Pilgrimage to Where Seeds Were Sown

Last week I began a pilgrimage to the churches and communities where Linda and I lived during our almost 59 years of marriage. It has now been ten months since her death and I continue to adjust to life without her.

In the months ahead, I will visit several communities and churches that sowed fertile seeds of grace that grew for six decades in Linda and me.

Memories and feelings will be rekindled. Some will be painful. Most will be joyful. I will give thanks for the good memories, lament the painful ones, confess my failures, and celebrate the Grace which permeated them all.

I am convinced that pastors are formed by the congregations they serve as surely as pastors help to shape congregations. I realize how much the life Linda and I shared was shaped by the churches and communities in which we lived.

Sixty years ago, June 1960,  I was appointed as student pastor of Watauga Methodist Church, located on a hillside above the Watauga River, on the outskirts of Johnson City, Tennessee.

I was only nineteen and a student at East Tennessee State University.  I had received my “Local Pastor’s License” a year earlier.

The Watauga community had a population of fewer than 400 in 1960 and remains about the same today.  The businesses in the community included farms, a rock quarry, grain mill, and grocery store. Some people worked in either Johnson City or Elizabethton.

Watauga ChurchThe church had an average attendance of 22 which grew to 26 over the two years I was there, maybe the largest percentage increase in my subsequent years of pastoral ministry. Admittedly, much if not all of the increase was the number from my family who would occasionally attend to hear their “boy preacher.” Membership included only one young family with children.

My salary was $600 per year, with a raise to $800 my second year. The Conference added another $400 after we married in 1961, bringing the total to $1200.

Linda and I had been dating for about a year when I was appointed. She was a student at Emory and Henry College, majoring in religion. She decided to write a history of the church for one of her classes, a paper I still have. She attended services when she was home from college, which happened with increased frequency.

We decided to marry after her graduation, even though I would have another year of college. She got a job working at ETSU as a secretary in the department of health education.

House at Watauga1

There was no parsonage. However, the St. Johns, who owned a large farm and the grain mill, made available a small house across the driveway from the stately antebellum house than dominated the landscape.  The small structure  had once served as “servants quarters.” We paid $40 per month rent.

Though it needs painting today, the house looks as it did 59 years ago. The congregation helped us gather used furniture sufficient for our use. They were proud that their young preacher and wife would be living in the community, a first for them. Though the house was markedly smaller and less attractive than Linda’s middle-class home, she accepted our new residence with graciousness and gratitude.

Upon returning from our honeymoon, the congregation treated us with an “ole fashion pounding.” They brought ‘pounds’ of flour and sugar, plus canned goods, vegetables, and even household utensils for the newlyweds. It was quite a celebration!

The two dozen active members of Watauga were socio-economically diverse, from two large-farm families, a retired business man, and station owner to families on public assistance. One man even skinned skunks and sold the pelts for income. Two were college graduates and at least one could not read or write. Yet, they were like an extended family to one another.

The church considered it their special God-given ministry to give young pastors a start. They made that clear on my first Sunday in June 1960. They celebrated my presence with them and no criticism ever reached my ears in those two years. Yes, they offered kind, sensitive suggestions for improvement; but they never put me down or humiliated me. They were quick to compliment and affirm every sign of progress and dutifully attended special studies that I suggested.  They were determined to support their young pastor.

It was a time of “firsts”: first pastoral visit, first funeral, first weekly worship leadership and sermon preparation, first Sunday night Bible study, first district pastors’ meeting, first time to be introduced as “my pastor,” first (and last) time Linda ate souse meat (look it up). I still remember the look on her face when I told her what it was! Still, she thanked our hosts, Sarah and Landon, for their warm and generous hospitality.

The pattern for our fifty-nine years of marriage and shared ministry was set during those two exciting years. That little congregation shaped us far more than we shaped it.

When we left in the summer of 1962 for Washington D. C. to attend seminary, the congregation rejoiced that we were taking this next step in preparation for ministry. They sent us off with celebration and thanksgiving.

During the Holston Annual Conference session in 1992, I was endorsed as a candidate for the episcopacy. At that same session, the dean of the Cabinet read the names of the churches to be declared discontinued and closed. On that list was “Watauga United Methodist Church, Johnson City District.” The perfunctory vote was taken, and the church where Linda and I began ministry and life together no longer existed.

I wanted to pause to give public testimony to the contribution that small, faithful church made to my formation and that of other pastors who were nurtured by its support and commitment.

It was at that conference session that I vowed to myself and to Linda that if I was elected a bishop, no church would pass out of existence without our pausing at Annual Conference to celebrate and give thanks for each of the “abandoned” and “closed” churches.

Watauga Church is no longer United Methodist, but it is an active church. The photo above was taken last week! Its appearance hasn’t changed nearly as much as that of the nineteen year old who showed up as the pastor sixty years ago.

I am convinced that faithfulness to the gospel consists primarily of sowing seeds of grace, which is God’s presence and power to create, shape, and transform human hearts, communities and the entire creation. In other words, seeds of the reign (kingdom) of God.

While I continue to grieve the loss of Linda’s presence, I am profoundly grateful for the seeds of grace which Watauga Methodist Church sowed in us and which give me comfort, joy, and hope.




17 thoughts on “Pilgrimage to Where Seeds Were Sown

  1. Dear Ken, Thank you for this. As I read it, it brought tears to my eyes. I think for all of us, no matter our age or circumstances, there is nothing like serving our first church, especially if they are kind to us. That church will always hold a special place for us, regardless of our age or other experiences. Grace and peace. Gail

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  2. Thank you Ken. Your story kindled many personal memories for us. Our first appointment to Mosheim Circuit with four congregations was a blessing to us. I was a student at ETSU. Those dear souls received us and nurtured us for four years.

