as people were passing the peace and told her about Joshua’s request. I asked her if she could speak on his behalf and she said yes. After people reconvened, I shared about Joshua’s desire for baptism. I wasn’t the only one who ‘got’ the significance of the moment or who recognized the tumultuous journey of this young boy’s life. We baptized Joshua and gave him a proper welcoming into the body of Christ. I cried throughout. It is the best baptism I have ever done.

It was certainly painful to leave West Virginia. I always assumed I would die a WV pastor. But the calling requires a willingness to move where God needs you. And I can safely say that God has needed me in the Pacific Northwest. My time in WV was always marked with a lot of disappointments. Nevertheless, I am grateful for my time there and for the ministry God allowed me to do in that wild and wonderful place. I am thankful for each congregation and their lessons to me. Our struggles and conflicts are passed. Now we can remember and appreciate those holy moments we shared.

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