Shared satisfaction

Faith religion church stock image

Daily Reporter staff writer

HANCOCK COUNTY — Glen Davis can stay for breakfast.

When worshipers at Willow Branch United Methodist Church gather for breakfast and conversation after the 9:30 a.m. service, before they head to Sunday school classes, their new pastor and his wife, Lauren, can stick around and chat.

A few miles west of there, Steve Ellis is getting to know the congregation at Curry’s Chapel United Methodist Church. He says he’s seen a few new people show up during the two months since he began as pastor there.

Both churches welcomed new pastors this summer, and for the first time in as long as anyone can remember — and much longer — they are not the same person.

“We have no one left in our congregation who remembers Willow Branch not sharing a pastor,” Phil Hayes, chairman of the pastor-parish relations committee at Willow Branch, wrote in an email. “The best written evidence we have is a 1928 bulletin from a building dedication service. …That 1928 bulletin mentions a shared pastor.”

In the days when many of Hancock County’s United Methodist churches began, congregations were often served by circuit-riding preachers who visited several churches in an area. In more modern times with more geographically fixed pastors, clergy have sometimes served more than one congregation.

For example, United Methodist churches in McCordsville and Mt. Comfort shared a pastor before opting for separate clergy in 1958. Diane Smoot recalls Maxwell United Methodist Church and Faith United Methodist Church in Greenfield once sharing a pastor. (Maxwell later closed, and its members were welcomed to Trinity Park United Methodist Church.)

But Smoot, who attends Willow Branch, said the United Methodist denomination is shifting away from the “two-point charge,” the double assignment for a pastor. The Curry’s Chapel/Willow Branch assignment was the last in Hancock County, she said.

Today, it’s more common for churches who might struggle to pay a full-time pastor to employ a part-time leader, such as Davis or Ellis.

Davis, who serves Willow Branch part time, has led churches in Middletown and Fowlerton and served in youth ministry before that. He is a student in Indiana Wesleyan University’s Transition to Teaching program, which helps professionals from various fields become certified teachers. Davis is doing field experience at Shenandoah Elementary and subs frequently in Eastern Hancock schools.

He is a licensed but not ordained pastor, practicing a more limited itinerancy than is expected of the denomination’s ordained. In pastoring what he describes as a lively and fun congregation at Willow Branch, he’s found a satisfying fit.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Davis said. “We laugh a lot in our service. …It’s a very comfortable environment.”

Ellis used to sell insurance in Greenfield. He and his wife, Jean, sent two daughters to Greenfield-Central High School before he became a pastor 20 years ago. Ellis served churches in Westport, Chrisney, Elizabeth, Middlebury and Pekin before retiring this summer. Now he’s in the pulpit again, serving in a part-time capacity at Curry’s Chapel.

“I just enjoy doing the ministry,” he said.

Ellis has served that many places because United Methodist pastors tend to move frequently, often spending about three years with a congregation. Materials from the denomination ( point to potential benefits of the arrangement. For example: If the denomination is assigning pastors, its leaders contend, the local pastor is free to preach as he or she feels led without worrying about currying favor with congregation leaders.

Phil Hunt, a member at Curry’s Chapel, said a potential challenge of the arrangement is “it’s just hard for a pastor to get established and programs going in that short of a period of time.” He’s hopeful the new arrangement holds promise for having a pastor stay longer at the church than a full-time pastor committed to itinerancy would be able to.

Though Hunt likes that potential of this new era, neither he nor Smoot had anything bad to say about the pastor-sharing arrangement of the past.

“We had a successful relationship with Curry’s Chapel all those years — really warm,” Smoot said. “I hope it’s going well for them, too. I’ve heard that it is.

“I don’t know that we ever felt deprived,” she added. “We’re just enjoying … these pleasant things that are coming out of it.”