Rosemary Berry, the organist at Burke UMC for the last 61 years, has a unique perspective of her little rural church. Although the church received a historical marker celebrating its formation in 1889, the town’s population is under 800 and the town is primarily a residential community for people that work in larger towns. Rosemary says, “We are in what’s called a dead zone and it is very hard for our church to grow. In fact, a year ago we were down to eight people, our bank account was low and we could not pay a pastor. We had to chose whether we would close our doors or somehow struggle and make a comeback, and with God’s help that’s what we’ve done.”
What happened next was a step of faith that God has rewarded over the months that followed. Just minutes down the road, Diboll UMC Pastor David Goodwin knew that Diboll member Michael Waters was interested in going into the ministry and suggested he serve as pulpit supply pastor in Burke while he pursued local pastor status. “I started in early January with plans to preach two Sundays a month, but that has evolved to every Sunday now, and David blesses the elements for communion as needed,” shares Michael, who juggles a very busy day job as a teacher, coach and trainer in the Diboll school system. “I felt the nudge to ministry during my Walk to Emmaus,” he says, “and later served as Lay Director and Community Director in East Texas and attended two lay minister classes.”
In the 10 months that have ensued, the average attendance at Burke UMC has jumped into the 20s, with the addition of two families. “When Mike saw our need, he came and preached for six months even though we could not pay him but 50 percent of the salary typically required,” shares Rosemary. “We began to grow enough that we could pay him, which taught our little church to trust God. If we make the first step, God will help us with the second step and now we have more than doubled our attendance.”
Dr. Dick White, superintendent of the East District, felt the energy in the room when he arrived to preach in the sanctuary at Burke UMC last month. “I stepped in for Mike one Sunday in August,” Dick explains, “and was happy to see the congregation welcoming several new families in their midst. You could actually feel the excitement, and Rosemary jazzed up the organ music and made worship really enjoyable,” Dick adds.
Rosemary speaks freely about the contrast from then and now. “We were down and discouraged, but there is a new spirit in the church now. It is a reminder that all we have to do is ask people to join us.” According to Rosemary, Mike saw children playing near the church and asked them to join the VBS activities this summer, and that led to a single mom and children attending on Sunday. “All of a sudden this whole congregation is laughing again because we learned to trust God.”
Burke UMC is participating in shared ministry with St. Paul, Lufkin and Ryan’s Chapel UMC, which is just four miles away. While children have their activities, adults are enjoying a Bible study on the Wesleyan Way on Wednesdays. The churches also jointly host a fall festival, back to school activities and rotate sharing services for Lent and Advent. “One church hosts the pancake supper, another has Ash Wednesday service or Maundy Thursday and Good Friday,” notes Rosemary. “It develops friendships and community with our neighbors.”
Although he balances a hectic schedule to serve as a supply pastor in Burke, Mike is feeling the rewards of stretching out in faith. “For quite awhile, I was the youngest one there at first,” he recalls, “but it has been so rewarding for all of us to see kids in the congregation again. There are great people in this little church and I am thoroughly enjoying growing in Christ together with them.”