Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” ….er, I mean Telford…. “Come and see.” said Phillip.

Telford UMC is the epitome of a small country church.  It sets off State Route 34 in Telford, Tennessee.  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 was happening at Telford UMC.  I asked for an interview.  They obliged.

Telford UMC is a United Methodist Church.  This means it participates in the Methodist itinerancy systemItinerancy dictates that pastors are sent or reassigned to a church every year.  These assignments are doled out by a hierarchy of superintendents (assigned to oversee small regions) and a bishop (assigned to oversee the larger region).   Telford is located in the Johnson City District which is the small region that is part of the Holston Conference, which is the larger region. 

During my interview with the leadership of Telford, they commented on the woes of itinerancy.  Much of the complaints sounded similar to a New York Times article from 1880.  At that time the Methodists were meeting to discuss amending the itinerancy system.  The article and Telford leadership expressed disappointment that relationships of trust are not cultivated because pastors do not stay more than 3-4 years.  (The average stay for mainline denominational pastors is 4 years.)  Although, itinerancy did work in their favor if they felt the pastor was not a good match for their pastoral leadership needs.  Telford, as many Methodist Churches, has had a long history of pastoral changes.

Enter Bishop Richard Looney.  Bishop Looney retired in 2000 from the highest ranks of the United Methodist Church.  After retiring as bishop he served on the Foundation for Evangelism at Lake Junaluska for 8 years. 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.  In the United Methodist Church retired bishops rarely seek out small churches.  It is tradition that a bishop’s work load is equated with the status of their office. This means working in the upper echelons of the hierarchy. 

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 string attached.  He had prior commitments to the United Methodist Church at large that would 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 The Reverend Millard Johnson filled the pulpit when Bishop Looney was absent.  After Bishop Looney had completed his time abroad, he returned to pastor Telford as a single pastor for two years. 

 Now Bishop Looney is ready to retire (or so he says).  The easiest maneuver for this 78-year-old pastor is to leave, as the itinerancy system would allow.  Every June new pastors are sent out and Telford would have gotten one.  But something better evolved.  Remember, Telford UMC is open to new things. 

Micheal and family

Enter The Reverend Michael Vaughn.  Michael Vaughn is a district manager for Pizza Hut, a father of five and a United Methodist local pastor.  Now he is the associate for Telford UMC, 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 are happening at Telford.  Worship Leader and Lay Leader, Mark Cutshall reports that he enjoys the diversity of preaching and teaching.  He also has found time to train youth to work the sound booth because he has two pastors helping with worship planning.  Another example was found as I exited the worship center.  I asked why so many praise band instruments were off to the side.  Reverend Vaughn explained that he had time to revitalize the praise band because he was aided by Bishop Looney in the preaching and teaching department.  This effort makes him more accessible to the youth, which is a growing bunch at Telford (and not just because of the addition of Reverend Vaughn’s family!). 

During the interview I noticed Bishop Looney and Reverend 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 did not realize that he was too comfortable behind the pulpit and followed Reverend Vaughn’s lead by adopting a lapel mic and preaching out front.  He reports a better connection with the congregation.  Reverend Vaughn has gleamed 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 itinerancy. 

 Itinerancy has been a long standing tradition for United Methodists.  It evolved because the expanding Methodist movement needed a pastor could cover a large territory, moving from church to church.  It further developed as a result of the explosive growth Methodism experienced as our nation moved west.  It has become a defining mark and part of the United Methodist ordination vows and polity. 

However, from a modern standpoint, itinerancy 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 (as submitted by the Telford UMC leadership).  Also, 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.

Telford proudly displaying the results apple butter and soup canning. Proceeds go to benefit needy in the community.

 As Bishop Looney retires and Reverend Vaughn assists, a unique situation has birthed energy and excitement.  Lay people have a fresh breath of new leadership, while keeping consistency.  They have a year to say “goodbye” and “thank you” to Bishop Looney.  They also have a year to adjust to Reverend Vaughn.  Also, lay workers in the church have 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 is 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 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 the goal 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 gleam insight, brag on the success by highlighting the church’s efforts and use those pioneering churches as shining examples when encouraging other small churches to dream.

 I appreciate all the efforts to revitalize churches.  We are blessed with many experts who study the trends as well as serious scriptural analysis.  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.

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