Little church, big ideas

August 03, 2018
By Alan Wild
HINDMAN, Kentucky – A small rural church can indeed make a big impact – not only on its neighbors, but on people in need halfway around the world. Just ask the people at Hindman UMC, in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. Members say their desire to minister both near and far is very intentional.

“We take the family of Christ seriously and live that out in a lot of different ways,” said the Rev. Rob Hoffman, who has been pastor of the Knott County church since 2011.

On a recent warm summer day, he and others at the church sat down for interviews about their past – and their plans for the future. In recent years, the church has either become involved with or expanded various ministries:
  • JUMP (Jesus Understands Me Perfectly), a Wednesday night young people’s ministry that focuses heavily on discipleship.
  • SWAP (Sharing With Appalachian People), a regional program that brings groups in from outside to help with home repairs while also learning about Appalachian culture.
  • An active women’s ministry that, among other things, designs and makes quilts for area shelters and other people in need of comforting.
  • A ministry partnership in Gulu, Uganda, where Hindman has been involved in projects ranging from repairing wells to designing and fashioning girls’ dresses, as well as providing financial support for United Methodist pastors there.
So how does a church averaging just a few dozen people at Sunday services end up ministering in so many venues? Church leaders say that it roughly coincided with the move to a new church building in 2003 – and that the Holy Spirit led the way.

That move was spearheaded by Dr. Grady Stumbo, a longtime church member and leader. He has been practicing family medicine in Hindman since the early 1970s and is a former Democratic candidate for Kentucky governor.

Dr. Stumbo loves to tell the story about how he eventually came to lead the church’s effort in the late 1990s to move from its small, cramped building on Hindman’s main street to its current location on Kentucky Route 160, about two miles outside the county seat of about 800 people.

Some in the church had discussed expanding the building or even constructing a new one at a site with more space to grow, but he had always been opposed to such efforts. Then he took to heart a sermon from then-Pastor Troy B. Poff focusing on Isaiah 54:2: “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes.”

Dr. Stumbo credits a visit from the Holy Spirit at 2:30 the next morning that persuaded him to lead the church’s effort to relocate.

It wasn’t an easy journey, but it was ultimately a successful one, and the new church was dedicated in 2003. It was much more convenient in every way: a modern building with more space and considerably more parking access.

Church leaders, already eyeing growth, assumed that just by moving to a new location, attendance would increase based on the idea that “If you build it, they will come,” said Jan Stumbo, Grady’s wife and another longtime leader in the church. That didn’t happen. In fact, attendance at Sunday services actually fell immediately after the building was dedicated.

So members, along with new Pastor John Shroll, undertook a very intentional focus on hospitality, visiting new members in the community and just generally working to make their presence known.

“It was quite a while before we started getting new people,” Mrs. Stumbo recalled. “But we were talking the other day, and there are more new people attending now than old people” from before the move.

Pastor Shroll, who is now retired, said in a follow-up interview that they employed a number of unusual approaches to attract attention, including having Vacation Bible School in the meadow.

The rebranding effort worked, he said. “We started off being known as the rich, wealthy church. Later, we became known as the church with all the children’s ministries.”

To Gulu, with love

The church’s missional work in Uganda dates to May 2008, when the church served as host of the Hope for Africa Children’s Choir. “It just spun me around,” Dr. Stumbo said. He said the visit “changed the heart of a few people in the church, and they decided that we’re going to make a difference.”

It has turned into quite an investment. The church remains active with the Gulu Methodist Partnership – where Pastor Shroll is the executive director – and the church contributes about $4,700 a year for ministerial support and helping orphans in Uganda.  The church also contributes $2,500 a year to the Thailand Methodist Mission, but its active and continuing ministry is in Africa.

Malaria is prevalent in Uganda, and Mrs. Stumbo said Hindman UMC has stepped up by providing money for mosquito nets. She said sending money directly to Uganda for aid workers there to purchase nets for $4 to $5 each makes good economic sense. Pastor Shroll said the church has financed hundreds, if not thousands, of nets.

