Kentucky Conference clergy, ‘water-washed children of the living God,’ gather to worship

May 03, 2022
By Alan Wild

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky – Kentucky Annual Conference clergy who attended a worship service came not as Republican, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, progressives, traditionalists, centrists, or anything else, save one: “the only label that matters – born again, water-washed children of the living God,” Bishop Leonard Fairley told the gathering.

Fairley preached the sermon Monday, May 2, at the special worship service for clergy held at Christ Church United Methodist in Louisville. The service was organized by half a dozen clergy spanning the political spectrum a little over a month before the 2022 Annual Conference gathering in Owensboro.

About 180 elders, deacons, local pastors, and associates were present. Attendance was optional. Because of the pandemic, it was the first time that pastors had been able to gather in person to worship together in nearly three years.

“I don’t know about you, but I’ve needed this,” Fairley said as he began his address. “God is here – and for that, I am thankful.”

During his message, Fairley asked the clergy how we should respond to the gift of Jesus. “We respond the only way we can by yielding all our praise, worship, and service in total surrender – and yet we discover that even that is not enough to show our thanks for Jesus Christ.”

Referencing Micah 6:8, he added: “We respond to God’s irrational, illogical, unconditional, unconventional love by being and doing what the Lord requires of us: ‘He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.’”

The setup Bible verse for Fairley’s message was 1 Peter 1:22: “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.”

Fairley also later referenced the Old Testament prophets Samuel: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening,” and Isaiah: “Here am I, Lord, send me,” as he reminded the men and women in the room that they have been called and have responded to that calling.

Committing ourselves to be servants of Christ means we follow not our will, but his will, Fairley said. “We give ourselves to him, to Christ, that we may all belong to him.”

Part of the worship service included John Wesley’s Covenant Service. (The text of the service can be found here.) Fairley reminded the pastors what is at the heart of the Covenant: asking God to “make me what you will.” It’s “a beautiful thing” to be able to gather together and give voice to the pain, anxiety and uncertainty and recommit to “the call of Christ and Christ alone,” Fairley said.

“We might have some difficult days ahead as a denomination. I pray that we can face them with grace and a deep attitude of love and care for each other. Despite our differences, we can gather and worship as one body in Christ Jesus,” he said.

“As I look around at you, (I see that) you are my brothers, you are my sisters,” Fairley said. Jesus can see “the good, the bad, the ugly” in everyone, and we all need his grace.

Fairley’s sermon, which was punctuated a few times with sporadic clapping and exclamations, wrapped up with this word to the clergy: “I am tired of drinking the stale water of despair, and hopelessness. I want some living water. I am tired of eating stale bread. I want the fresh bread from the bread of life Jesus Christ.”

“I come to this service needing my soul renewed. … How will you respond? How will we recommit ourselves to seeking renewal and grace?” Minutes later, as he presided over Holy Communion, Fairley reminded them, “We may be many, but we are one in Christ.”

Before his benediction, Fairley mentioned how the service came about. The six clergy members – Revs. Michael Sweeney, Matt Seel, Phil Hill, Lisa May, Tami Coleman, and Jean Hawxhurst – forged or reforged relationships despite their widely divergent theological perspectives, Fairley said. Five of the six took part in the worship service at different times; Hawxhurst could not be present because of a scheduling commitment.

“I needed this day,” Fairley said. “I’m not ashamed to say it. And I think you needed this day, too.”

After the service, Seel and Sweeney – who are on the traditionalist side of the spectrum – said they were pleased with the service and the positive response to it.
“It went well,” said Seel, pastor at Petrie Memorial in western Kentucky. “I needed it just as much as anyone else.”

“It’s just what we wanted,” agreed Sweeney, pastor at Maysville Central and Washington, which are in the process of merging. Pastors gathered for worship and “the Holy Spirit took care of the rest,” he said.

Rev. Janet Carden, of St. John in Hopkinsville and incoming Superintendent of the South Central District, seemed to speak for many when she said it was wonderful “just talking to people” face to face. 

Rev. Brad Smart, Kentucky East District Superintendent and Dean of the Bishop’s Appointive Cabinet, said it was an impactful moment for clergy to be able to gather like this for the first time since the 2019 Annual Conference in Covington.

Rev. Leigh Ann Maynard, of Prestonsburg First and Prestonsburg Community, said she told her friend Rev. Amy Chapman, of Paintsville Mayo Memorial, that her goal was to hug as many people as she could.

And how did that turn out?
“Mission accomplished!”