Every member in mind
Despite being a small, rural congregation in an impoverished part of North Carolina, Sandy Plains United Methodist Church has sent a large proportion of its members into mission, leaving some to wonder: How has this tiny church produced so many leaders?
August 2, 2011 | Alan PreVatte has seen “the plaque” hanging in a hallway outside the pastor’s office since he joined Sandy Plains United Methodist Church in Pembroke, N.C., in the mid-1990s. But he still gets excited when he talks about it.
“The plaque” is a wooden tablet no bigger than a shirt box that has been around so long that nobody remembers when it was installed or whose idea it was to put it up.
The top -- a black metal plate with capital letters engraved in gold -- reads: “Sandy Plains/United Methodist Church/In Mission.” Under that is Isaiah 6:8: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? / Then said I, Here am I; send me.”
And under that is a list of the names -- on individual black plates -- of those who have attended Sandy Plains during the past 50 years and gone on to work in missions.
It includes missioners, church planters and denominational officials. In all, there are 19 names representing 19 Christian leaders -- 16 of them clergy -- who have come out of Sandy Plains.
Nineteen might not seem so significant until you consider this: Sandy Plains averages about 85 people in worship each Sunday, and it’s located in a town of 2,800 where 39 percent of residents live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (Nationwide, the rate is 13.5 percent.)
And though there are no hard data tracking how many ordained leaders come out of congregations, most Christian leaders tend to come from larger churches where there are often more programs and opportunities, said the Rev. Jeremy Troxler, director of Duke Divinity School’s Thriving Rural Communities initiative, of which Sandy Plains is a part. Based on anecdotal evidence, it’s most common for a small church to raise up one clergyperson per generation, he said.
So for one small church to send out nearly 20? “It’s remarkable,” Troxler said. “The church may not be using the language ‘leadership development,’ but that’s exactly what it’s doing.”
And that’s why, PreVatte said, every once in a while, he’ll find himself staring at or thinking about “the plaque” -- a reminder of where the church has come from and where it hopes its members continue to go: in mission.
The tribute to the 19 already there encourages PreVatte -- and it excites him and amazes him, often leaving him wondering: “How has such a little rural church produced so many leaders?”
A servant leader
It started with the first name listed on “the plaque”: the Rev. Simeon Cummings, pastor emeritus of Sandy Plains whom church members and former clergy describe as a servant leader driven by concern for his people.
Sandy Plains is named for and located in one of five boroughs in Pembroke, a town in central North Carolina near the South Carolina state line. Pembroke was settled by the Lumbee, a Native American tribe, and nearly 90 percent of the town’s residents today are Lumbee, as are most Sandy Plains attendees. The church is one of 13 affiliated with the Rockingham District Native American Cooperative Ministry.
Questions to consider:
- Sandy Plains UMC helps its members to claim leadership responsibility through its ethos of “Every member in mind.” What would be a concise description of your own organization’s ethos about leadership development?
- Sandy Plains helps church members imagine themselves in missional leadership. How are you
helping your people imagine themselves in positions of greater responsibility and authority ?
- Sandy Plains equips people called to leadership by connecting them with denominational training and educational programs. In what ways can you connect the members of your organization with larger opportunities for growth?
- The members of Sandy Plains comment that the development of future leaders requires humble leadership.Why is humility important in growing leaders?
When Sandy Plains UMC was organized in 1906 by Lumbee Methodists, including Cummings’ father, Jim Crow and miscegenation laws had long been in effect. The Lumbee, many of whom were also tenant farmers, were oppressed and marginalized in much the same way as blacks, Cummings said in a 1995 interview for the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s oral history project, Native Carolinian Indian Elders.
“To be successful in my day, you had to kind of deny who you were,” said Cummings, who grew up attending Sandy Plains, in 1995. “I could always see how far my people were behind other people.”
When he served in the U.S. Army during World War II, he told himself that if he made it back home, he would “be a leader to help my Indian people.”
He graduated in 1948 from what was then Pembroke State College for Indians and taught in segregated public schools for eight years before attending Duke Divinity School.
Why divinity school? He thought it was important for Native American churches to have Native American leaders, he said in 1995.
He went on to pastor Prospect UMC in Maxton, N.C., for 20 years; lead the Southeastern Jurisdictional Association for Native American Ministries, a job that involved pastoring seven small churches, including Sandy Plains; and serve on the N.C. Conference staff.
Throughout it all, he maintained his ties to his home church and mentored its pastors, stressing the importance of raising up leaders.
Drawing upon the example of his childhood pastor, the Rev. Dr. Fuller Lowery, he employed a philosophy based on the mantra “Every member in mind.”
“Born out of struggle was an intent to create space for Native Americans to lead,” said the Rev. Bob Mangum, who served as pastor of Sandy Plains in the ’60s, ’70s and 2000s and who has worked alongside Cummings, now 91, for the past 50-plus years.
“Stories were nurtured to develop faithful disciples who just did not talk about the Spirit, but who responded to it.”
Every member in mind
Today, the pastor of Sandy Plains is the Rev. Gregg Presnal. On his business card, displayed in prominent bold type, is the phrase: “Ministers: All Sandy Plains Members!” This message underscores the “Every member in mind” mindset that is his congregation’s legacy.
“As far back as I can remember, the church has always had strong leadership,” said Gary Locklear, who has been a member of Sandy Plains for more than 40 years. “They were tenacious about it. They listened carefully. They sat with people. They worked with people. They told a story of how important it was to have native leadership in native churches, and they encouraged it.”
This includes creating opportunities for members to envision and to test their vocational calling.
During Locklear’s first year of college, for example, a Sunday school teacher asked him to teach one week, and then another, and then to take over the entire class. Now he’s a home missioner and co-director of the Rockingham District Native American Cooperative Ministry.
The church also brings Christian institutional leaders to revivals, services and information sessions about UMC doctrine and polity. Leaders who have come out of Sandy Plains are invited to come back and speak.
This empowers church members to imagine becoming one of those leaders, too, Locklear said.
The church also urges all its members to take advantage of the offerings of UMC-related programs, including lay speaker training, Discover God’s Call retreats and, for youth, an annual vocational conference.
Take PreVatte, for example. He’s an information technology administrator at UNC-Pembroke. At the encouragement of church leaders, he completed UMC’s certificate program in lay speaker training. Within weeks of finishing his first classes, he was asked to preach at Sandy Plains. PreVatte preached that Sunday, and he has preached several times since. As the superintendent of Sunday school classes, he also leads the congregation in prayer and hymns before the three adult classes begin at 10 a.m.
Or, consider the Rev. Deborah Wilkins. As a Sandy Plains member, she participated in the three-day spiritual renewal program Walk to Emmaus in the late 1990s. There Wilkins listened to the stories of grief from other women -- stories “as grievous as what I had buried in me,” she said.