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Making History Today: In Praise of Small Churches

In taking a recent road trip from Austin to Colorado we passed through many small towns. As we did so, I was reminded not only of the number of Presbyterian churches that are located in these towns, but also of the important ministry these churches provide. My first pastorate was to three small churches in rural Missouri that, in order to afford a pastor, were yoked together. That experience was formative for me because those people were the salt of the earth and as supportive of me as I tried to be of them.

I stayed there for four years. But there are some pastors who feel called to small church and small town ministry, some even staying in the same place for 20, 30, and 40 years. In order to do that, some engage in “tent-making”, that is, they take on another line of work so that they and the congregation can afford this relationship. For others, commissioned lay pastors supply those churches so that a Presbyterian presence in that community can continue.

In going through Ballinger, Texas I recalled that one of that church’s former pastors was Rev. Larry Correu. Born in Laredo, Texas and a graduate of Austin College and Austin Seminary, Correu also earned a Master’s degree in Deaf Education from the University of Tennessee. He was born with congenital deafness, Correu was able to serve several congregations over time despite whatever limitations his deafness may have presented. While serving the church in Ballinger, Correu also served as editor of the Presbyterian devotional magazine, These Days. He went on to serve as the Executive Director of the San Antonio Independent Living Services. Governor Ann Richards appointed him Commissioner of the Texas Commission for the Deaf. He died in 2017 at the age of 86.

Rev. Alan Ford graduated from Austin Seminary in 1978. His first and only call was to First Presbyterian Church in Newport, Arkansas in northeast Arkansas. He served that congregation for 35 years, from 1978 until his retirement in 2013. Ford was born in London, England in 1940 and was raised there during World War II. He served in both the Royal Navy and the United States Army. Having earned a degree from St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York, Ford went to work for Eastman Kodak. Responding to God’s call to ministry, he entered Austin Seminary. In Newport he became known as “Newport’s pastor” and, eventually, served on the City Council. He died in 2020 at the age of 80.

Rev. John Lively was born in Dallas, Texas. A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, Austin Seminary, and the Oklahoma City University Law School, Lively served the First Presbyterian Church of Wewoka, Oklahoma for almost 30 years. At the same time, he practiced law in the firm of Huser, Huser, and Lively. Eventually, he became a municipal judge for the town of Wewoka as well as the prosecuting attorney for the Seminole Nation. Following his death in 2008 at the age of 56, the municipal courtroom at the Wewoka Police Department was named the John Lively Municipal Courtroom.

Rev. Debbie Cenko graduated from Austin Seminary in 2001. Since then, she has served as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Wharton, Texas in New Covenant Presbytery. For more than 22 years she has been an integral part of that town, including participating in its theater community. Incidentally, Wharton is the hometown of Horton Foote, the well-known playwright.

Bill Wiles is a certified public accountant in Tulsa, Oklahoma and a member of the First Presbyterian Church in that city. With degrees from the University of Tulsa and the University of Oklahoma, Wiles also serves as a member of the board of the PHSSW and as its secretary-treasurer. In addition, Wiles has served as the Commissioned Lay Pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Chelsea, Oklahoma for many years.

Rev. Jack Hunnicut was born in 1928 and grew up in Sherman, Texas. With earned degrees from Austin College (1951), Austin Seminary (1954), and McCormick Seminary (1985), he served four churches in his ministry, all in South and West Texas: Elsa, McAllen, Junction, and Uvalde. In 1974 he was named Texas Rural Minister of the Year. He retired in 1994 after 40 years in the ministry and moved to Cleburne, Texas where he died in 2022 at the age of 93.

Rev. Chuck Miller, a native of Waco and former member of First Presbyterian Church in that city, responded to the call to enter the ministry as a second career. Upon graduating from Austin Seminary, he moved to Kingsville, Texas where he served as pastor of the Presbyterian church from 1991 to 2015 when he retired. The 24 years he served there was the longest pastorate in that church’s history.

These are just a few of the many pastors who have committed themselves to serving smaller churches in out-of-the-way places, pastors whose names may never make the front page of the newspaper or maybe even in PC(USA) news. But their service is no less important to the kingdom than that of those who serve in large churches in large cities. Grateful for all of them, we give special thanks in this Reformation season for those in small churches in smaller towns.

The Presbyterian Historical Society of the Southwest exists to “stimulate and encourage interest in the collection, preservation, and presentation of the Presbyterian and Reformed heritage” in the Southwest. If you are not a participating member of the Society and would like to become one, the annual dues are $20 per individual and $25 per couple. Annual institutional and church membership dues are $100. Checks may be made out to PHSSW and sent to:

PHSSW – 5525 Traviston Ct., Austin, TX 78738.

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