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  3. Dear Bishop I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your first church! Especially love the part about having a man in your church that skinned skunks and another man that could not read or write …isn’t it amazing the variety of people that shape our lives and that touch our lives… At my first church in Nicholasville Kentucky in 1983 at Roberts Chapel UMC there was a beautiful balcony where the slaves of the first church members used to sit and that memory sticks in my mind often

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  4. Thank you for sharing your experiences in your first church as pastor. I agree that each church family helps to shape us and our ministry as much as we affect them. Every congregation I served in my. 61 years of ministry is still dear to me.

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  5. Kenneth, thank you for sharing this story. It almost duplicates our story and I remember so fondly the experiences we had in our beginnings. Tom was appointed to a country church n 1959, as he was beginning his Jr. year in college. It was a wonderful experience. Tom and I were engaged and I went with him to the church he had been assigned to, which was about 40 miles from where he lived with his parents in the WNC Conf.. The second year they added another church to the charge. and we were married. The next year we left to go to the NC Conf. for him to go to Duke for his Seminary Studies. He was assigned to a 3 point charge and we lived in their parsonage located beside one of the churches. It was great living. They told us if I would can and freeze we could have all of the veg. and fruit we wanted. I could do that! They also gave us all of our meat, butter and eggs! We only bought bread and before long I started making bread, learning from some of the ladies. We knew on Sunday we would go home with one of the families for lunch so we could visit with them and then spend the afternoon visiting others in the fold! It was a wonderful life and one that shaped our ministry for these many years. Tom was ordained an elder by Bishop Earl Hunt in 1964 and appointed to a station church which had always been on a charge that had just been relocated from an area that was being filled with water to become Lake Norman. It was a wonderful place to start out and today it is one of our conferences largest churches located just outside of Mooresville, NC. We did a church start, being assigned to a grove of pines, an inter-city church, large churches, a district Supt. for 7 years and his last being the Director of Ministries for 7 years. Yes, we have similiar stories. I feel your loss, for my Tom died April 5, 2019, the day after his 80th birthday. He had pulmonary fibrosis along with lung cancer and his last days were spent gasping for breath with oxygen going 24/7. God was good, as always God is good! Bless you and know your pain from the loss is real. Bless you as you continue on. Blessings, LaVon M. Sigmon


  6. Thankyou your notes helped me remember both the mainly wonderful memories and the trying ones when the editor of the Greenville took me to task about Jesus having a family and other so called heresies The whole congregation was called to a meeting at Trenholm Road umc while the youth were to answer questions posed to them. Thr youth did anaxingly well to the credit of Dr Harris Parker of Columbia College We also had as members Harry Dent National Republican leader and Rhett Jackson chair if S.C. Democrats. I was called a Communist because a UMC Nursery Curruculum I wrote and a 3rd and 4th grade VBS had beautiful African American and white Caucasian Children on their covers. I was called an Athiest because I took Confirmation to worship at a nearby wonderful Jewish temple where they invited up for refreshments afterwards and to answer questions. Most of my experience there was positive but bad experiences sting. I believe if you had been the pastor I worked with this Thus might not happened. Also a member threatened to slap hell out of me because we were going to am AME church to provide youth and adult help for VBS Bishop Luone Rouse the grandson of their pastor received he says now his call to be Pastor when I asked him to play Jesus in a play. So good things too can come in the midst of bad experiences. This was only my first 5 years. My 45 years would find more painful challenges and too more great memories. I am glad your first church reminded you of your wedding and first marriage
    What a sweet memory.

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  7. Ken, you passed along the blessings you received to each one of us who had the pleasure of knowing you, if only for short time. Blessings do not evaporate!

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  8. Hello Ken Carder: You never know where I will show up. I was/am very moved by your expressions of gratitude Linda and you experienced at your first appointment.
    I still remember the day you and the family sat in my office at The University of Alabama and we made the connection that I had written to you about “stained windows” at Oak Ridge. Little did we know then that our paths would cross many more times.
    I have a little understanding of how your life is without her. Jill has been gone fifteen years now and not a day goes by I don’t think of her. She enjoyed working with you so much on the Jurisdiction level and of course, I tagged along.
    My best wishes to you and the family especially on your new adventure of visiting the churches you served.; What a wonderful activity!
    Bobby Ray Hicks

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  9. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story of your first appointment, Bishop Carder. We are still filled with gratitude that you took time to shape and facilitate “Crossroads” with us a couple of years ago at the Franklinton Center at Bricks in the NC Conference (along with your friend, Tex Sample). Your stories guided that time of formation and transformation, and continue to do so. God bless you as you continue to grieve your Linda.

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  10. Bishop, thank you for your thoughtful blog. It brought back memories of my first student appt., beginning a new Methodist congregation in Athens, AL., where our mutual friend Bobby Ray Hicks was my wonderful lay leader, and where he and Jill attended after their marriage. You’re are doing GOOD grief work. I’ve done some of that since the loss of my Caryl almost five years ago, after we retired from No. Ala. Conference. Again, thank you for your blogs. Blessings as you ‘go through’ your loss!

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  11. Ken, What a gift you offer in sharing these remembrances. You help us understand the gift such congregations offer in “training up” future pastors. I, too, remember all the “firsts” and the generous spirits of the good folks who welcomed us in ministry along the way. You make it clear that faithfulness means living along side God’s people and taking the time to pay attention. Listening and learning in such places still shape my daily living. Thank you. Prayers for the new pastors today as they meet their mentors in the pew.

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  12. It was such a gift to read your personal journey into ministry. I thought about my Dad and what his first appointment was like. I’m sorry I never asked him!! You are doing something special for Sandra and Sheri as well as leaving a wonderful legacy of your beautiful marriage to Linda !! Martha Thompson

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