Lance Presley has a lot to prove. Especially to the youngsters at Broadmeadow United Methodist Church.
On his first Sunday there as new pastor earlier this month, during the children’s time, one girl asked if he was related to Elvis.
“Second cousin twice removed,” he replied.
She asked for proof.
“If you want bloodwork on my first Sunday here, I’ve got nothing,” he laughed.
What Presley does have is a desire to see the Church – globally and here at home – build community.
The 38-year-old North Mississippi native grew up on a seventh generation family farm in the Palmetto community along the Natchez Trace outside of Tupelo. His family was very involved in their small United Methodist Church just a third of a mile from their home.
A Mississippi State University political science graduate in 2000, Presley planned for a Ph.D. in political theory at Texas A&M. But he didn’t finish, realizing it wasn’t his thing.
“I stayed five years [in Texas], got an office job – and waited,” he recalled.
Presley became involved at his church, A&M United Methodist and, through a series of volunteer ministries there, found his calling.
“I helped begin an ecumenical group of as many as 500 young professionals and graduate students [who gathered] once a month, all accidentally. I said ‘I’ll make some phone calls’ and it just happened. And I realized, ‘this might be it.’”
When he approached pastoral leadership to tell of his intention to be a minister, they said “they were waiting for me to say so.”
After accepting scholarships, Presley made a pledge to come back to Mississippi after seminary at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. The school is where he would meet fellow student – and now his wife – Paige.
When Lance graduated in 2008, he accepted a three-point charge – three churches – in Itawamba County, spending his and Paige’s first year of marriage apart while she finished her schooling. He served there two years.
In 2010, he was appointed to Nugent United Methodist Church in Gulfport where he was the lead pastor for seven years. When Paige moved last June to Jackson to become director of the Center for Ministry and now associate chaplin at Millsaps College, the first year of marriage déjà vu returned.
“When Paige got the job at Millsaps, we knew that I was probably getting moved [this year],” he said. “I requested it – because I like living with my wife. That year apart was not great. We were fine, but it was a lot of driving.”
Lance has spent a good bit of time in Jackson over the last year so he could be with Paige, even going through Millsaps College’s Business Advantage Program. “I’d already started shifting where I considered myself to be. That helps.”
Of his congregation at Nugent, he admits, it was hard to leave. “You miss people,” he explained. “You are there for weddings and funerals and everything between. So it’s impossible not to if you care about them.”
Settling in at Broadmeadow, a 1950s founded congregation in the Top of Fondren, Presley said the church’s reputation proceeds it.
“Broadmeadow is fairly well-known across the [United Methodist] Conference,” he told. “Traditionally, in last decade or so, it’s been seen as more progressive when it comes to Mississippi United Methodist churches.”
This gives Presley the chance, he said, “to be myself in terms of how I lead and who I am and what I believe.”
“I like to refer to myself as progressively orthodox. I believe in the theological teachings, but tend politically and theologically to be on the more progressive end of things. I’m up front about that. It’s nice to be in a place that at least welcomes ideological diversity within the congregation.”
And, he said, that’s what a church is supposed to be, a place that tries to bring people together, to bridge gaps.
“I hope Broadmeadow is a place we can do that.”
With a small but determined membership base, Broadmeadow, Presley said, wants to know how they can best serve the community.
“The last three weeks, I’ve been at lunch or coffee almost every day, trying to get a sense of who [congregants] are,” he said.
“There is a desire to reach the community around us and we just want to figure out how. How to strengthen that, to help people know who we are and where we are and why they should be here – that helps us make the community a better place.”
Presley said he understands there’s baggage for the Christian Church – all denominations. “In large part, the Church has done its dead level best to take itself out of relevance,” he explained.
“First, I believe the message the Church has is relevant. Whether we put it out in a way that can be heard is our question. We need to make the Church a place where questions and doubts are welcome and it’s OK. Bring your doubts, questions – pain – you don’t have to buy in right now.”
Presley believes this: the Church is at its best, not when it yells at people, but when it says, “We have space, we have community: come be with us.”
“That’s not a program for growth; it’s what we’re supposed to be.”
As Broadmeadow seeks to find its community, Presley hopes others who are seeking will join Broadmeadow’s search, too.
“What I hope is that younger people, who are maybe iffy about church and faith, will continue to pour into the Church. It isn’t going to change unless the people who want it to change stick around. That’s why I’m here.”