Fort Valley church finds its power in prayer

Sun News correspondentNovember 7, 2012 

WARNER ROBINS -- When looking at revitalizing Fort Valley United Methodist Church, the Rev. Ellis Carpenter and the church’s leadership team decided to focus on prayer and building healthy Christians over aiming at large numerical growth.

Doing that, they found their numbers increasing at the 172-year-old church.

“Our emphasis on prayer came from acknowledging nothing really good comes apart from prayer,” Carpenter said. “Many things have been tried, and I think in some ways there was a sense of hopelessness that the church would ever be filled as it once was. But I think that sense has turned around as we realize nothing good come apart from prayer and doing what God initiates. God can always turn things around.”

So the congregation has been praying.

“One answer to prayer is the staff God has brought together,” Carpenter said. “God has given us a very talented team to accomplish some amazing things. We’re seeing a renewed spiritual health and we’re tackling issues that are natural to a church with such a long history. Sometimes factions develop but there’s a new sense of operating in unity. Progress is being made in many areas.”

Among the church’s many prayer projects, Carpenter said one has each of a core group of 60 to 65 people pray regularly for a list of five other members. Another new prayer project has members take small stones that represent personal prayer need. As prayers are answered, the stone is brought back and will fill a rock garden on church grounds. The garden already has a large stone in its center called Covenant Rock that’s a remembrance of God’s faithfulness during a successful renovation program Fort Valley UMC undertook in 1999.

Another prayer project is called Armor Bearers. It encourages members to pray for church leaders and times of worship.

“When a congregation begins to do that, you approach worship differently,” Carpenter said. “If you’re praying each week before worship, you’re more prepared to meet God yourself and less likely to be distracted by other likes and dislikes. I believe that’s one reason we’re seeing much more meaningful and spiritual times of worship. You’re better able to make worship about God and not ‘us.’ ”

Carpenter said attendance is up by 15 percent in the traditional and the contemporary service, which was begun earlier this year. He said the church is seeing new faces, including young families with children that are being added to the older congregation. He said the church does a good job connecting people to ministries they may need to help them fellowship and grow as well as pointing people to situations where they can serve others.

Carpenter said the church annually gives more than 10 percent of its budget to foreign missions and more to local missions. He said they’re supportive of the Grace House, the Feed Center and other charities plus are involved with a range of efforts such as Rebuilding Fort Valley and scouting programs.

Carpenter, 55, is in his fifth year as pastor at Fort Valley UMC. He and his wife, Phyllis, have three sons in their blended family. His appointment to FVUMC is his first appointment as lead pastor and his route to that role was not what he expected.

“Most of my career has been in extension ministry as a family therapist,” he said. “I stared out in clergy after I graduated from Asbury Theological Seminary as an associate minister doing youth work in a 1,800-member congregation. You’d expect I would have had increasing appointments to ministerial roles that would have taught me church leadership along the way. That’s not what happened.”

What happened was an accident during a youth ministry trip to the Appalachian Mountains left Carpenter a paraplegic when a rickety porch roof collapsed on him. After a couple more years as youth minister, he went to Auburn University for a degree in family therapy and worked as a therapist through the years.

“I had to deal with the injury and my future,” Carpenter said. “A scripture that turned things around for me was 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 which is about being able to comfort others with the comfort God has given you. There’s a phrase, wounded healer. That all gave me reason to believe my ministry wasn’t over. I saw what I had gone through and that the grace and strength the Lord gave me might actually be an advantage and enhance ministry to others. People ascribe a measure of credibility to me because without saying a word, the results--the scars--of my pain and struggle are obvious. I’m someone who has been knocked down but God has helped to get up and go on. My work and ministry will always have a pastoral focus because of what I’ve experienced. I’ll never be the best speaker, but I have inherent empathy and sympathy.”

Fort Valley Mayor John Stumbo is a member at Fort Valley UMC and holds Carpenter in high regard.

“Rev. Carpenter is wheelchair-bound but you’d hardly know it,” Stumbo said. “I remember before he even came to his first service here he found out about two or three people in the hospital and even went as far as Macon to visit them. To me that said a lot about who he is. He’s very caring and pastoral though life is not easy for him. If there’s a concept of a shepherd of the flock, he’s a shepherd of the flock.”

Contact Michael W. Pannell at mwpannell@gmail.com.

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