(I recently had the privilege of interviewing Rev. David Graves, the Holston Conference Episcopal Nominee. I have always admired David’s pastoral leadership and personal faith , so I was excited to have the chance to ask him about his perspective on ministry in the UMC.)
How did you come to love the United Methodist Church?
(David Graves) How I came to love the church has everything to do with how I came to love Christ. I grew up as a 4th generation Methodist at Fountain City UMC in Knoxville. Through the church’s youth ministry I developed a personal relationship with Jesus Christ when I was a junior in High School. This relationship changed everything for me.
I went to college to learn business administration, but through my role as custodian at my church and my relationship with the pastors of the church I began to wonder if perhaps I was called to ministry. On September 29, 1979, I stood before the congregation and publically acknowledged my calling.
In the years since, my journey has allowed me to see church ministry on so many different levels. Throughout my life, as I have continually become more involved in the United Methodist Church I have found myself growing more and more passionate about the church and its mission.
You have served in some pretty diverse settings. How have those experiences shaped the way you think about church?
I have always felt the greatest honor anyone could have was simply to be able to minister in the local church.
I began my ministry career working with youth at 2nd UMC (Knoxville) and then moved to Chattanooga and continued working with youth at Hixson UMC. During my 11 years at Hixson, the youth group grew from 30 to 150 and I transitioned from youth director to associate pastor in charge of congregational care. To see how the team I helped put together continued to grow a vibrant youth ministry even as I turned my focus elsewhere taught me a lot about the power of teams and shared ministry.
When I became lead pastor for the first time, it was at St. Mathew UMC in the Tri-Cities area. At St. Matthew, I discovered just what is possible when a church lives out its calling to share Christ. Though we were a small church, we started the first contemporary service in the area and grew from 130 in attendance to about 300 in 4 years. What was most fulfilling about this growth was that most of it came from professions of faith. It was here that I realized in a new way how important it is to make winning to people to Christ central to all that we do.
Next, I was asked to pastor Ootlewah UMC, a church with tremendous growth potential if they could find a way unite behind a vision of how to reach their growing and changing community. The changes we had to make to reach our community weren’t easy, but over 11 years at Ootlewah we went from 250 in attendance to 650. As a suburban church we became involved in inner city ministries and I learned of the great power that is unleashed when a church combines evangelistic zeal with a passion for social justice.
Leaving Ootlewah to become a District Superintendent was one of the hardest things I have done in ministry and one of the most fulfilling new opportunities. Honestly, I was surprised how much I loved being a DS. It was my chance to pour back into others just as so many poured into me to make my ministry possible.
As a Superintendent, I did what I did as a local church pastor: I formed teams to undergird the spiritual foundation of our ministry with prayer and teams to formulate the best strategies for reaching our community. We became intentional about getting young clergy and laity as well as people with diverse voices into leadership positions. We wrote more grant proposals than I can count to help revitalize congregations, and we started a new church to reach many people society had forgotten about who struggle homelessness, poverty, and mental illness. Amazingly, this church now offers ministries 6 days a week, is financially self-sustaining, and often worships with close to 400 participants. It’s amazing how people will show up to be a part of Jesus’ life transforming work if the church can offer them a vision and a structure for doing so.
In the end, it all added up to a District that grew in membership and attendance for the first time in 3 decades as well as in apportionment giving. I learned from my experience as a Superintendent that revitalization and effective new church starts are realistically achievable, but they do not happen on their own. Superintendents have to be out in their churches learning about each church and its community, resourcing leaders, and helping the churches ask the right questions about their future.
For the past year, I have had the honor of being the Senior Pastor at Church Street UMC, a large historic traditional congregation in downtown Knoxville. Many people think churches like Church Street are doing well to just survive and keep their buildings in good shape. That’s not my experience though. In only 12 months, we have seen tremendous new energy, new vitality, and new growth.
As a Pastor and as a District Superintendent you seem to have an ability to understand the next strategic steps churches need to take. How do you help churches find a faithful future?
I think there are 4 questions churches need to ask:
- What is our purpose for being here?
- Who is our community?
- What is our next step in ministry?
- How is our next step leading to professions of faith?
If a church is willing to prayerful ask these questions, they have great potential for ministry no matter how big they are and no matter what community they are in. The number of people involved in discipleship ministry, worship, and financial giving are all greater markers of vitality, but the real essence of it is whether churches are passionate about who they are winning to Christ, who they are seeing in their community, and how God is calling them to change their corner of the world.
Why do you want to be a Bishop?
I want to continue to encourage and support others in ministry just as so many people have encouraged and supported me. Naturally, I think about the possibility of leaving the local church pastorate with a significant degree of trepidation. I love what I do and I could do it for the rest of my career and experience wonderful fulfillment. Even so, I do feel called to the episcopacy. I feel called to help Superintendents, pastors, and lay leaders ask the kind of questions through which we can be a part of God’s work of transforming an entire region.
How would you go about doing that?
I would do what I have done everywhere: I would get to know people, seek God’s will in prayer, and create highly functioning teams to carry out ministry.
Getting to know people will be crucial. I know the culture of the Holston Conference very well. But I won’t know the culture of the annual conference I am sent to serve on day 1. I will have start fresh on day 1 learning everything I can about the people and churches I have been called to serve alongside. Clergy and laity cannot trust a Bishop they do not know and a Bishop cannot make strategic appointments unless they know the churches and clergy well.
As a Bishop, I plan to ask each Superintendent to form a strategy team to resource the mission and ministry of the local church. I personally plan to train the Superintendents regarding how to best lead these teams. I hope to also hold a 2-3 day retreat for all conference staff so that we can share all our resources and best ideas together. So many times, the help we most need is from someone who is already a part of the organization. We just do not know them well enough to know to ask for it.
In regards to appointments, I want to work help ineffective clergy become effective or transition them out of ministry. I also think that we have to begin the appointment process by taking a long look at how we appoint clergy couples and young clergy, especially those in their first appointment. Less than strategic appointments for young clergy and clergy couples can encourage learning bad habits and a sense of helplessness that can affect them for the rest of their ministry lives.
Anything else you would like to share with those who will be reading this interview?
Please pray for me. I need it. And I am praying for you.