By Ronnie Crocker
When first-year pastor the Rev. William Murphree invited church members to a blessing of animals to celebrate the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, many showed up with dogs on leashes and cats in crates. Others brought photographs of pets they’d had to leave at home, including a horse named Ginger and a feline pictured in repose on a car’s dashboard.
Murphree said a blessing for each, and a prayer for those furry companions that had passed on but were still remembered and loved.
“We said a word of thanks to God for the time they got to spend with the animals that they’ve lost,” he said of the October service.
Then the cows showed up. Shortly after the service wrapped up, Murphree was called back outside where a truck had pulled onto the side of the road and the owner was asking the preacher to say a few words over his trailered load of Brahman bulls that are used as part of a breeding program. Under the bovines’ baleful stares, Murphree held out his hands toward the metal railing and the jeans-wearing owner removed his white cap and bowed his head.
“You could tell the love they had for their pets,” Murphree said of the caretakers of all these creatures, great and small. He saw how much it meant “to have someone who recognized their love for their pets, and to know that God cares for them, and to know that God loves who they love.” Indeed, he added, “How could God not care for what God made? I think it was an encouraging.”
The Sunday afternoon ceremony was just one of the ways Murphree has bonded with parishioners at Van Vleck and Boling United Methodist Churches. For the past year, he has served as pastor at both, delivering a 9 a.m. sermon in Boling, closer to Wharton, then making the 20-minute drive to Van Vleck for an 11 o’clock service.
Both churches have grown, Murphree said, and sponsored outreach programs in local schools, nursing homes and day-care centers. The Van Vleck church resumed its community chili supper and the congregants in Boling provided gift cards for high school graduates. Both support bible studies and other activities.
Murphree, 37, was commisioned during the recent gathering of the Texas Annual Conference, but he has been on the job in Van Vleck and Boling since last July 1. He graduated just over a year ago from seminary at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology and had served as a pastoral intern in 2021 and 2022 at Christ Church Sugar Land. His church work dates back even further, as a youth minister at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Richmond for several years.
His new pastoral appointment came at a critical time for the Van Vleck church. Members had just entered a period of discernment over whether to break away from United Methodism to join another denomination.
Murphree knew going in that he would remain a United Methodist, but he strove to be even-handed with both sides in the debate.
“I came into a new environment and tried to hear everybody out and try to get information to everyone,” he said. “I wanted to present information in as unbiased a manner as possible.”
He acknowledged that the timing “was not what I expected for my first appointment.”
Eventually, the church voted overwhelmingly against disaffiliation.
“I am pleased,” Murphree said. “Unfortunately, there were the people who were not happy with the way it went. I am sad for them. I know for some people it was their home church for a long time. I hate that they don’t feel it can still be their home church.”
But the church also gained new members, including some who moved from another congregation that had disaffiliated. Eleven folks were welcomed in a new-member ceremony earlier this year.
As the church recovered, it renewed its outward focus. Earlier this year, members began going out on Thursdays to read to children at a daycare center. Murphree and others also provide worship services and music at a couple of nursing homes. The Boling congregation has also seen its membership grow with two families and another person joining in the last year.
At this year’s Annual Conference session, Van Vleck was given the Small Church Award of the Year for the Southwest District.
Now, the churches are being called to another important work, helping their pastor’s family through a life-altering challenge. Murphree’s wife, Stephanie, was diagnosed with cancer in March. Since then, members here and from other churches they’ve been involved with have gone out of their way to support the couple.
“We have really felt loved here,” he said. “That is very kind of them to be so thoughtful and caring.”