Five years ago, Centenary United Methodist Church in Macon, Georgia, was about to close its doors. The once glorious, historic neighborhood it served had become deeply impoverished and dangerous, and attendance at worship services had dwindled to as few as 30. But the church felt compelled to stay, and today—thanks in part to three Candler alums on staff, backed by the South Georgia Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church—membership has grown to more than 200 and the neighborhood is coming back to life.
"We decided to stay and be an outpost of Jesus’ love in a community other churches had deserted,” says Tim Bagwell (MDiv '78), who serves as Centenary’s voluntary lead pastor. The role is a natural for Bagwell, director of New and Revitalized Congregational Development for the South Georgia Conference, where he starts new churches, works with transitional congregations, and oversees Methodist Hispanic Churches.
Making people feel as though they mattered was a key to the church’s stability, and Helen Willoughby (MDiv '98), stepped in as Centenary’s minister of pastoral care to do just that. Honored by the North Alabama Conference UMC for her willingness stand up for the rights of women and ethnic minorities, Helen is a fearless champion for Centenary’s Hispanic and homeless populations—and beyond. Certified in Christian Education and as a Marriage and Family Therapist, she serves as a chaplain at Evercare Hospice of Macon and volunteers with for Warner Robins sexual assault and domestic violence response team.
"My journey has been a continuous revelation of God's love and grace for me and the people I serve," says Willoughby (who was out ministering on picture day!). "It is this revelation that motivates me to remain faithful to my call even in the midst of questions and challenges."
Centenary’s newest pastor, Stacey Harwell (MDiv '10), is putting the “Leadership in Church and Community” concentrated study she took at Candler into practice. As minister of community building, she is a key part of the Centenary team that is starting a co-op grocery store to increase access to nutritious food in the neighborhood, offering church space for on-site computer classes, creating a Hispanic/Latino advocacy group, and working with local education and business partners to make other quality-of-life improvements.
The role is a perfect fit for Harwell. She attended Centenary when she was an undergraduate at a nearby college and found her calling when she experienced this church “with such a big heart.” Said Harwell, “I realized, ‘That’s how you make a difference. That’s what I want to do.’ I will be forever grateful to Candler for giving me the confidence, the vision, the tools, and the language to do what God called me to do.”