When the announcement was made, there was not a “dry eye in the house.”
For First United Methodist Church of Eupora, it was heartbreaking to hear the news that their well-loved pastor of seven years, Rev. Trey Harper, and his family have been re-appointed to First UMC in Forest.
First United Methodist Church of Eupora will be hosting a farewell reception for the Harper Family on Sunday, June 15 from 4-6 p.m. in the church fellowship hall to give church members and the community an opportunity to say goodbye to the Harpers. The community is invited to come and offer its thanks and prayers for a happy transition to Forest. A “love offering” will be taken for those wishing to express their appreciation.
During his final weeks at EFUMC, Harper is preaching a sermon series, FINAL WORDS.
“In many ways, it is conveying my final hopes and dreams and advice to (Eupora First UMC) as we make this transition,” Harper said. “I also have the opportunity to share … my gratitude to EFUMC for loving us with their whole hearts. They have celebrated the birth of our youngest and help raised our other kids. They have loved us even when they thought my ideas were suspect. And for that love, they will always hold a place in my heart. So to EFUMC I want to say, again, keep being the amazing Family of Faith you are and can be. And never stop short of pursuing God’s Kingdom. There are many who still need to know the love of God as only you can show.”
And to the Eupora community, the Harpers have nothing but thankful, grateful hearts.
“We want to thank you for taking us in and helping us find a place to be a family,” Harper said. “Thank you for inviting us into your homes and lives. Thank you for making us feel a part of this amazing place. And to you I say, never sell yourself short. For I believe with all my heart and soul, if this little town ever fully realizes its potential and gifts; you will have to make a waiting list of folks who want to be a part of Eupora.”
The Harpers moved to Eupora following six years of serving multiple small rural churches in Carroll and Leflore counties. They were very excited about the change in ministry to focusing on a single church and a typical “small town First Church.”
“But little did we know that there is nothing ‘typical’ about EFUMC,” Harper said. “Unlike many traditional churches of similar backgrounds, we found in EFUMC a general desire to grow; coupled with an understanding that to grow means to change. And so many times the older generations within churches get the reputation for being barriers to new and creative ways of thinking and doing things. I found just the opposite experience at EFUMC. Our older people understood that the lifeblood of our church had to be young people and young families. Therefore, they were willing to make concessions and accommodations in worship, mission and ministry in order to find a place for the younger folks.”
Although most people find it hard to believe, identifying how EFUMC has grown and changed during the time the Harpers have been in Eupora, was a hard question to answer. Harper said it is not that he doesn’t realize the “amazing things God has done in our midst, but it is really all a matter of perspective.”
“From the moment I arrived seven years ago, I have always seen EFUMC as it could be,” Harper said. “I think that is a vital role of ministers, to discern God’s will and help our people understand God’s vision. Therefore the step-by-step transition is something that often goes unnoticed because I am always looking forward to what can be.”
Harper said a huge fault of this forward vision is that it can appear that all of the church’s progress is still not good enough.
“I am immensely proud of the church that EFUMC has become,” Harper said. “While there will always be more work to be done, I just sit in awe when I pause and look at all that God’s goodness and their faithfulness has accomplished. EFUMC is a church that is warm and more welcoming to all people. It is a place that truly has a heart and a passion for children and youth, and is willing to provide the financial and leadership resources necessary to support those ministries. It is a church that has been able to circumvent so many of the conflicts over worship styles and ministries, because they put people first. It is more important to our folks that everyone who enters our doors has a connection; than it is that we have worship services and ministries that cater to our own preferences.”
Harper said the special memories at EFUMC are too many to count. Someone might expect public moments like the annual Worship on the Water, or Trunk-R-Treat, or even community events like being the voice of the Christmas parade or the EHS Band Draw-down as some of the highlights of Harper’s ministry in Eupora.
“But if I am honest, my special memories are all personal,” Harper said. “I will always cherish the early morning coffee conversation where a member in his 80’s shared his dream of having a free breakfast for the community every Sunday morning followed by casual worship. It was a dream that grew out of his concern for how hard it was for young families to get to church with children. Other special memories will include the new friends we made at community sporting events, that later became church members, in spite of the preacher acting like a typical sport parent.”
The countless families Eupora First Methodist Church has helped with bills and groceries and gas throughout the years also hold a special place in Harper’s heart.
