Cumbest to help navigate church recovery


By Woody Woodrick

Advocate Editor

Growing up in Jackson County, the Rev. Chris Cumbest spent a lot of time on the Pascagoula River and its oxbows paddling the waters in search of fishing holes and other adventures.

Cumbest believes that experience will help him in his new appointment as church recovery coordinator for the Mississippi Conference. His duties officially began today.

“One of the things I learned early was how to guide the boat through the currents and flow of the river system,” Cumbest wrote in an essay about his new job. “The images that I learned there best describe what I understand my role and call to be as I join the churches on the Gulf Coast in their healing and recovery after Hurricane Katrina.”

Cumbest will try to help churches paddle their way through the many currents of physical and spiritual rebuilding. He has been keeping a boat paddle in his office at Alta Woods United Methodist Church in Jackson, where he has served the past four years, as a reminder of what he will have to do.

“I will listen to churches and hear their stories,” Cumbest said, “and make an assessment of who they were before the storm and how God has worked through it, what resources they have coming and the story of where they are headed.”

Cumbest will work closely with a variety of organizations, he said, including the conference’s Katrina Response team and the Seashore District Building and Location Committee.

Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, who announced the appointment in late November, said Cumbest will complement the work of the recovery team in place.

“United Methodist Committee on Relief does not work with the rebuilding of churches,” she said. “However, we have received generous gifts from churches in Mississippi and across the denomination for rebuilding.

“Chris is going to focus on the recovery of churches. We will do parsonages first. We’ve got to get all pastors back home. He will also do assessment of future ministry in light of the hurricane. When insurance and other gifts are accessed, he will help reconfigure and/or rebuild their ministries.”

Ward also said Cumbest will assist Seashore District superintendents the Rev. Jerry Beam and the Rev. David Price. Beam said Cumbest will take the rebuilding “load off the district superintendents and allow us to do what we normally do.”

Ward said she chose Cumbest for the post based on his history in the area and 21 years in ministry.

“Chris was born and reared on the Coast and knows the Coast well. He’s been engaged in the recovery since the storm. Given his leadership at Alta Woods and other places, he offers the gifts and vision needed to help churches assess where they are and move forward,” she said.

Cumbest’s office will be located on Mississippi 63 in Cumbest Bluff, near Caswell Springs. His wife, the Rev. Sheila Cumbest, will continue to serve the conference as director of ministerial services.

In preparing for officially starting his duties, Cumbest has been in contact with churches and leaders on the Coast. He said some churches are waiting for local governments to make decisions on building code changes before rebuilding damaged facilities. He’ll try to help churches paddle their way around those issues as well as decide whether the church even should rebuild. If it does rebuild, would a new location lead to more effective ministry? If the church rebuilds in the same spot, does it need to shift its ministry focus to another direction?

In determining the answers to those questions, Cumbest said he hopes to draw on the expertise of people such as the Rev. John Garrott of Ocean Springs who conducts seminars helping churches determine where God is leading them.

“How can we work together to be the church God is calling us to be on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and beyond?” Cumbest wrote. “I believe that the currents and flow of God’s Holy Spirit are leading us beyond any place we have ever been. God is giving us an opportunity to embark on a new journey. I have a paddle and am eager to get in the boat with the churches of the Seashore District to help read the currents and guide us closer to the kingdom of God.”