xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Mid-Week Message: June 2015

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

My Final Mid-Week Message

June 16, 2015

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

Back in May, 2013, I had the privilege of preaching a sermon at the Large Church Initiative, a gathering of five hundred clergy and laity from the largest United Methodist churches in the country. The three-day event offered workshops and plenary sessions on how to revitalize church programs, create more effective systems, and do the work of the church better. 

For that sermon, I chose to distinguish between the first and second letters that Paul wrote to Timothy, and I started with the line, “Some of us are 1 Timothy pastors; others of us are 2 Timothy pastors; most of us are a little of both.” I reminded them that 1 Timothy is a practical manual on how to improve the structure and systems of the local church. It is chock full of formulas from a seasoned church planter to his young protégé, and a veritable recipe book for how to do successful church programming.

I told them that there was a time earlier in my ministry when I was a lot like young Timothy, when I thought that pastoral success hinged on my ability to learn all the tips and techniques for building a bigger and better church: how to conduct a successful stewardship campaign; how to build a church of small groups; how to clarify a church’s mission and vision; how to reach unchurched people. I was a 1 Timothy wannabe.

And to a certain extent, that’s the kind of pastor you received eight years ago. I had just finished a stint as the associate pastor of Hyde Park UMC in Tampa, one of the great, dynamic churches in United Methodism. This big city, big church kid was eager to take the helm of his own church, take it out for a spin, and see where all this practical knowledge could take us. I began to apply everything I learned at Hyde Park to build the systems and create the programs that I believed would orient St. Paul’s toward a bright future. Over time, I think we could agree that those initiatives worked. We clarified our mission and vision in 2008 and adopted a long-term strategic plan, we gained new members, increased worship attendance, solidified financial giving, developed creative outreach ministries, and much more.

But this is not what I wanted to tell the pastors at that large church event. What I wanted to tell them was not how much I changed St. Paul’s UMC, but how much St. Paul’s UMC has changed me.

I drew a contrast with 2 Timothy, in which a much older Paul shared with a weary and worn Timothy a letter of very different tone and content. Instead of programs, structures, and systems, Paul told Timothy that the ultimate measure of successful pastoral leadership is to be found in the relationships one builds with people, creating a community of love, service, and generosity.  So my key tag line in the sermon was this:

“Systems are secondary; People are primary.”

And then, in front of a sanctuary full of the brightest and best leaders of our denomination, I bragged about all of you.  About what you have taught me about what it means to be an effective pastor:

This is a lesson I learned first hand. While serving as an associate pastor at Hyde Park for seven years, I chose, through my own bright-eyed naiveté, only to focus on the 1 Timothy aspects of church ministry.  And then, through a series of personal episodes, I found myself in 2007 transported 1,600 miles away, in a small town of less than 5,000 people to serve a church nestled among corn fields and pig farms. It was there that I began to apply everything Hyde Park had taught me. And I discovered that effective systems and processes do make a difference. But here’s the thing: the greatest lesson learned in Cherokee is not any that I have taught them, but the one they have taught me: People matter. The people of Cherokee have reminded me that the primacy of our calling as pastors, the essential place where the grace of God is transmitted, is in the context of relationships with real people.  Often away from my office, away from my computer, in interactions that are sometimes private and painful, but always real. 

It may be true that applying the lessons I learned at Hyde Park eight years ago helped us do effective ministry here together. But there is no doubt in my mind that what you have taught me about loving people has now made me a more effective pastor for the people of Hyde Park. As my friend Jim Harnish said to you several weeks ago, “Thank you for welcoming him with open arms eight years ago. And now, thank you for shaping him, nurturing him, and returning him home.”

This Sunday will be the final stop in our rich, fruitful journey of ministry together. It will be a day of celebration, of deep emotion, and of new beginnings. And it will be one final chance for us to say together, “Thanks be to God.” 



The Rev. Magrey R. deVega
St. Paul's United Methodist Church
531 W. Main St.
Cherokee, IA  51012
Ph:  712-225-3955

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

How Our Relationship Will Change

June 9, 2015

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

Since this is the second-to-last Mid-Week Message before my departure as your pastor, I thought I would spend some time reflecting with you on how our relationship will change after July 1.

Many of you know that an essential character of our denomination is the itinerant ministry. While changes in clergy leadership are inevitable, we are fortunate to be in a system in which pastoral succession occurs efficiently, without extensive interim periods or gaps in pastoral coverage.