“To see that we were willing to help without question caught so many of them completely off guard,” Harper said. “One lady I will always remember asked me, ‘Don’t you care why I can’t pay this bill?’ I told her I was happy to know if she wanted to share, but that I was helping her regardless. She sat there and began to cry, and then opened up about her life, her fears, and her worries. She still hugs me and calls me ‘her preacher’ whenever I see her in town; although she never darkened the doors of the church again.”
And who can forget the older ladies of the church who became Harper’s biggest prayer warriors and cheerleaders.
“These women had some of the most profound impacts on my own spiritual life, and I was blessed to have celebrated their final moments and their entrance into the Church triumphant,” Harper said.
One of the running jokes among pastors is that anyone under the age of 40 is still a “young preacher,” and although Harper is a whole lot closer to that threshold now, he said he came to Eupora with many lessons yet to learn.
“While I do sincerely appreciate all the wonderful compliments about how our ministry in Eupora has changed the church and the community for the better; the reality is, from my perspective, that Eupora and EFUMC has made me the better,” Harper said. “They have both taught me the power of possibility. One of my favorite stories from scripture is the anointing of David as king. David was young. David was a dreamer. No one had any great expectations for David’s life. Yet, God chose David to be the definitive king for his people. That is the power of possibility. I think for years people have seen the church and the community in much the same light. They were old. They were small. No one had great expectations for either. But with love, vision, faithfulness and a huge dose of God’s amazing blessings; I have been honored to see both the church and the community flourish and grow in amazing ways.”
Other than the pork loin sandwich at The Sandwich Shop, Harper said he could not begin the list all of the things his family will miss about Eupora and EFUMC.
“I was just recently talking to a friend about the pain of leaving, and she made the comment, ‘You guys made Eupora your home, and that is something preachers in the United Methodist Church don’t often do,’” Harper said. “And I understand what she is saying. Although our move was unexpected and in many ways unplanned and undesired; it is part of being United Methodist. As I shared with Rotary, I am only appointed a year at a time. And we have been amazingly blessed to have received seven appointments to EFUMC. But now that season has changed, and while it is painful, we understand it and own it. And all United Methodist pastors know this, and therefore it is a lot easier not to put down roots. But that is not the kind of people we are. When I was appointed to EFUMC, I was appointed to the entire community. And it is my prayer that the community has felt that I was their pastor, even for those that never sat in our pews. And because Eupora has been our home, we will miss every thing and everyone. We will miss the familiarity of this community, although I will not miss the steps on the ‘high side.’ We will miss the people that have become dear and wonderful friends. We will miss the amazing school system that has loved and nurtured our children. We will miss the church folks that have taken us into their lives, their families and their hearts.”
As the Episcopal Leader of the Mississippi Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church since 2012, Bishop James Swanson Sr., said he has grown to appreciate Rev. Trey Harper’s leadership.
“Trey exhibits leadership that is both administrative and pastoral in style,” Swanson said. “He is able to lead Eupora First United Methodist Church with both ‘Heart and Mind.’ After only a few moments with Trey you can grasp his high intellect as well as the compassion he has for others.”
Bishop Swanson said Harper has lead Eupora First Church the past seven years to a church that “welcomes persons of all ages and all walks in life.”
“When I preached at the church recently, I was impressed by the various ages of parishioners and how engaged the laity is in the life of their church,” Bishop Swanson said. “Rev. Harper has done an excellent job of helping the members obtain a God-centered vision and mission that they live out in their community and around the world.”
In addition to his service to his local church and community, Bishop Swanson said Harper also serves as the secretary of the Mississippi Annual Conference.
“In this role, he again exhibits great leadership that we in the Mississippi Annual Conference have grown to depend on,” Swanson said. “We are truly blessed by Rev. Harper’s leadership in our Annual Conference.”
Embra Jackson, Starkville district superintendent for the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church, said Harper is a great leader, not only for his church, but for the annual conference and his local community.
“He leads by example and is a great spiritual leader,” Jackson said. “He is comfortable being the minister of young children, teenagers, young adults, middle age adults and more seasoned persons. Under Trey’s leadership Eupora First membership has increased, particularly for families with young children. Under his leadership the church has also become more involved in their local community and throughout the Mississippi Annual Conference, as evidenced by the church’s recent involvement in the relief efforts related to the tornadoes that impacted Winston County. We will miss Trey in this district but we know that he will continue to provide great leadership in his next pastoral appointment. We wish the best for Trey and his family as they go forth.”
For more information about the reception set for the Harpers, contact the church office at (662) 258-2611.
See this story in the June 11, 2014 edition of The Webster Progress Times at http://websterprogresstimes.com/2014/06/12/first-umc-honors-harper-family/