Superintendent's comments: "For years, this congregation dreamed of being a full-time station appointment. They worked hard, took the proper steps, and made decisions that would bring them to that point. About the same time, the community around them began to grow. Now, all the elements are in place: a dedicated laity, a wonderful facility, an effective pastor, and a growing community. I believe this may well be God's 'kairos' time of great opportunity and challenge for Auburn."
The story: Why did Auburn UMC want to separate from two sister churches on the Auburn Circuit and become a congregation with its own full-time pastor?
"They saw the potential for spiritual growth in this community," says the Rev. Kathy Hale.
Auburn is located in Riner, Va., which is 30 miles south of Roanoke, near Christiansburg, Blacksburg, and Radford. These towns are reportedly one of the fastest growing areas in Virginia, with two nearby colleges (Radford University and Virginia Tech) and a prosperous technological industry.
"Riner was once a rural area, with dairy farms," explains Hale, age 56. "Now the community has changed to more of a suburban area. Our famous line is, 'We used to raise crops. Now we raise subdivisions.'"
In 2004, Auburn UMC took a giant step toward reaching out to their growing community. They not only received their first full-time pastor. They received their first female pastor.
"A big transition" is the phrase some church members used on a recent Sunday morning, as they remembered Hale's arrival two years ago. But in each case, members quickly followed with praise for her leadership.
"We needed a loving, caring, spiritual leader who was willing to delegate and let us work," said Kathy Smith, chair of the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee. "Kathy has done that."
With 110 in average worship and a cheerful, modern sanctuary built in 2000, the congregation is now working hard to fill more pews. Last fall, a new contemporary worship was added at 8:30 a.m., followed by Sunday school and the traditional 11 a.m. service. Only 15 or so attend the early service, and using recorded music until a live band can be developed sometimes seems to "stymie" progress, Hale says.
"But that's where people have stepped up to use their spiritual gifts," she adds, referring to lay members who are now serving as song leaders.
The congregation is also developing its youth and children's ministries, hiring a part-time staff person, Ashley Raines, in July. On Aug. 13, parents were invited to meet with Raines to begin planning new ministries.
"I think Kathy is going in the right direction by trying to get the children in here," said long-time member Fran Tieleman. "If you can get the children, you can get the families."
On a recent Sunday following worship, the Building Committee met to plan an annual pumpkin fundraiser that will help them pay off a $400,000 debt on the six-year-old building. Over a lunch of pork chops, green beans, sliced tomatoes, macaroni salad, and biscuits, they chatted about the visitors who came that day and complimented the "quick moving" worship service. They remembered another recent visitor who said he came because Auburn's tall steeple got his attention.
Earlier in the day, Hale had announced Auburn's honor as a "church to watch" in Holston Conference, saying to the congregation, "This is a celebration, but this is also a challenge for us."
The woman who left a 25-year career as a health educator to begin a second career in full-time ministry doesn't seem to be intimidated by challenge. In fact, she's charging, while gently encouraging her congregation to "let go and let God."
"We can't worry if we don't have all the puzzle pieces in place yet," she says. "God has given us a window of opportunity. It's time to step out in faith."