What that means is that as quickly you all will say good bye to me, you will be greeting your new pastor.  June 21 will be my last Sunday, and Rev. Cris Decious will preach starting July 5. There are many benefits to such a rapid transition, but it does become incumbent on the congregation and the outgoing pastor to make appropriate space and time for grieving and discovering what their forthcoming relationship will be like. 

So that’s what I’m hoping to create with today’s Mid-Week Message. I offer you the following guidelines, which have been written in consultation with the Staff-Parish Relations Committee, incoming pastor Cris Decious, and District Superintendent Tom Carver.  They have read this statement and support how it will guide us into an understanding of our new relationship together.  I realize that many of you in this congregation have gone through pastoral transitions in the past, and I am grateful for the healthy relationships you continue to maintain with prior pastors. Nonetheless, the process of writing this statement and sharing it with you is a beneficial exercise during this time of change. 

What will it mean for me to no longer be your pastor?
Simply put, it means that I will be released from the responsibility of preaching, leading, and providing pastoral care for this congregation. It will no longer be appropriate for me to do weddings and funerals at St. Paul’s, and I will not be involved with the future direction of this church. In other words, when pastoral matters arise among you, there is no expectation that I will be involved in it. And when major decisions are to be made regarding the church’s future, I will in no way be a part of these discussions.

Does that mean that any communications with me are inappropriate?
Though I will no longer be your pastor, we will continue to be brothers and sisters in Christ. As part of Christ’s body, we will still be responsible for rejoicing in each other’s triumphs, and bearing each other’s burdens. I welcome updates on how you and your family are doing, just as I know you would welcome such news from me. But here are some guidelines for discerning what news to share with me.  1) Make sure that your new pastor already knows the news you would share with me; 2) Make sure that the news is of a public nature and already available for general knowledge; 3) Make sure that the news is not of a confidential nature, such that it would best be kept in the context of a pastor-parishioner relationship. If those three criteria are met, then I am open to sharing with you the births, deaths, weddings, and critical life-stage moments that make life so rich and compelling.  Simply remember that there should be no expectation that I will respond to you as anything more than a fellow brother in Christ.

Do I want to hear “how things are going at the church?”
Naturally, St. Paul’s will always have a special place in my heart, and I will be praying for God’s spirit to be leading you into what I know will be a bright, faithful future. Hearing details about what God is doing in and through St. Paul’s would certainly guide my prayers toward specificity.  But again, I would ask you to use the following criteria in discerning what kinds of church news to share with me: 1) Have you, for whatever reason, refrained from sharing this news, or your opinions regarding the news, with the new pastor? 2) Are you seeking my opinion or feedback regarding this news? 3) Are you sharing this news with me simply to draw a contrast between how things were done under my leadership?  If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then it is truly wisest to refrain from sharing with me any news about what is happening at the church.

How does Facebook figure into our new relationship?
There are many schools of thought on how Facebook plays a role in pastoral ministry.  Some pastors have a personal policy not to “friend” parishioners under any circumstances. Others choose to “unfriend” parishioners once they leave the church. And the remainder choose to keep things the same. 

I am Facebook friends with many of you, and have enjoyed interacting with you through it. We often use it to share with others a glimpse into our personal and family lives, and I have used it to showcase and celebrate the ministries of St. Paul’s. I am reminded that since its inception, the founders of Facebook have encouraged a primarily positive interaction among its users, which is why it has been reluctant to institute a “Dislike” button for its posts.  As a result, we must remember that the persona we project via Facebook is often a mere one-dimensional, largely optimistic rendering of how things are actually going.  Therefore, to say you have a Facebook “friend” is quite different from the kinds of intimate, deep “friendships” you might have with a person face to face.

Because our “virtual” relationships will never be a suitable substitute for genuine personal interactions, and must never rise to the level of relationships you develop with your pastor and others in the church, I see no need to “unfriend” any of you who are currently “friends” with me on Facebook. You will begin to notice that after my departure, many of my posts will primarily be about the establishment of my new life and ministry in Tampa. And again, because of the nature of Facebook, most of them will be largely positive. Please know that those posts will never be meant to denigrate the fruitful, beautiful time we have shared together.