Mrs. Stumbo said the women of the church also recently made about 80 dresses, and their Ugandan pastor contacts sent back pictures of the girls wearing them.

Pastor Shroll, who now lives near Greenup, Kentucky, estimates he spends 15-20 hours a week as executive director of Gulu Methodist Partnership Inc. Pastor Hoffman serves as treasurer of the nonprofit organization, and both of the Stumbos also are heavily involved. All serve as volunteers, drawing no salary.

“Hindman has continued to be a tremendous supporter,” Pastor Shroll said.


The church is also a vital partner of Sharing With Appalachian People, a service and learning program that provides weeklong opportunities for church youth groups and others to spend a week doing housing improvements. The program serves the dual role of helping those in need in Appalachia while providing volunteers – generally from outside the state and often from urban areas – exposure to mountain culture.

“We are able to give a very broad and good exposure to our volunteers about what they experience in Appalachia,” said Lou Pirozzi-Erb. She and her husband, Peter, have been site coordinators for SWAP since 2015. Both also attend Hindman UMC.

The church partners with SWAP, a ministry arm of the Great Lakes Mennonite Central Committee, based in Goshen, Indiana. The church provides lodging and shower facilities for visitors, as well as storage space in a shed out back.

Church member Linda Gayheart said the church is focused on hospitality when it comes to their SWAP visitors. “I wonder how many cookies have been made for them over the years?” she said, laughing. The women of the church make the cookies for the volunteers’ daily lunches and also help in the kitchen preparing their meals.

Mrs. Pirozzi-Erb said visiting SWAP pastors often are amazed at how much the church is being used for various events. She also said that professional contractors have taken time to come with the groups – something she said is unusual in such programs, which typically are made up mostly of youth and other amateur volunteers.

“We are convinced none of this would have happened without the proper spiritual component,” she said, stressing the importance of prayer in SWAP’s continuing mission.

Members of the church also are actively involved in working as job-site coordinators, she added. “People are awed by what this church is doing.”

Pastor Hoffman said that in 2017, the church partnered with Friends Helping Friends, a group of volunteers from different Ohio churches. Over the past few years, the group has visited Hindman for SWAP activities several times, forging some strong relationships.

The church and Ohio group each provided about half of the expense to build a new home for one of the church’s members after his house burned. They provided most of the labor, and SWAP partnered with other volunteer groups on planning and construction oversight.

The church provides a benefit that SWAP doesn’t have at its other sites because facility and utility expenses are covered, Pastor Hoffman said. As SWAP wanted more storage and shop space, plus a place to house staff, the church agreed to construct a new building and convert the existing building into a guest lodge, though visiting work crews stay in the church itself.

Pastor Hoffman said a bonus to serving as host to SWAP crews is all the “really cool” visitors passing through. “We get to meet some pretty neat people.”

SWAP, Mrs. Pirozzi-Erb said, is “how all these people have come together – that’s the Kingdom of God.”


The church is constantly trying to draw in people by going beyond its walls and making relationships, Pastor Hoffman said. One very active effort to disciple children and youth is JUMP on Wednesday evenings.

Mrs. Stumbo said JUMP began at the old church building, where members would gather for a meal on Wednesday nights. A single dad with a heart for children who couldn’t get to church started a shuttle ministry. Most of their parents and guardians were not connected to the church, so without some kind of van service, they had no way of getting there.

The shuttle service has grown through the years. The church now has two full vans and one minivan that are parked in a newly built shelter on the church property. One of the vans is new, and the church donated the old one to Camp Loucon, Pastor Hoffman said.

In the early days JUMP stood for Jesus Unites Many People; the acronym has since been changed to Jesus Understands Me Perfectly.

Drivers go out on Wednesdays during the school year – skipping January and February because of snow and ice – to pick up children and bring them to church for a meal and programming.

Pastor Hoffman said many of the children come from homes in crisis and often are struggling. He said he and others who oversee JUMP stress discipleship, not just saving souls.

This past spring, they began to focus on intentional relationship-building between the adults and young people, and Wednesday night now includes a “dinner table experience” for them. All the adults who work the Wednesday program were asked to buy into the new focus on relationship-building – including some adults who were pushed out of their comfort zone by directly engaging the youngsters, Pastor Hoffman said.

