He took a chance

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In the fall of 1980, I was looking for a church job. I had previously been a lay youth worker/minister on the staff of two churches and had served as a student pastor of a small country church for a year.

Following that, I had been assigned a circuit of four churches in a rural area of northeast Tennessee. I also had a three-year stint as a social worker for the State of Tennessee in child protective services, had been a director of a group home for mentally challenged adult woman, and had done some other church work. The group home job was part-time, and I was going to graduate school at night. Then we got pregnant (or my wife did) with our third child. Suddenly, I needed something more substantial.

I sent over two hundred resumes across the country and one day I received a call from a man named Clarence Cope. He was the senior pastor of a church just off I-70 in western Colorado and he served the largest church of any denomination between Salt Lake City and Denver, a distance of over five hundred miles. I thought I was probably in over my head but, after the telephone interview, the church flew my wife and myself to Grand Junction, CO to meet with Pastor Cope and others he deemed necessary. I was offered a position.

I would become one of six associate ministers who would work directly under and be accountable to Pastor Cope. The farthest west I had ever lived prior to that time was, well, northeast Tennessee. In fact, I had never been west of Nashville. Grand Junction was 1,439 miles (about three days of driving a moving van and a car with two kids and an expectant wife) from our family and friends.

Once I arrived, I discovered that I was on a six-month probationary period and did not yet have a job title or a job description. It was made clear to me that I did not work for the church or the Official Board. I worked for Pastor Cope.

Pastor Clarence Cope had an excellent reputation in the denomination. At that time, he was 53 years old and married to a genuine lady whose name was Irene. The church boasted that its Sunday School attendance was in or near the fifty largest Sunday Schools of the over 14,000 churches of the denomination in the United States. It had many great ministries and programs and an excellent staff. Sure enough, I was in over my head.

Pastor Cope (to this day, I cannot call him “Clarence”) and I did have an interesting connection. I had served as the pastor of a small congregation in the Orebank area of Kingsport, TN. Forty years earlier, he had served that same church.

He decided that I would be the Minister of Outreach. When I asked what that meant, he said that I was to reach out to the community on behalf of the church. Duh. What I did was up to me, subject to his approval, but it was clear that he expected me to perform. And so, I set out to do just that.

Before it was all over, I had created, inherited, or helped to create, and was in charge of fourteen different ministries. Among my responsibilities were the college and career group (that grew from twelve to an average of 176), Solid Rock Productions which brought to the city a number of contemporary Christian rock concerts and expanded the nursing home ministry from two to nine with a weekly attendance of over four hundred.

I started a competitive martial arts class that had over 40 students; started, with the help of the other associates and their departments, a special worship service for mentally challenged adults that had 100 in attendance each Sunday; encouraged some of the college and career folks in the formation of a worship team/Christian rock band named “Hundredfold,” that cut a record; started a Christian program using pop music on a secular radio station; help create a blood bank at the local hospital for members of the church; dealt with most of the homeless transients who passed through the city (due to that pesky social work degree); and taught in the Berean School of the Bible classes that prepared people educationally for ordination.

I also participated in hospital visitation on a weekly basis, preached in the evening services infrequently, and had other duties as assigned.

I felt that my time there was successful, and it was successful because of Pastor Cope. He corrected me when I needed it, tutored and mentored me when I was lacking, encouraged me when I was discouraged, and — above all — believed in me and allowed me more freedom than I ever would have expected. He also took the flak from discontented members and board members if they felt I was coloring outside the lines.

Even back then in the early 1980s, the church was 75 years old and very conservative. Once, after one of the evangelical Christian rock concerts that featured the Chicago-based Resurrection Band, many young people came to the altar and a number left their bottles of whiskey, marihuana joints, and other drugs and paraphernalia that were discovered the next morning.

Apparently, a few members were apoplectic that “those people” had profaned the sanctuary. I never heard a word about it. Pastor Cope paid the price because he believed that “those people” were worth his sacrifice.

I know it sounds like I’m bragging on myself, but I truly am not. I had not a clue how to serve a large church and I was certain that Pastor Cope would regret hiring me. His example, his encouragement, his willingness to let me “color outside the lines,” are the reasons why so much outreach was able to take place. Every success that I had was due to him.

In 1983, he decided to step down as the pastor and move into the next phase of his ministry. He wrote a wonderful reference letter to me that was the key in bringing me to Georgia. It seems that the chair of the pastor search committee had been in Pastor Cope’s church in Columbus, GA years earlier and, “If you are good enough for Clarence Cope, you’re good enough for me,” he said.

In 1985, Pastor Cope and Irene became missionaries in Sri Lanka and served for 18 years before retiring. They retired to Columbus, GA and I added them to my Christmas card list.

This year the card came back to me. Thanks to social media, I was able to locate his son, also a minister, who shared that Irene died last year at the age of ninety-eight. Pastor Cope has some physical problems and is in the final states of Alzheimer’s disease. His daughter gets his mail and I hope that he can have this read to him.

I’d like him to know that one of the kids in that karate class is a pastor today. One of the young men in the college and career group serves as the senior pastor of one of the largest churches in western Colorado. One of those young men went on to be the mayor of Grand Junction, and at least two others of the group are missionaries. There are scores, perhaps hundreds of other stories of which I am unaware.

I waited too long to say “thank you” to Mrs. Cope and I truly regret that. I hope and pray I haven’t waited too long to express my gratitude to Pastor Cope.

From time to time, God sends people across our path whose influence is immeasurable. He took a chance on a then-29-year-old young man who, in many ways, didn’t fit the profile of a staff member on a large church. I’m still not sure what he saw in me, but he saw something, and I will be forever grateful he did.

So, “Thank you, Pastor Cope. I still can’t call you Clarence. I didn’t fully realize it at the time, but my short three years in western Colorado transformed my perspective, my ministry, and my life. I will always be grateful.”

[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). During the pandemic, the church is open at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays but is also live streaming at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life) He may contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]

4 COMMENTS

  1. Rev. Epps – Congratulations for your early ministry accomplishments and for honoring the legacy of your aging mentor. Your tribute was very gracious.

    For your regular column readers here at the Citizen, I hope you might someday recapture that youthful exuberance to color outside the lines. With Christianity losing adherents, a fresh approach that focuses upon the philosophy of Jesus rather than the wielding of power would be welcome.

    At any rate, your willingness to acknowledge the shoulders on which you were allowed to stand is commendable.