Popular Pastor Returning to Abilene
By LORETTA FULTON
Methodists are used to change, but no one could have predicted the big change that is coming in July.
And, it will be welcomed news to all who were touched by the ministry of Felicia Hopkins when she served as senior pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church from 2013 to 2019.
Hopkins will be returning to Abilene effective July 1, but not as pastor of St. Paul or any other local United Methodist congregation. Instead, Hopkins will become superintendent of the Abilene District of the church’s Northwest Texas Annual Conference. In July 2019, Hopkins was named superintendent of the Amarillo District and expected to be there longer than two years.
Then George Price, superintendent of the Abilene District, chose to retire, leaving an opening, which Hopkins was glad to step into.
“I feel like Abilene is more like home,” Hopkins said. “God just worked it out.”
One of Hopkins’ two sons, Adam, lives at Disability Resources Inc. in Abilene and another lives in Dallas. Hopkins already was making regular trips to Abilene to visit Adam and was delighted when the unexpected opportunity arose to relocate.
“I’m very, very happy to come back,” she said.
A couple of other ministers with Abilene ties also will be on the move this summer. Amy Wilson-Feltz has been named senior pastor at Morning Star UMC in Las Cruces, N.M. She had been serving in the lead position at St. Paul’s UMC in El Paso since July 2019. Before her appointment in El Paso, Wilson-Feltz was associate pastor at Abilene’s Aldersgate UMC.
Former Morning Star pastor, Ross Whiteaker, has been named pastor of Central UMC in Albuquerque, N.M. Whiteaker previously served as pastor of The Branch in Abilene, a church started by St. Paul UMC.
The Northwest Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church also will be gaining a new bishop when W. Earl Bledsoe, current bishop, retires at the end of 2021.
Felicia Hopkins made history when she was appointed pastor of Abilene’s St. Paul UMC in 2013. She was the first Black pastor of the historic downtown church and the first woman to be named senior pastor. A longtime member of the church, Cheryl Holmes, commented for an Abilene Reporter-News story by Loretta Fulton that St. Paul had better be prepared for a big change. She had heard Hopkins preach and knew that the congregation was in for something special.
“I thought, ‘St. Paul better get ready because she’s going to turn us on our ear,’” Holmes said.
It didn’t take long for others in Abilene to hear about Hopkins and her high-energy preaching style. Each year, before COVID-19 changed the format, five ministers rotate preaching for the Holy Week Luncheon Series. One of the participating churches is St. Paul UMC. For six years, the audience, consisting of members of all five sponsoring churches, plus other guests, got to hear Hopkins preach one of the sermons.
When Hopkins was named Amarillo District superintendent in July 2019, she took with her a background in administration and leadership, in addition to her pulpit ministry. She had supervised hundreds of people in the corporate world with Pepsi-Cola, Walmart, and Kraft. She also served 20 years on active duty and as a reservist in the U.S. Army.
During her military career, Hopkins was a trauma chaplain during Operation Iraqi Freedom, ministering to more than 12,000 wounded soldiers and their families at a hospital in Germany.
A district superintendent in the United Methodist Church oversees the congregations and pastors within the district. The Abilene District consists of about 50 churches as far away as Vernon. The job is more than full time.
“There is no lag time,” Hopkins said.
Pastoral appointment decisions begin in February and run through May. There are annual conferences and jurisdictional conferences to attend, churches to visit, and consultations to be scheduled with the pastors in the local churches. Hopkins also teaches a class on church polity and administration for pastors in training one Saturday a month at McMurry University. As Hopkins noted, there is no lag time.
“You jump right in,” she said.
Hopkins’ background in trauma will certainly serve her well in her leadership position. The United Methodist Church, like other denominations before it, is facing a major split that could result in two “not united” churches. The split concerns issues of sexuality, including the ordination of gays and same-sex marriages within the church.
The church’s General Conference, where policy is determined, has been postponed twice due to COVID. The church now is scheduled to meet August 29 to September 6, 2022, in Minneapolis. Predictions are that the once-united denomination will split into two separate churches.
When fellow United Methodists express concern over the future of the church, Hopkins replies in her trademark style, using an easy-to-understand example. She compares the national issue to a tall BLT or club sandwich, with layers of ingredients.
“You’re down on the bottom with the mayo,” Hopkins says, meaning “don’t worry about it,” higher-ups will make those decisions.
June 23 is “moving day” for United Methodist Church clergy, including district superintendents. The church bases its pastor rotation on its circuit-rider history when pastors traveled on horseback from one town to another. Pastoral changes aren’t made as frequently as they were in the past, but UMC pastors still can be expected to be on the move throughout their career.
Hopkins points to her history of working in trauma, with soldiers and their families, as good preparation for her current ministry. The United Methodist Church, too, is in a period of trauma, with an uncertain future. Hopkins draws from the Book of Esther to explain her confidence as a church leader.
“I really think God sent me for such a time as this,” she said.