“To me, I thought that was pretty big. Not just to the kids, but the adults as well,” he said.

On any given Wednesday evening, several dozen kids are likely to be attending JUMP, Mrs. Stumbo said.  Following up with them in the summer is difficult because they often visit their biological families outside the area, she said. Some of the children also tend to be transient and attend for a relatively short time.

Guardians generally are happy to give their children over to the church on Wednesday evenings because it gives them a few hours’ break, Mrs. Stumbo said. And sometimes the adults themselves connect with the church, although Pastor Hoffman said it often takes time and patience to build trusting relationships.

Quilt ministry, and more

The women of the church are heavily involved in making quilts to donate to area shelters, Mrs. Stumbo said. In 2017, they took 16 quilts valued at $1,300 to a Hazard safe house for abused spouses.

They also have donated baby quilts to a Pikeville pregnancy resource center. And they took one to a men’s addiction recovery center and one to the Methodist Children’s Home in Nicholasville. They also planned to send two to a Mennonite disaster relief sale in Ohio to be auctioned off.

Hindman’s United Methodist Women’s group isn’t so much oriented toward meetings as it is toward projects, Mrs. Stumbo said – another intentional effort to serve those in need.

Pastor Hoffman said the church strongly supports the Methodist connection, so it is very intentional about faithfully backing the Wesley Foundations and Aldersgate Camp through budgeted support.

Church members also do a good job of focusing just on themselves at times. A number of women travel to a retreat in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, every year, Mrs. Stumbo said.

They also provide great aid and comfort in time of need. When a member was diagnosed with thyroid cancer last fall, the church stepped up, with Mrs. Gayheart as the advocate to organize food, transportation and whatever else the family needed, including prayer, devotions and other spiritual needs. “We do that with people who are hurting,” Mrs. Gayheart said, and having one person take the lead ensures a more comprehensive approach to meeting all of their needs.

Mrs. Stumbo said: “We love each other. We just do what we have to do.”

Small churches matter!

Mrs. Gayheart said they reached out to Kentucky Annual Conference Communications about writing an article because they wanted others to be encouraged and inspired by what even a small church can do for God’s Kingdom. The motto on the church’s Facebook page captures their belief perfectly: “Reaching upward, Reaching inward, Reaching outward as the Body of Christ.”

That mission got a real boost two summers ago, when Asbury University student Victoria McClary came as an Isaiah Project intern. Pastor Hoffman said it was a “huge blessing” that the Isaiah Project program paid her salary. Her main role was working with the youth.

She returned and spent the summer of 2017 as an official member of the church staff, again focusing on the youth but with more of an emphasis on pastoring. She is now the youth pastor at Wilmore UMC and is enrolled at Asbury Theological Seminary.

“I guess it was like God knew what He was doing. I didn’t even know where Hindman was until Isaiah,” said Ms. McClary, a native of Scottsville, in south-central Kentucky.

One big challenge the church faces has nothing to do with commitment or budgets and everything to do with Appalachian culture. Pastor Hoffman said their neighbors see what the church is doing and have a sense that “we’re good people.” But being United Methodists in the mountains of eastern Kentucky would be a strike against them with some.

The extremely conservative Baptist culture is strong in the region, even among non-members, and certain United Methodist practices, such as infant baptism and women clergy members, are sometimes greeted with skepticism. Nonetheless, the church continues to reach out to meet the needs of the people.

The region is crying out for help. Dr. Stumbo cites four challenges that eastern Kentucky faces: jobs and the economy, the opioid epidemic, the breakdown of families, and a lack of trust in government and other traditional institutions.

That’s where the church can step in, he said. “You don’t need to lecture people. You just need to show them the love of God.”
He gives God all of the credit for the church’s vision of service and sacrifice.

“If you had told me Hindman United Methodist Church would have been able to pull all this off, I wouldn’t have hardly believed it. But you get the Holy Spirit involved and anything can happen.”

 View photos from Hindman UMC