A Resurrection Story

Rev. Karen Russell, Transitional Executive Presbyter, Holston Presbytery

The story of Presbyterians in the early years of this nation cannot be told without telling the stories of Holston Presbytery. Beginning with Rev. Samual Doak, who sent off the Over Mountain Boys to turn the tide of the Revolution, to the Rankin family of church planters, Upper East Tennessee has provided a great cloud of witnesses. Church after church in this region can trace its history back to the early days of settlers in the area. Hebron Presbyterian Church, just outside of Jefferson City, TN, is one of those churches.

Not more than two years ago, Hebron was on the way to becoming just another statistical point on the graph of denominational decline. The congregation was small, the building was old, and the congregation had been operating under an administrative commission for several years. The congregation didn’t meet at all for more than two years. Dissolution and decisions about the property were interrupted by a pandemic and staffing changes at the presbytery. 

But one Christmas Eve, appropriately enough, a few of the soon to be former members decided to have a Christmas Eve service. For decades, Hebron had been the location for an annual community picnic and Christmas Eve candlelight service. Without that service many families would have been without a place for their families to worship on that evening. The Hebron members decided that would not do!

The church was full for that Christmas Eve service. So then the picnic. And pretty soon that faithful remnant wondered why they couldn’t just worship together. With the assistance of Holston Presbytery, pastoral leadership, in the person of Mark Brown, was found.

On paper, Mark is an unlikely Presbyterian leader. He’s a working journalist for a local paper, former staff member at Carson Newman University, and Southern Baptist deacon. But also called to spread the gospel, and was doing some pulpit supply in other small churches. His leadership and pastoral presence was the spark Hebron members needed to continue to worship together each Sunday. Soon they were joined by some former members and some new folks as well.

Fast forward to late summer, 2023:  the building at Hebron needed repairs, and wasn’t sure how to get approval to get the work done. In the course of conversations, some of them frustrating, the question was asked: what do we need to do to get back control of our finances and decision making.

From that conversation, an informal meeting was held after church one Sunday to outline the process for forming a session and dismissing the Administrative Commission. In January, 2024, the first session in nearly seven years was installed. Over the last two years, the congregation has had income that exceeded expenses by more than $40,000. On the first Sunday after a session was formed, six new members were received! 

The story of Hebron Presbyterian Church is not the usual story for a small church well off the beaten path in a rural area. But it is a story of what can happen when a congregation gathers for worship without knowing how much money or how many people is necessary to keep things going. Because they were not obsessing over how much money they had, or how large the membership roll might be, the Spirit was able to lead in ways we often forget are even possible. It is an ongoing resurrection witness!