I have some big news to share:

My family will be making a significant transition this summer. I will be transitioning from being a member of the faculty at Candler School of Theology, Emory University to joining the pastoral staff at First Methodist Waco. I am so excited to join the pastoral staff at the church as Associate Pastor of Discipleship!

This is a challenging post to write because I am thinking of so many different audiences as I write this. I am aware that this post will be read by people where we live. It will also be read by people at our new church. And it will be read by a lot of people who have followed this blog over the years and will wonder why I am stepping out of an academic position where I earned tenure just about a year ago in order to return to the local church. 

First of all, I want to say that the past seven years have been wonderful in so many ways. God has been so faithful to us! Our family has thrived here. When we moved to Atlanta, we had a 1st grader, a child starting pre-K, and one who was just barely walking. Our youngest is now older than our oldest was when we got here. Melissa and I are so grateful to have lived here for this season. Thanks are especially due to Grayson United Methodist Church! We have been blessed to have a community come around us and love each one of us so well. We will take countless memories with us and cherish the friendships that we all have formed throughout this season. Thank you for all you have done for us and all you have been to us.

My time at Candler School of Theology, Emory University was filled with blessings as well. I got paid for seven years to teach, read, write, think, and pray with students. I am regularly surprised and delighted to receive emails from former students updating me on their lives and thanking me for teaching them. It is still surreal to me that I got paid to teach and that people acted like I had done them a favor. Candler provided generous and exceptional support for my work as a scholar that allowed me to do research that would not have been possible otherwise, especially the work on Old or New School Methodism?

Candler also provided a context where I was able to think more carefully about the teachings of the United Methodist Church. Over the past seven years I learned, I hope, how to more effectively advocate for my church’s doctrine and discipline. In my classes, we talked openly about the controversies facing the UMC, in part because I’ve never been very good at ignoring the elephant in the room. As an elder in the church who was teaching students preparing for ordination in the same church, I felt obligated to do what I could to try to help students think as well as they could about these issues. I also wanted them to hear the most faithful and gracious case I could make that affirmed the current teaching of their church.

But my favorite part of teaching was getting to talk with students about the keys to Methodism’s spiritual vitality when British and American Methodism experienced revival. I loved teaching the class on Methodist doctrine, where I walked through the way of salvation, particularly engaging students on Wesley’s audacious optimism of the possibility of perfect love, by the grace of God, in this life. And I loved teaching the class on the central importance of small groups in early Methodism. I enjoyed teaching both of these particular classes so much because I believe they are still relevant for Methodists today. I want to see them come back to life in local churches today. I am certain that where Methodist churches return to the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out, God’s blessing will follow. 

And above all else, I loved praying with my students. I prayed at the beginning of each class. And I invited students to ask me to pray with them. The highest honor given to me over the past seven years was when a student would reach out to me for prayer. And it was such a gift to see the Lord move in the lives of my students! I have had the particular privilege these last few years of having a student become my pastor and my family’s pastor. God is good!

Candler has been supportive of my teaching and scholarly career since the day I arrived, and I know that support ultimately derives from my Dean’s generosity and kindness to me, for which I am grateful. Jan Love has been consistently kind, generous, and gracious to me. The gift of tenure that Candler gave me last year is just one example of many of the support shown to me over the past several years. I would be lying if I said that making the decision to leave wasn’t hard.

So, why am I leaving full-time teaching within the academy to serve on a pastoral staff in the local church?

The short version is because I believe God has called me to this place and to this role. Melissa and I have had a growing sense that doors were closing here and that God was going to open a new door for us to walk through. We have been praying regularly for God to open the door that He wanted to open and to keep doors closed that should stay closed. And we prayed that God would unite us as husband and wife, that we would be deeply unified in our desire to walk through the door God opened.

In the academy, it is often hard to make space for testimony and speaking to a sense of God’s guidance and direction in one’s life. It is important for me to say that we are making this move because we feel like God is in it. Above all else, we want to be faithful to the Lord and grow in our love and dependence on Jesus. 

And I cannot express just how excited I am to be joining the staff at First Methodist Waco! Pastor Ryan Barnett, the senior pastor, is a person I deeply respect who has shown moral courage. His love for Jesus and Christ’s church is visible. I am humbled to join his team. In the brief interactions I’ve had with the other pastors on staff, I have been extremely impressed. Pastor Brandon has already been a gift and encouragement to our family. (Our kids cannot wait to visit Fabled!) I am also aware of the faithful witness of those who have served before me. I hope to honor their work by building on it.  

It took me awhile to recognize what was happening, but I have had a growing desire to be more fully involved in the life of the local church, not only as an active participant, but as a leader on the ground in the local church. When Pastor Ryan invited me to come and serve in this role, it caught me a bit off guard at first. But I realized that he was asking me to do what I have been urging pastors across Methodism to do for the past thirteen years. My passion has been calling Methodists to return to their roots in deep discipleship to Jesus Christ, giving all of their lives to Jesus. Methodists have historically done an exceptional job of helping people avoid being merely fans of Jesus, but leading people to become deeply committed followers of Jesus Christ. In the work I have done on Wesleyan discipleship, especially the need to reclaim class and band meetings, the response I’ve gotten time and time again is something like this: “Ok, we agree with everything you’ve said. But how do we actually do this on the ground in the local church?” This is where people have often wanted to hear more.

And so when I was asked to step into a multi-site congregation, one of the strongest and healthiest congregations in the Central Texas Annual Conference, and to focus particularly on discipleship systems and building small groups and community to help Christians grow in their faith, it just made more and more sense. My soul shifted from: “What will people say if you walk away from tenure at Emory?” to simply sensing a deep peace and a simple, “Yes!”

I want to give myself to this work. This is an opportunity for me to put into practice what I have been researching and writing about my entire academic career. I have always hoped that my academic work was ultimately in service to the church. Being given the chance to practice what I’ve preached, so to speak, is a tremendous opportunity!

And so, to the folks at First Methodist Waco: Melissa and I are so excited to meet you and build relationships with you! I am a Texan. I was born in Houston and lived there until just before starting school. We moved back to Houston when I was in high school. And anyone who knows me at all knows I am a die-hard and unapologetic Houston Astros fan. Our second child was born in Dallas, when I was working on my PhD at Southern Methodist University. So, we are 40% Texan already! I can’t wait to get back to Texas!

I want to spend time learning about you and your church. I want to get to know you first. I want you to know up front that I have two main goals at the outset. First, by the grace of God, I will do everything I can to help you know where you are in your walk with Jesus. You need to know where you are before you can know what the next step is. Second, once you have a sense of where you are in your life with Christ, again, by the grace of God, I will do everything I can to come alongside you to empower you to take the next step in your faith. There is nothing more meaningful or fulfilling in this life than seeing people grow in their faith.

People of First Methodist Waco, we cannot wait to meet you!

(Click here for the announcement First Methodist made yesterday afternoon.)

Kevin M. Watson teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you. Affiliate links used in this post.