What will be my relationship with the new pastor?
All clergy in the United Methodist Church are ordained into a covenantal communion, in which we support each other as colleagues in Christ. It is incumbent on me, as the outgoing pastor, to ensure that the systems of the church are in suitable order to transfer to Rev. Cris Decious upon his arrival, and there will be ample opportunities for us to work together to ensure a smooth and proper transition. I expect that the details of that transition will be largely dictated by his needs, and that perhaps those questions will continue after my departure.  So, Cris and I will likely be in conversation together periodically over the months to follow, but they will mostly be prompted by his initiative to contact me, rather than my intrusion into his work. The bottom line is that I will do everything I can to ensure his successful start as your new pastor, and I will be available to him for whatever he needs.

Your future is bright.
One of the things I was most grateful for shortly after my arrival as your pastor eight years ago is that there was very little, if any, talk of how previous pastors used to do things. I never felt, even for an instant, that I was living in the shadow of a prior minister, and the fact that you welcomed my leadership and my ideas so warmly and openly is a testament to the amazing hospitality of this congregation.  I can’t even say that I’ve ever heard any of you tell me, “Well, pastor, that’s not the way we used to do things around here.”

I’m grateful to think that that same spirit of genuine love and openness will be afforded to Cris and Jennifer Decious and their family. I am absolutely convinced that the Spirit of God will continue to work among you, and that the future of St. Paul’s UMC and the people of Cherokee is a bright one indeed.

Grace and Peace,


The Rev. Magrey R. deVega
St. Paul's United Methodist Church
531 W. Main St.
Cherokee, IA  51012
Ph:  712-225-3955

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Top Ten Things I'll Miss About Cherokee

June 2, 2015

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

It really is hard to believe that after eight years of serving as your pastor, I am now in the last month of my time with you.  My last Sunday will be on June 21, after which I will take vacation days until the end of the month to prepare for moving day on June 30. On June 28, our District Superintendent Tom Carver will be preaching, with your new pastor Cris Decious and his wife Jennifer in attendance.  He will take over on July 1, with his first Sunday on July 5. I know all of us appreciate your continued prayers and care during this important season of transition.

Since my last Mid-Week Message over a month ago, I have had a chance to reflect quite a bit on my time here in Cherokee.  I will continue to wrestle with the words to express how appreciative I am for this town, this church, and for all of you, but I know that much of what I feel is both irrepressible and inexpressible. 

So for now, let me take a stab at it by sharing with you…

“The Top Ten Things I Will Miss About Cherokee”

10. Springtime in Iowa – The long Iowa winters have been bearable only through the promise of a glorious Iowa springtime. The grass becomes a vibrant shade of green, brighter than any I see in Florida. The May rainstorms wash away the salt on the roads and the pollen in the air, as if God was resetting the land like a giant shake of an Etch-a-Sketch.  Add to that sunshine, blue skies, cool breezes, blooming flowers, low humidity, crisp air, sandaled feet, evening fires on the patio, the smell of barbecue, and open windows: springtime in Iowa is what resurrection feels like.

9. Main Street – Comedian Steven Wright once quipped, “Everything is in walking distance if you just have the time.” And whenever I have walked down Main Street in downtown Cherokee, I have felt like I have stepped back in time, when the world was a simpler, safer, and more friendly place. I’ll miss lunch at the Gasthaus, ice cream at the Main Street Pharmacy, endless hours of browsing at the Bookvine, first-run, digital movies at the American Theater, and a game of pool at the Pool & Pub. I’ll miss homecoming parades and Christmas parades, which are about as nostalgic a slice of Americana as I’ve ever experienced.  I’ll miss our annual Pancake Race, teeming with fearless women, curious crowds, and local media. Most of all, I’ll just miss walking down that street and being reminded that time is a precious gift not to be wasted.

8. Fried Pork Tenderloin Sandwiches – I stopped eating them a few years after I arrived, for fear of what they were doing to my waistline.  But my goodness, what’s a Filipino living in Iowa to do, but eat pork? At one point I counted no fewer than five restaurants in town that sold these deep-fried, perfectly seasoned, juicy bites from heaven.  And while I can’t wait to dig back into Tampa’s Cuban sandwiches and grouper sandwiches, I will miss this quintessential taste of Iowa.  Big time. 

7. KCHE and the Cherokee Chronicle – Here’s what I have come to believe about local, small-town media outlets: they are just as vital a part of the fabric of a well-ordered, decent community as any big-time newspaper in a major city. I visited long-time church member Phyllis Miller down in Council Bluffs a few weeks ago, and though she hasn’t lived in Cherokee for the last several years, she still has the Cherokee paper delivered to her every day. And doggone it, she was more informed and more connected to what was happening in this town than I was. I’ll miss doing those weekly 15-minute radio broadcasts on KCHE, and the girls and I will miss seeing our photos in the paper for one reason or another. But I suspect there will be many times down the road that I will catch a listen or read the headlines online.

