By Lindsay Peyton
Finding ashes for Ash Wednesday was a bit of a challenge for Hope UMC in Chester, a town in Tyler County. There were no palms to burn from the previous year. After all, the church only had its first service on Sunday, Jan. 8. Still, Rev. Ernie Turney was unphased, “I’ll find ashes.”
That is just one example of how the new congregation has pulled together to find solutions. “It’s the little stuff,” the pastor said. “Everything gets covered. Everything gets done. Everyone in the congregation is pitching in and doing their part to make it all happen.”
Hope UMC is one of the new congregations forming in the Texas Annual Conference after members left disaffiliated churches. Turney explained that history makes the congregations unlike a new church plant and not exactly a merger either.
Each faith community has unique challenges and is forming a new identity. “None of us is doing it exactly the same,” he said. “We’re all doing it differently depending on the situation.”
In 2018, Turney had retired to Livingston. News of a schism in the denomination upset him, and he called District Superintendent Dr. Dick White with an idea. “There are several retired pastors who are still able to get up and do,” Turney told White.
Perhaps the retired pastors could help lead members displaced from their church homes, Turney suggested.
“Dick asked, ‘Are you interested?’” Turney recalled.
White explained that a group was in need of a leader. Composed of members of what was Woodville UMC, they were dedicated to staying United Methodist. Already, the group was at work creating a new congregation and had been working with White, as well as Rev. Morris Matthis, the Texas Annual Conference’s Director of New Faith Communities.
Matthis helped them find a building – an abandoned church on a couple of acres in Chester, 15 miles away from Woodville. The building was established as Mount Hope Chapel around 1853, according to the Texas State Historical Association. The new faith community renamed it Hope UMC.
By the end of 2022, Hope UMC had elected officers, hosted a pledge drive, reserved a post office box and started writing their bylaws. “They did everything,” Turney said.
All the congregation needed was a pastor. After talking to White, Turney and his wife Ann took a drive out to Chester, about 30 miles away from their home in Livingston. “We jumped in the car and rode out to take a look,” Turney recalled.
About 15 people were at the church to greet the couple, and they spoke with the pastor about the progress made to date and their vision for the future. Turney told them about his background. “I am willing to come and help,” he said. “It all fell together.”
Since its first meeting on Jan. 8, the average attendance has been 25 people on Sundays. Visitors have also attended each gathering, and Turney is helping to get the word out about the new congregation.
Members are still in the grieving process, the pastor explained. “It’s going to take a while,” he said. “As a congregation, they’re taking it one week at a time.”
Still, there is a pervasive sense of joy. After each worship service on Sunday, time is reserved for fellowship. The coffee pot is on, and a member brings cake, cookies or sandwiches. “It just makes it fun,” Turney said.
The Holy Spirit is definitely at work. “We’re cooking with gas,” the pastor said. “All the ducks are in a row. Now, it’s just a matter of moving down the road.”