Despite being a small, rural congregation in an impoverished part of North Carolina, Sandy Plains United Methodist Church has sent a large proportion of its members into mission, leaving some to wonder: How has this tiny church produced so many leaders?
Alan PreVatte has seen “the plaque” hanging in a hallway outside the pastor’s office since he joined Sandy Plains United Methodist Church in Pembroke, N.C., in the mid-1990s. But he still gets excited when he talks about it.
“The plaque” is a wooden tablet no bigger than a shirt box that has been around so long that nobody remembers when it was installed or whose idea it was to put it up.
The top -- a black metal plate with capital letters engraved in gold -- reads: “Sandy Plains/United Methodist Church/In Mission.” Under that is Isaiah 6:8: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? / Then said I, Here am I; send me.”
And under that is a list of the names -- on individual black plates -- of those who have attended Sandy Plains during the past 50 years and gone on to work in missions.
It includes missioners, church planters and denominational officials. In all, there are 19 names representing 19 Christian leaders -- 16 of them clergy -- who have come out of Sandy Plains.
Nineteen might not seem so significant until you consider this: Sandy Plains averages about 85 people in worship each Sunday, and it’s located in a town of 2,800 where 39 percent of residents live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (Nationwide, the rate is 13.5 percent.)
And though there are no hard data tracking how many ordained leaders come out of congregations, most Christian leaders tend to come from larger churches where there are often more programs and opportunities, said the Rev. Jeremy Troxler, director of Duke Divinity School’s Thriving Rural Communities initiative, of which Sandy Plains is a part. Based on anecdotal evidence, it’s most common for a small church to raise up one clergyperson per generation, he said.
So for one small church to send out nearly 20? “It’s remarkable,” Troxler said. “The church may not be using the language ‘leadership development,’ but that’s exactly what it’s doing.”
And that’s why, PreVatte said, every once in a while, he’ll find himself staring at or thinking about “the plaque” -- a reminder of where the church has come from and where it hopes its members continue to go: in mission.
The tribute to the 19 already there encourages PreVatte -- and it excites him and amazes him, often leaving him wondering: “How has such a little rural church produced so many leaders?”
A servant leader
It started with the first name listed on “the plaque”: the Rev. Simeon Cummings, pastor emeritus of Sandy Plains whom church members and former clergy describe as a servant leader driven by concern for his people.
Sandy Plains is named for and located in one of five boroughs in Pembroke, a town in central North Carolina near the South Carolina state line. Pembroke was settled by the Lumbee, a Native American tribe, and nearly 90 percent of the town’s residents today are Lumbee, as are most Sandy Plains attendees. The church is one of 13 affiliated with the Rockingham District Native American Cooperative Ministry.
When Sandy Plains UMC was organized in 1906 by Lumbee Methodists, including Cummings’ father, Jim Crow and miscegenation laws had long been in effect. The Lumbee, many of whom were also tenant farmers, were oppressed and marginalized in much the same way as blacks, Cummings said in a 1995 interview for the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s oral history project, Native Carolinian Indian Elders.
“To be successful in my day, you had to kind of deny who you were,” said Cummings, who grew up attending Sandy Plains, in 1995. “I could always see how far my people were behind other people.”
When he served in the U.S. Army during World War II, he told himself that if he made it back home, he would “be a leader to help my Indian people.”
He graduated in 1948 from what was then Pembroke State College for Indians and taught in segregated public schools for eight years before attending Duke Divinity School.
Why divinity school? He thought it was important for Native American churches to have Native American leaders, he said in 1995.
He went on to pastor Prospect UMC in Maxton, N.C., for 20 years; lead the Southeastern Jurisdictional Association for Native American Ministries, a job that involved pastoring seven small churches, including Sandy Plains; and serve on the N.C. Conference staff.
Throughout it all, he maintained his ties to his home church and mentored its pastors, stressing the importance of raising up leaders.
Drawing upon the example of his childhood pastor, the Rev. Dr. Fuller Lowery, he employed a philosophy based on the mantra “Every member in mind.”
“Born out of struggle was an intent to create space for Native Americans to lead,” said the Rev. Bob Mangum, who served as pastor of Sandy Plains in the ’60s, ’70s and 2000s and who has worked alongside Cummings, now 91, for the past 50-plus years.
“Stories were nurtured to develop faithful disciples who just did not talk about the Spirit, but who responded to it.”
Every member in mind
Today, the pastor of Sandy Plains is the Rev. Gregg Presnal. On his business card, displayed in prominent bold type, is the phrase: “Ministers: All Sandy Plains Members!” This message underscores the “Every member in mind” mindset that is his congregation’s legacy.
“As far back as I can remember, the church has always had strong leadership,” said Gary Locklear, who has been a member of Sandy Plains for more than 40 years. “They were tenacious about it. They listened carefully. They sat with people. They worked with people. They told a story of how important it was to have native leadership in native churches, and they encouraged it.”
This includes creating opportunities for members to envision and to test their vocational calling.
