Jim Morse to step down from disaster-response ministry role

January 26, 2023
By Alan Wild

Bishop Leonard Fairley can remember, as the newly assigned bishop of the Kentucky Annual Conference, his first brush with disaster response. Severe flooding hit the Augusta area and other parts of northeastern Kentucky in the summer of 2017, and he and Jim Morse, the conference’s disaster response coordinator, jumped in a rented truck and drove up to survey the damage.

“Jim has been an ideal on-the-ground response person,” Fairley said of Morse, 65, who will step down from his role on Feb. 1 after nearly 12 years. Morse also serves as chair of the regional chapter of VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster), a role he also will relinquish. 

“I think we’re in a really good place to move forward, and it needs fresh eyes, and with some medical and personal issues that are influencing the decision, this is the right time,” Morse said in an interview. “Not necessarily the time of my choosing, but I actually believe this is more God’s timing than mine, and I need to listen to that.”

Morse has served in the role since 2011 and most recently was in charge of the conference’s response to deadly tornadoes in southwestern Kentucky (December 2021) and deadly flooding in southeastern Kentucky (July 2022). During quiet times, the work generally is only a few hours a week. During major disasters, it is more than a full-time job.

“To say the last year has been challenging would be accurate and probably an understatement,” he said. “In addition to challenging, it has been a very profound learning curve for lots of people, and also a time of showing that we’re actually learning from our experiences and are willing to apply what we’ve learned in the next disaster.

“It has been a showcase of our local churches stepping up and saying, ‘This is our community; we are here to serve,’ in very profound and meaningful ways, and in some cases a sacrificial way.”

Morse stressed that the powerful response to both disasters has been across the entire conference, whether it’s hosting Early Response Teams (known as ERTs), distributing supplies, assembling flood buckets, providing donations, sending work crews, and becoming involved in Long Term Recovery Groups, or LTRGs.

“It has been a really marvelous thing to behold. Lessons that we learned in western Kentucky, we were able to apply and do some things differently in eastern Kentucky,” Morse said.

“That’s an extremely positive thing, especially in this time of turmoil, that we’re still part of our communities and are hearing God’s call to minister and care for our neighbor, regardless of what else is going on,” he added.

As the conference’s coordinator for disaster relief, he works with disaster coordinators in each district; each of those leaders, in turn, oversees a local team dedicated to responding to destructive events.

Morse said the biggest change to the conference’s disaster-response ministry since 2011 is the mindset: We are much more proactive these days, rather than just reactive. “We have churches and districts that are looking to be better prepared for the next disaster and developing the relationships for disaster within their community to be able to respond, as opposed to react.”

He said it’s also taking effect at the grassroots level in individual congregations – and for disaster-response ministry to be completely successful, that’s where it needs to start.

Rev. Renee Jennings, who became the Heartland District’s disaster-response coordinator in July 2022, said what she really has admired about Morse is his passion for disaster relief as a ministry – a passion she happens to share.

“I think he has been a great champion in that ministry in the conference” and has lit a fire under people to sell them on that idea of disaster-relief ministry. “I think Jim has articulated that better than anyone I’ve ever known,” she said.

Morse listed Jennings, who is on staff at St. Matthews UMC, as one of many people he’s worked with – and in some cases recruited – to work in disaster response at the district and church level. Some are clergy and some are laity. Among them are Sandy Penix in the Kentucky East District and Rev. Bev Ketron in the Northern Kentucky District. He also mentioned David Pratt in the Bluegrass District and Alan Porter in the Lexington District (both now semiretired), Danny Speas, a lay supply in Jackson in the South East District; and Rev. Paul Frederick, a retired pastor who served in disaster response until 2016.

He also listed several churches that have been extremely active in the tornado-recovery effort – Madisonville First, Dawson Springs and Hanson in the Pennyrile District and Sacramento in the Owensboro District. (The Sacramento pastor, Rev. Mike McLean, is active on the district response team.) They, along with the Bowling Green churches, have been critical during the recovery from the tornadoes.

A few of the key churches in southeastern Kentucky that have been on the front lines since last summer’s flash flooding are Hindman, Hampton, Neon and Bowman Memorial, Morse said. Several districts outside the disaster zones provided supplies, finances and volunteers after two of the worst disasters Kentucky has experienced in recent years.

Virtually everyone can do something in disaster ministry, Morse said, and “that realization and desire for participation is key on the local church level.”

He is hoping that his successor will continue to build on the grassroots of preparation, which starts in the local churches and encourages participation in the recovery efforts at both ends of the state. To provide a better foundation for recovery ministries, the Bishop’s Cabinet is reviewing a disaster-response plan for the conference.  Once approved in its final form, it will provide a checklist and flowcharts for district superintendents and others to be able to respond more quickly and consistently to future disasters.

Morse’s successor hasn’t been named, and for now, the conference is relying on two regional coordinators to continue to oversee the recovery process from the flooding and tornadoes, said Rev. William Moore, the conference’s director of Connectional Ministries. Rev. Jim Savage has been serving in that role in southeastern Kentucky, and a coordinator for the southwestern Kentucky recovery work will be hired, he said. For now, Morse’s position will not be filled.

“Jim embodied an ecumenical spirit in his work with VOAD, UMCOR (the United Methodist Committee on Relief), and local churches in showing the love of Jesus to those who have experienced trauma and loss,” Moore said. “We will miss his passion and leadership.”

Before his work with the conference, Morse worked for 26 years at Oldham County Central Dispatch (the 911 center). Part of that time, he also was emergency manager for the county and served as a volunteer firefighter and EMT – the last four years, he also served as deputy county judge-executive.

He and his wife, Kathy, have been married for 46 years and live in Oldham County. They have two grown children and are active at Shiloh UMC in Goshen.

Morse plans to decompress for a while – he makes no secret about how draining the past 13 months have been – and focus on family and church. “My kids are really looking forward to me to be able to do that, and so is my wife.” He’ll also tend to projects around the house.

“For me, it’s been quite humbling and very much an honor to work with the people of the conference and the congregations to witness their hard work, to witness their caring, and to witness their saying yes to God in very difficult situations,” Morse said. “The progress that has been made has been because of them.

“The conference has a great deal not only to be thankful for, but to be proud of as through the years they have responded time and time again to need.”