Retirement delayed for more discipleship

By Jeff Campbell

West virginia one matters
Tom Jeffrey, left, receives the One Matters Discipleship Award from Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball and Ken Willard, director of discipleship, leadership, and congregational vitality.

Most of us who have been followers of Jesus have had one of those moments with him when that still, small voice asks us to do something, and our first reaction is, “You want me to do what?”

Rev. Tom Jeffrey had that exact reaction when God put it on his heart to take back his letter of retirement to West Hamlin UMC in West Virginia.

Jeffrey had been at the church 12 years as a local, part-time pastor, and was ready to retire.

Jeffrey said the rural church was small, but healthy until about 2000. However, time had not been the church’s friend, and by the time he was called to serve as pastor in 2007, it was down to seven members.

He said with a laugh that for the first few years his biggest accomplishment was just keeping the doors open, adding it wasn’t easy to preach to fewer than 10 people, all of whom were over 60.

Early in 2018, Jeffrey decided retirement was calling. He submitted his resignation to District Superintendent the Rev. Oakey Harness, effective December 2018.

But the unbelievable happened. New people started coming to the church.

The church hosted a potluck on Wednesday nights with a prayer time. A grandmother called Jeffrey and asked if she could come to the potluck. Jeffrey assured her the church would be delighted for her to come. He said she got “a little turned around” and was late, but was warmly welcomed anyway. Within a few weeks, she began bringing her granddaughter with her.

Soon after that, a family of seven began to come. The first night the mother and the children attended the fellowship dinner, Jeffrey welcomed them and asked five of the church members to join the children and help them go through the line. They enthusiastically did. Jeffrey said he believes that is when the change of heart began for the church.

As the family’s attendance on Sunday morning became more regular, the father and all five children wanted to be baptized. With that, all seven joined West Hamlin.

But the unbelievable happened. New people started coming to the church.

By now, West Hamlin UMC was energized. Harness recommended “Reaching New Disciples Training” for the church. It was a program he had seen help other struggling churches.

Jeffrey said he took the training, but his people didn’t exactly buy into it. He followed through, though, and learned some helpful skills. He went back to his church people with another idea.

They decided to watch the “Chuck Knows Church” series from Discipleship Ministries. The people enjoyed that and willingly participated in group activities and discussions. Jeffrey called the video series instrumental in the congregation’s decision to leave the 1950s model of church.

“One of the best things we learned is that the way we were doing church worked well in the 1950s, but we are about 70 years past that,” Jeffrey said. “We started looking outside the church doors and saw people we didn’t know.”

Now the church hosts the group YouthWorks, Inc. in the summer. Each week, the organization brings in teens who work in the community to make improvements. Since West Hamlin lets YWI use the church building Sunday afternoon through Friday, the church moves their Wednesday fellowship activities to a local restaurant. Jeffrey said people have seen them pray and do a Bible devotional at the restaurant. He said several have commented that they “think this is the neatest thing they’ve ever seen.” They invite anyone in the restaurant to join them.

Even though the family of seven has since had a life change and moved away and some of the other people who had been coming have stopped, Jeffrey said the improved attitude of the congregation is still going.

“We’re really rural, so we aren’t going to ever have a big congregation, but we can do a lot with what we’ve been given.”

Wishing you spiritual enthusiasm,

Rev. Jeff Campbell is the General Secretary of Discipleship Ministries. He comes to this role having led Discipleship Ministries as the Associate General Secretary for Strategic Programming, where he coordinated the work of the agency around three strategic priorities: an Intentional Discipleship System in every church; equipping local churches to engage their communities; and lifting up and creating local, contextual resources globally. Rev. Campbell joined Discipleship Ministries in 2013 as Executive Director of Conference Relationships.