New Seashore pastors meet unique challenges


By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor

Everything about the appointment offered to Larry Patrick said, “Don’t go.” 

The church building had sustained heavy damage in Hurricane Katrina, as had the parsonage. Membership was impacted by the storm, as was the church’s budget. In addition, he would be the church’s third pastor in three years. 

Yet Patrick, then serving Richland UMC, said yes to becoming senior pastor at Pascagoula First UMC. “I’m one who is not afraid to jump off into these things. I’m just crazy enough to believe God is going to use me in some fashion,” he said. 

Several churches along the Gulf Coast received new pastors in June, as 18 new appointments were made in the Seashore District. While new appointments aren’t unusual in the United Methodist Church, the circumstances in 2006 were. Many of the churches in the Seashore District and virtually all communities sustained damage in the hurricane. Anyone appointed to a church in the area faced unique challenges. 

Bishop Hope Morgan Ward said pastors serving in the district must be able to draw on all their pastoral skills. 

“The ministry needs of the Seashore District are complex: Seashore District clergy need a particular capacity to preach, teach and live the gospel in a context of devastation, grief and loss; strong ability for pastoral listening, compassion and care; strong ability to live amid a continuing degree of chaos, frustration and uncertainty; creativity to lead the continuing recovery effort that requires a high degree of vision and resourcefulness; and calling to this particular work at this particular time. That is a very tall order,” Ward said. “We keep the ministry leaders in Seashore in our prayers continually, holding them in God’s light and asking for them God’s strength.” 

Patrick admits his decision wasn’t made without careful thought and prayer. He was given the opportunity to meet with the church members a few times more than is traditional, but in the end, he said yes. Even after making the decision, Patrick said the first few days were tough. 

On the Sunday he announced his new appointment to the membership at Richland, his wife Bett began to cry. He said others also became emotional. Patrick then preached on being who God calls us to be. 

Following the service, as the Patricks left the church, Bett Patrick told her husband she was ready to go to Pascagoula. “God changed my mind this morning,” Patrick said his wife told him. 

Bill McAlilly, new superintendent of the Seashore District, saw an opportunity but one with difficulties.

“I saw (the district) as a mission field and new opportunity to encourage and offer Christ to a hurting world,” said McAlilly, who had been senior pastor at Tupelo First UMC. “I have tremendous compassion for our pastors and their families and wanted to be part of rebuilding. It’s a daunting task to even think about trying to put lives and our churches back together.” 

Patrick said serving at Pascagoula First isn’t easy. The church will soon have to decide whether to renovate its damaged building or start new construction. Church members have lost homes and jobs, which means membership and giving are down. That affects programming and staffing. 

“We didn’t know how long we could stay here because of the pressure, the stress and the strain,” Patrick said. 

In the short time he’s been in Pascagoula, Patrick said he’s had his share of stressful days. Yet, he said he receives encouragement from his parishioners. One recently showed up one morning and took him on a boat ride on the Mississippi Sound and parts of the Pascagoula River. Patrick said the few hours away from the office were refreshing. 

“We’re still on the honeymoon,” he said. “People say ‘God sent you to us.’ Those things keep you going, but we have a long way to go. 

“I’ve seen people change in the nine Sundays I’ve been here. I’ve been through struggles. I see blessings all around.” 

McAlilly expresses similar thoughts. While the recovery isn’t as far along as he thought it would be at this point, he said he sees good things happening. 

“I’m beginning to detect some weariness among our pastors, which is to be expected. I would say we’re only now beginning to have a full picture of how far we have to go,” he said. “On the other hand, there are a lot of positives. The churches have held together and been supportive of one another.” 

McAlilly praised churches for hosting volunteer work teams and the teams themselves. “They have just been a tremendous outpouring of love for our people from all over the world,” he said. 

McAlilly also remarked on the positive attitudes of the people in the Seashore District. “The faithfulness of the United Methodist people and their perseverance and their desire to do God’s work in spite of the circumstances has impressed me.”