6. Racquetball – In case you ever worry about this preacher getting too big a head from any accolades or praise he might get, stop worrying. I have gotten a healthy dose of humility every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon for the past few years. It’s there that I have played about an hour of racquetball with about eight guys who, despite being nearly twice my age, have twice my skill, double my energy, and about three times my sense of humor. Losing to guys like this (quite consistently) has never been so much fun. And I’m pretty sure I’ve learned a few trash-talking zingers that might come in handy for future opponents in Tampa. 

5. Cherokee Parks and Rec – When we first arrived eight years ago, the Bacon Aquatic Center had just opened, and I could not believe that a town like this had such an elaborate, well-maintained facility that was more like a water park than a pool. And then, over time, Dave Ellis and his team lured my family into participating in rec league soccer (where I had the privilege of coaching both girls to undefeated seasons two years in a row), adult basketball (which did not go as well), and adult volleyball (let’s not talk about it.) Add to that the lovely public parks (including Spring Lake Park, sight of countless Sabbath lunches over my office noon hour) and new walking/biking trails, it’s safe to say that the Parks and Rec department has won this fan for life. 

4. The Local Businesses – I once called a local plumber because my hot water heater started gushing water, and he was there in fifteen minutes. The car I purchased at Cherokee Auto Sales is the best car I’ve ever owned. My car mechanic is efficient, trustworthy, reasonably priced, and always has time for my latest car problem. I purchased a new stove hood from Wilson’s, and it was installed at my house a few hours later. The furniture I purchased from Carey’s is one of the highest quality, least expensive pieces I’ve ever purchased. I’ve never had to wait longer than 20 minutes to see my doctor, and my family has consistently received excellent emergency and surgical care from the Cherokee Regional Medical Center. Time and again, this lovely little town of fewer than 5,000 people has proven to have every service that I’ve needed.  Sure, like the rest of you, I’ve also been to the big box stores that are miles away from town, but I am now a firm believer in these two words:  Shop Local. 

3. The Travel Time – This is not a joke: I can go almost an entire week of errand running with my fuel light blinking empty. There is nothing in town that is more than five minutes away from any one location, which makes it very easy to go grocery shopping, pick up the kids at school, attend a meeting at the church, drop off books at the library, and make a pastoral visit, all in less time than it takes to negotiate bumper-to-bumper interstate traffic in a metropolitan city.

2. Cherokee Community Theater – This one may be the hardest to write. I can’t express what this town’s community theater has meant to me, Grace, and Madelyn. When we first arrived, Grace was given a part in South Pacific as a little Pacific Islander girl (a role for which she did not need to audition : )  Years later, shy and reserved Madelyn got the theater bug by participating in a summer theater camp sponsored by CCT, Jr., and she has been in every kids’ performance and major musical since then. I never dreamed that I would be on stage myself, since my only previous acting stint was a small role in a high school production of The Music Man. But in 2012, there I was, flying across the stage in ghostly white makeup in A Christmas Carol: The Musical, followed by the King of Siam in The King and I (a role for which I did not have to audition : ).  To say that CCT has been a gift to me and my family would be a severe understatement. It has been life-giving. It has been a place of healing. It has forged lifetime friendships with people outside the church. It has set a standard of excellence and quality far exceeding theaters in towns multiple times our size. Thank you, CCT. 

1. The People – When I first left Tampa eight years ago, many people down there told me, “I’m from Iowa. You’ll love the people there.” At the time I thought those words were merely quaint and lovely. But I didn’t know how true it was until living among you. Iowans are true salt-of-the earth people.  You don’t exude pretention, you are earnest in your actions and words, and you are deeply caring about the things that matter most: your family, your kids, your church, and your community. Maybe it has something to do with how implicitly dependent you are on the land for your livelihood, but I am amazed at how grounded, humble, and unassuming Iowans are. You’ve taught me how to keep a level head and a patient hand through the turmoil of life, and you have reinforced the importance of putting family first in everything I do. And most of all, you’ve encouraged my laughter, elicited my humor, and forged connections that are filled with joy. From now on, there is a part of me that will always be able to say, “I’m from Iowa. I love the people there.” 

Grace and Peace,


The Rev. Magrey R. deVega
St. Paul's United Methodist Church
531 W. Main St.
Cherokee, IA  51012
Ph:  712-225-3955