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Circuit-riding pastors doing double duty

September 30, 2007|By MARLO BARNHART

WASHINGTON COUNTY - In Colonial America, a circuit rider customarily made a monthlong journey on horseback between churches, carrying a Bible and the sacraments in his saddlebags.

Bad weather, poor food and inconsistent shelter were part of the calling then.

Things have changed for circuit-riding pastors of the 21st century - most have traded their horses in for horsepowered passenger vehicles or, in the case of the Rev. Jerry Lowans, a Harley.

Lowans is the new pastor at Washington Square and St. Matthew's United Methodist churches in Hagerstown. In July, those two churches became the West Hagerstown Parish.

"For 16 years, I served two churches in West Virginia, separated by a mountain," Lowans said.

Although there is just a city block between his current congregations, the challenges are similar.

In West Virginia, Lowans would go to the church in Jones Spring at 9 a.m., then over North Mountain to Butler's Chapel for the 10 a.m. service.

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In good weather, Lowans rode his Harley. Otherwise, he took the car.

"You need to learn the families," Lowans said of serving a multichurch parish. "Some churches are traditional while others are more contemporary. It's not just geography - there are cultural differences."

Since his duties in Hagerstown began two months ago, Lowans has learned that his two congregations are trying to reach out to the changing community they share.

"These congregations used to attract the railroading families who lived here," Lowans said.

Many of those families moved out of the West End long ago, and others moved in.

Once a month, the two churches are holding joint activities called Igniting Ministries. In September, the event centered around providing free school supplies for neighborhood children.

Lowans preaches to the 40-plus faithful at St. Matthew's at 9:30 a.m., then motors over to Washington Square for the 11 a.m. service, which usually attracts between 100 and 120 people each Sunday. He can walk or ride his motorcycle when the weather is good.

Lowans, who still lives in West Virginia, said the motorcycle helps him save money on gas.

On the circuit

Lowans joins a circuit-riding fraternity in Washington County that includes, among others, Delancey Catlett and recently retired Ellie Doub, both of whom serve two churches, and Scott Summers, who has three congregations.

The Potomac United Methodist Charge keeps Summers busy even though he lives next door to St. Paul's in Big Pool, and is just six miles from Mount Carmel in Shanktown and Park Head in Pecktonville.

"My first year at Potomac Charge was very energizing," Summers said. "But now, the honeymoon is over and I am back to the point of focusing on my ministry."

Not only are there three services each Sunday, Summers also attends three finance meetings and three council meetings.

Summers said administrative duties are necessary, but ministering is the reason for getting into the profession.

"It's my calling ... God hit me over the head with it and most days, I feel truly blessed," he said.

A circuit rider when he was part time with two churches in Allegany County, Summers said life happens for him just as for anyone else.

Summers has a 17-year-old daughter and is working to finish his seminary studies.

"Each church has 40 to 45 people and they are similar, so we want to talk together and have events for the whole charge," Summers said.

Delancey Catlett first had one church in 2002, then in 2005, he took on both Mount Vernon Reformed United Church of Christ in Keedysville and Christ Reformed United Church of Christ in Sharpsburg.

"There used to be three churches in a charge," Catlett said. "The other was in Boonsboro."

Catlett now contracts separately with each of the two remaining churches.

With a distance of three miles between his churches, Catlett said it is a joy, not a burden, to serve two congregations with rich historical pasts and bright futures.

Both buildings were hospitals during the Civil War, he said.

"It is more work in some cases," Catlett said. "There are double meetings and double activities, but I do the same sermon for each."

Christmas is separate in each church, but there are joint activities during Easter and Thanksgiving, he said.

Newly retired Pastor Eleanor Doub served the Beaver Creek-Keedysville Lutheran parish with St. Matthew's at 8:45 a.m. and St. Peter's in Keedysville at 10:45 a.m.

In nine years at that two-church parish, Doub said one of the downsides was not being able to personally attend either church's Sunday school. Fortunately, she said, she had strong Sunday school leaders.

"I have forgotten my sermon notes, but I can usually remember," Doub said.

As for her robes, Doub always carried her vestments from one church to the other so she wouldn't have to go without.

'Like a marriage'

"It's like a marriage," Lowans said of the circuit-riding pastor phenomena. "There is a unity candle which the bride and groom light ... but they keep their own candle, too."

So while other pastors have one church to deal with, Lowans and other circuit riders share the ultimate goal of all pastors.

"I am told to go out and make new disciples and spread the good news," Lowans said.

Whether they do it from a Harley instead of a horse - the mission is the same.

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