During Locklear’s first year of college, for example, a Sunday school teacher asked him to teach one week, and then another, and then to take over the entire class. Now he’s a home missioner and co-director of the Rockingham District Native American Cooperative Ministry.
The church also brings Christian institutional leaders to revivals, services and information sessions about UMC doctrine and polity. Leaders who have come out of Sandy Plains are invited to come back and speak.
This empowers church members to imagine becoming one of those leaders, too, Locklear said.
The church also urges all its members to take advantage of the offerings of UMC-related programs, including lay speaker training, Discover God’s Call retreats and, for youth, an annual vocational conference.
Take PreVatte, for example. He’s an information technology administrator at UNC-Pembroke. At the encouragement of church leaders, he completed UMC’s certificate program in lay speaker training. Within weeks of finishing his first classes, he was asked to preach at Sandy Plains. PreVatte preached that Sunday, and he has preached several times since. As the superintendent of Sunday school classes, he also leads the congregation in prayer and hymns before the three adult classes begin at 10 a.m.
Or, consider the Rev. Deborah Wilkins. As a Sandy Plains member, she participated in the three-day spiritual renewal program Walk to Emmaus in the late 1990s. There Wilkins listened to the stories of grief from other women -- stories “as grievous as what I had buried in me,” she said.
In 1988, when her son, Gabriel, was 11 years old, he was struck by a car and killed. Over the next decade, Wilkins buried herself in work and in church, and she struggled with the cross. “Why would God require that for salvation?” she wondered. “Wasn’t there some other way?”
The day she returned home from the Emmaus program, she read Isaiah 53 again. That’s when the “cross opened up to me,” she said. Soon after, in 1999, in her mid-40s, she began work on a master of divinity degree at Duke.
“Sandy Plains is a spirit-filled church,” said Wilkins, who is in her third appointment as pastor of Wesley UMC in Riegelwood, N.C. “The community helped me make the connection that God sees us all and he is there in the midst of the grieving and he grieves, too.”
Partners in ministry, not objects
The “every member in mind” attitude extends beyond the walls of the church to social justice issues in the community and in the denomination.
When he was Sandy Plains’ pastor during the civil rights era, Mangum sponsored voter registration drives. He also helped establish nonprofits such as the Robeson County Church and Community Center to provide food, clothes, shelter and other services to Native Americans. And he worked with Cummings to ensure the Lumbee churches had a voice in the UMC.
Notably, they decried that Native Americans had no representation among the conference-level leadership, and they rallied the UMC to appoint three lay people from Lumbee churches to committees, paving the way for Cummings to become the first Native American conference staff member in 1973.
“That was pioneering -- to now have three lay people on conference committees,” Mangum said. “It gave entry to hearing the call to missions … and to opening up the doors for Native Americans to the idea that we have a place in church leadership … and that we intend … to be a partner in ministry, not an object of ministry.”
Sandy Plains leadership also places a broad emphasis on education.
This starts at the youngest ages: In 1997, under the guidance of the pastor at the time, the Rev. Kong Suk Namkung, the church built a childcare center to serve the local community. Just a few years ago, with assistance from a Duke Endowment grant, Sandy Plains built a new facility for the center on its grounds, creating new jobs in an economically depressed area. Larger than the church itself, the childcare center is self-sustaining and has an average enrollment of 93.
For older children, the church brings in school counselors and journalism teachers to help coach high school students in how to find and apply for college scholarships and loans.
And for adults, they give to special offerings that provide scholarships for Native Americans entering ministry.
In addition, the Sandy Plains congregation regularly supports Locklear’s mission work. For instance, they provide hands or supplies for Locklear’s work teams that repair deteriorating houses in Native American communities in the Carolinas, and they join him on mission trips to Bolivia.
“The church has an ethos defining itself by service to community, and I’m certain that is what makes a space for people to hear a call to ministry,” said Troxler, of Duke’s Thriving Rural Communities initiative.
The future leaders
Following a recent Sunday service, several Sandy Plains members gathered with Mangum in the 200-seat sanctuary to talk about the church’s history and its future. There’s concern because half of the current Native American clergy in the Native American cooperative ministry will retire in the next decade, Locklear said.
“We’ve got to find some more leaders and we’ve got to court those young leaders and challenge them to look at the call,” he said.
They brainstormed ways to embolden others to pursue missions: You have to create space for laity, give them vocational experiences, present them with opportunities to imagine themselves as leaders, and encourage them to ask harder questions of themselves and of God.
That requires humble leadership, they said, leadership like that of Cummings -- a purposeful, prayerful leader intent to be there for his people. And it requires an intentional commitment to the same aim Cummings began more than 50 years ago: “to empower people and send them into ministry,” Locklear said.
The effect of that is on display in Sandy Plains -- on “the plaque” that lists the names of the 19 from the church who have gone on into missions. There is space for more.
The next name added to it could be Alan PreVatte. The 48-year-old and father of five will begin work on his master of divinity degree from Asbury Theological Seminary this fall.