From teacher to preacher
By Lindsay Peyton
Everyone knew that Emanuel Echols was destined one day for the pulpit. Everyone, that is, except for Echols himself. “Are you sure you haven’t heard a calling?” became a common refrain from his teachers and family. But he would laugh and dismiss their questions. In fact, he did hear a calling – but it was to do something else entirely. He wanted to become a teacher. Through a serendipitous series of events, he now serves in both ways.
“I still to this day cannot believe this is what I’m doing,” the Rev. Echols said. “Everything is working out for me, because of the grace of God. And I would have never imagined it.”
Growing up in Memphis, Echols dreamed of becoming a lawyer and eventually a judge. Then, in high school, everything changed when his high school music teacher asked him to lead a class. “I could see myself doing this in life,” Echols thought.
He wanted to help others – and teaching seemed like an ideal fit. After graduating high school in 2014, he earned a scholarship to attend Wiley College in Marshall, Texas and pursue a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Early Childhood Education
For the scholarship, Echols sang in the campus choir, which performed each Sunday. Because Wiley College is part of the Texas Annual Conference of the UMC, so did each church where the choir performed.
That’s how Echols discovered the United Methodist Church. He had grown up in the Baptist tradition, but the more he learned about the Wesleyan tradition, the more intrigued he became. “I thought, I kind of like this,” he recalled with a laugh. “And when I wasn’t singing on Sundays, I started going to the United Methodist Church.”
During his freshman year at Wiley, he also joined campus ministry and served as chaplain for the student government association. By his sophomore year, he became executive chaplain for the student body. “I was thinking, Why am I doing this? I have no desire to be a preacher,” he recalled.
Then, Echols was elected president of campus ministry. “The entire time I thought, Why am I the president? I’m not a preacher.” The students assured him that he would be perfect and could provide insight into what a general church member would want in worship.
Echols accepted. “I loved serving others, volunteering and organizing,” he said.
He worked alongside the college’s chaplain the Rev. Tabitha Rankin. She told him, “I sense a call of God.”
“I don’t think He is,” Echols responded.
Then, he had a flashback to childhood, when his uncle made a similar remark: “There’s something about you that is different; I think God has a purpose for you.”
“But I erased that out of my mind,” Echols recalled.
Still, by 2018, he enrolled in the TAC’s College Pastoral Internship Program (CPIP ). He wanted to learn more about the Methodist church and try to understand why everyone seemed to think he should become a pastor.
“Is it really a call from God? Or was it just something people said?” Echols wondered. “The first calling I ever had was to be a teacher, but I began to realize, a preacher is a teacher.”
Usually, in the program, students go to a new location to serve, but he did not have a car or driver’s license. The Bishop assigned him to stay in the area with FUMC Marshall and the Rev. Rodger Garbs.
At the end of the summer, Echols went on a youth retreat in Florida, but he became ill on the long bus ride. He spent much of the trip in his room, recovering. He also took that time to pray and ask God to come into his heart.
On one trip to the beach, Echols met a man and the two spent a long time talking.
“He was like, ‘Are you a preacher? I can see a calling for you to become a pastor,’” Echols recalled.
It turned out the man was a minister in Memphis. Still, Echols dismissed the comment as he had countless times before.
“And then, it sounds like a fairy tale, but the guy disappeared into the crowd, and I never saw him again,” Echols recalled.
That Sunday, Echols went into the pulpit to deliver the final sermon required for the internship. “I was so nervous,” he recalled. “Then, the nerves went away, while I was praying.”
He heard God telling him that this is where he was supposed to be. “Tears started to flow,” he said. “He’s been sending me signals my entire life, but I never wanted to discern. I didn’t want to be a preacher. But I surrendered. It was then that my life entirely changed.”
Echols called his family and explained what happened. “We already knew that. We were waiting on you,” they replied. His uncle said, “I told you God had plans for you.”
Echols still had one last year of college, and his District Superintendent asked him to become a lay leader, explaining that it would further help him discern his calling.
Echols, however, was concerned that if he accepted the position, he would no longer be able to sing in the choir on Sunday, which would result in losing his scholarship. He dialed the choir director, who was notoriously hard to reach.
“He immediately answered,” Echols said. “I got nervous, but he said, ‘Yes, son, I think that’s a great idea. I always told you that you’re a preacher. One day, my choir will sing at your church.”
Echols was able to keep his scholarship, and the following Sunday in August 2018, he started his post as lay minister at Zion UMC in Marshall.
“If it weren’t God, nothing like that would have aligned in such a short amount of time,” Echols said. “He was waiting on me.”
In 2019, Echols graduated from Wiley. That summer, he became a local licensed pastor. In the fall, he also started a separate career -- as a fourth grade teacher in Texas history.
In November, Echols was assigned to also become the pastor at nearby FUMC Waskom, where he now resides in the parsonage. He also enrolled at Louisiana State University-Shreveport to pursue his Master of Education in Educational Leadership.
Now, Echols only has three classes remaining until he graduates. He teaches all week and preaches at two churches each Sunday. “My plate is full,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, but I love doing everything. I’m having so much fun.”
Looking back, Echols is certain that God guided him down all the necessary steps to be where he is today. “God had to take me somewhere else, so I could see the call he had for me,” Echols said. “I believe that’s why I was sent to Wiley in the first place.”
Then, the United Methodist Church welcomed him with open arms, he continued. “The Methodists pushed me,” he said. “They gave me a lot of opportunities. They were like, ‘Let us give you this so you can grow.’”
Echols said the UMC is where he wants to serve as pastor. He also plans to continue pursuing a role in education and eventually to become a principal. “Maybe for the rest of my life, I’ll do both,” he said.
These days, people still ask, “Are you a preacher?” Usually, it’s students in his classroom. They can sense there’s just something different about him.
“I never introduce myself as a pastor,” Echols said. “But you can see that by the way I live.”
Whether he is in front of a classroom or a church congregation, he aspires to share the same message of grace, love and support. “You treat others the way you want to be treated,” he said.
And Echols has learned from experience some advice for others who are struggling to discern a call. “Take the time to be still and discern the voice of God,” he said. “God will reveal exactly what you’re supposed to do. It’s just up to you to respond.”