Young pastors prepare for season of change

Kathy Gilbert
July 5, 2011
Members of New Bethel and Centenary United Methodist churches gather to say farewell to their pastor, the Rev. Brian Rossbert. UMNS photo by Kathy Gilbert.
This is the 11th and final installment of a yearlong series that follows newly appointed United Methodist clergy as they begin their ministry.

In the upper right corner of the bright yellow construction paper, Hannah drew a picture of a man in a hospital gown with angel wings. Above his head are the words, “My Dad Saying Hi! Heaven is a great place!”

That picture is one of the last things the Rev. Brian Rossbert packs as he clears his office of personal books, certificates and photos, in preparation for the next chapter of his life at another church. It will be a reminder of some of the significant lessons he learned while in his first pastoral appointment.

Many United Methodist pastors in the summer say goodbye to one congregation and prepare for a new start in another church in their annual (regional) conference.

In The United Methodist Church it is called itineration, a practice begun by John Wesley, the denomination’s founder.

Rossbert is looking forward to his move but also feels a bit sad about leaving behind two congregations he has grown to love.

“The people here I will love forever,” he said. “And, I guess, I have already been invited to homecoming.”

New Bethel, in rural Cheatham County, Tenn., and Centenary United Methodist in west Davidson County, are accustomed to sharing a pastor and having that pastor only for one or two years. They look forward to bringing former pastors back for homecoming Sunday.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better place to have started my official ministry,” Rossbert said. “I think New Bethel really thinks of themselves as a place that makes or breaks pastors. I think in some sense it is true, that it is a great learning ground. You have to be creative, you have to be adventurous, you have to be willing to try things and you have to be willing to bail — those are hard lessons to learn but good ones.”

Eight-year-old Hannah’s drawing was about one of those hard lessons. Rossbert had just begun at Centenary when a longtime church member — Hannah’s great-grandmother — died. Her funeral was on a Monday, and by Friday her grandson, Hannah’s dad, also died.

Rossbert officiated at both funerals.

“I think they came to church the next Sunday and she gave me that drawing. It was a traumatic situation for everyone. It was a hard thing, but kind of a beautiful thing in the end.”

He said it has been great to see how each member of the two congregations has grown in concern for the community and in understanding of how God is using each individual.

Both churches are more involved with serving their homeless neighbors through the West Nashville United Methodist Church and struggled together with a flood that left many members of New Bethel with nothing, Rossbert said.

“We have had wonderful opportunities to worship together, to share and just be authentic together. We realized we don’t have to be perfect,” he said. “We all figured that out in our own ways and sort of owned up to the fact that we still need God’s grace. That has been a lot of fun to be a part of, especially in my first pastorate.”

Having to say goodbye

Charlie and Lila Powell will never forget Rossbert because he was also there for them when Lila’s mother passed away. Although he’s a Southern Baptist, Charlie plays the organ at Centenary.

Rossbert came to Centenary in July 2009 and “Nana” died that October. “In those few months, he visited her more times than the previous pastors put together,” Charlie Powell said.

“The morning that Mother passed away was a Sunday morning. Charlie called to let Brian know he wouldn’t be there because Momma had died,” Lila Powell said. “Brian and (his wife) Laura were both here within 15 minutes, and they stayed with us until the funeral directors came and got her and carried her out of the house. He stayed here with us. It meant everything to us.”

The Powells hosted a farewell “dessert party” for the Rossberts in mid-June, and members of both churches came to wish them well.

Sandra Kingdon, a longtime member of Centenary, said church membership has dwindled to around 15 to 20 people in the pews on most Sundays. It was much more active when she was young, she said.

“Brian is exceptional. The first time I heard him with the first message, I told him he wouldn’t be at our church for very long,” she said. “He is so dedicated. I definitely believe he needs to be in a larger church.”

Terry Kimbro, a member of New Bethel, said he has been a “breath of fresh air — Christianity comes out of his pores.”

She agrees that the two rural churches are “training” churches for young pastors.

“People coming and going doesn’t bother me; I have been a Methodist since I was born.”

Judy Rhodes, a member of the community but not a member of either church, called Rossbert a community-minded man who loves people. “Nobody wants to see them go, but everyone wants them to do well.”

Not having to say goodbye

The Rev. Mara Bailey baptizes the son of her best friends from high school. A UMNS photo by the Rev. John Bailey.

The Rev. Mara Bailey, reflecting on her first year as campus minister at Nebraska Wesleyan University, said a highlight of her year was also realizing how much her community has grown and experienced.

“It was a great feeling realizing how well I have gotten to know these students in such a short amount of time,” she said.

Unlike Rossbert, Bailey will be continuing in her current appointment.

One of her greatest challenges has been being the only staff person on campus responsible for her ministry.

“I have a lot of advocates and support,” she said. Being on her own was especially challenging “because it forced me to take a lot more ownership in my work, and to step up and claim the authority in making decisions related to my position and ministry.

“I think I have settled in since I have gotten to know many of my colleagues on campus and have a good understanding of the flow of the academic year. I most look forward to building on the excitement I felt by first-year students at the end of their first year on campus, as they thought about how they can welcome in the incoming class of first-years in the fall.”

Bailey is happy to be continuing her call to campus ministry, but admits the realities of the United Methodist itinerant system require personal flexibility.

“It is certainly strange always knowing that although I was both appointed by the bishop and hired by the school, at any point the conference could call me into local church ministry and out of campus ministry,” she said.

Leaving or staying, Rossbert said his clergy mentor gave him the best advice for how to be an effective pastor: Just love the people.

“That’s our most basic job description as pastor.”

*Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

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