12 Churches to Watch
Part Six in a Series
Superintendent's comments: "As a vital part of the French Broad Circuit, Riverdale's growth from six to 30 in average attendance has strengthened the whole charge and brought a renewed United Methodist presence to this rural community. The congregation, refusing to accept the possibility of a church closure, vowed to support their new pastor by inviting neighbors to join in the ministry and mission of the church. Riverdale stands now as a witness to God's power to make all things new."
The story: Cheri Cruze still has the message on her answering machine. "It was pitiful," she says. In fall 2004, average worship attendance at Riverdale United Methodist Church had dropped to six people. Fearful that they couldn't keep the church going, the remaining members called District Superintendent Stella Roberts for a meeting. But first, Susanne Bentley and others called people in the community to tell them that the little country church was in trouble, and to ask for their support.
Bentley's telephone message touched Cruze, who like others in the community, had attended the church a few times, but never joined. "The situation was so desperate that I was concerned."
So when Roberts met with the congregation, they weren't yet willing to give up. They talked about what would help revitalize Riverdale as well as the other two churches on the circuit, Bethel and Huckleberry Springs. The Riverdale members expressed their desire for a creative young pastor with musical talents who would live in the community.
What happened next has the Rev. Jimmy Sherrod and others convinced that God was at work. Sherrod and his wife, Lesli Bales- Sherrod, were living in Washington, D.C., but wanted to return to their home in east Tennessee. Bales-Sherrod already had a job lined up at The (Maryville) Daily Times. Sherrod was serving as youth minister at Metropolitan UMC and called Roberts to ask about possible openings in youth or music ministry.
When Sherrod preached his first sermon at Riverdale in January 2005, there were 23 people in worship. Within a few months, average worship attendance was 30. "People got excited and invited their friends, and some stayed," says Sherrod, age 27.
Vicki Baumgartner, a Riverdale member who had left the church but returned soon after Sherrod's arrival, says that the community was buzzing about the new pastor who also sings beautifully.
"His gift of music has been a savior to the community," she said. "He exudes joy. He'll just break out into song in the middle of a sermon. We're all interested in and excited by music."
The congregation is also excited to have a young pastor who lives in the community. Located next to Riverdale, the parsonage had fallen into disrepair. When Sherrod arrived, the congregation raised $2,500 to fix it up, adding a new deck and landscaping.
"People seem to know more about our church because I live in the parsonage," Sherrod says. "It's made a difference to have a pastor who mows his own lawn."
Now, Sherrod and the congregation are focused on developing leadership in the church and keeping the fire alive. Inspired by a recent Easter egg hunt and homecoming picnic that attracted people from outside the church, Baumgartner wants to renovate the ancient church kitchen. Paige Cline, who joined Riverdale last fall and will be married there in July, has started the church's only "community group" on Sunday mornings before worship. Cruze, who responded to Bentley's telephone message and hasn't looked back, promotes hospitality by baking cookies or muffins for every worship service.
"When something is dry, it doesn't take much to light it," she said. "We've started to believe in miracles."