This spring, the Rev. Chris Westmoreland got a call he wasn’t expecting.
The longtime pastor of Assurance United Methodist Church in Huntersville learned he would be part of the Western North Carolina Conference’s annual moving of pastors, leaving the church he has served since 2004.
Moving pastors to different churches is a longtime tradition in the Methodist Church, a system of itinerancy that dates back to John Wesley, who founded Methodism.
Westmoreland was in California for a conference when his move, which he later learned would be to Longs Chapel UMC in Waynesville (in Haywood County), was confirmed. He had booked an extra day on the West Coast, and he headed to the Joshua Tree National Forest.
“I spent a day in the most desolate, silent place I’ve ever been trying to get some peace about this,” he said.
He said he sobbed and grieved on the whole plane ride home.
“I’ve loved this church and what it’s meant to serve here,” he said. “I was trying to let go of what I thought my role was going to be in the future.”
After two weeks, he broke the news to his congregation.
“I know you feel shocked, I’m feeling that too,” he told them. “And I know that it’s going to be OK.”
In early July, Methodist pastors will preach their first sermons at their new churches. Lonnie Pittman, who is leaving Faith United Methodist in Indian Trail and is a good friend of Westmoreland’s, will be in the pulpit at Assurance.
“I think (Pittman) has everything the church needs to find its next gear and be faithful and fruitful in its next season,” Westmoreland said. “Even though I have some grief about leaving, it’s a real silver lining to me to know that the church is going to be in such good hands.”
After graduating from Duke University, Westmoreland served six years as a youth director at churches in Kings Mountain and Chapel Hill, and then led Clyde Central United Methodist Church in western North Carolina for another six years.
Clyde Central was a “small town church,” but it was bigger than Assurance UMC when he was appointed there, Westmoreland said.
Assurance UMC was reeling from several years of transition.
The church was started in 1996 when St. James UMC and Chadwick UMC, two churches in West Charlotte, merged. Members felt they weren’t effectively reaching people in West Charlotte, and they wanted to have a bigger impact.
The new church met at Long Creek Elementary and sometimes Paw Creek Presbyterian while it constructed a building on Mt. Holly-Huntersville Road. Church member Sam Smith said the church had met with Martin Crampton, former planning director for the City of Charlotte, who suggested the church build near an interchange off the proposed outer belt of I-485.
“That was great advice,” Smith said. “We discovered such a site and soon found ourselves in the middle of the two fastest growing census tracts in Mecklenburg County.”
Soon after Assurance moved into its new building, however, the founding pastor had a stroke, Smith said. For the next three years, the church was led by two short-term interim pastors and a pastor who served a two-year appointment.
Westmoreland was appointed in 2004 at a time when “Assurance was far from realizing its growth potential,” Smith said.
Westmoreland said he spent the first year helping the church heal and get settled. Then they began to establish roots.
Assurance UMC had started a preschool in 2000 with 30 children, and now it has more than 225. Young families with children were drawn to the church, which started a Sunday morning children’s ministry in 2004, making it an intergenerational congregation, Westmoreland said.
Westmoreland added a modern worship service that became the church’s highest attended Sunday service.
He embraced the church’s efforts to reach out to its community. The church has sponsored tailgates, Christmas and Easter events at a nearby apartment complex and now started a second service on Charlotte’s west side, where Assurance’s original members came from.
Church members say, while they are deeply saddened that Westmoreland is leaving, they are not worried about the church’s future.
“I think that one of the best gifts Chris will leave us with is he has equipped us to continue this work and instilled in all of our hearts this mission,” said Natalie English, co-chairwoman of the church’s staff-parish relations committee.
The church has grown significantly during Westmoreland’s tenure. On his first Sunday, 120 people attended. At the service in May where he preached his final sermon, 650 were there.
Parishioners say they will remember Westmoreland’s big personality and his ability to make the person he was talking to feel like the most important person in the world.
Marty Minchin is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Assurance United Methodist Church, 9700 Mt Holly-Huntersville Road, Huntersville. www.assuranceumc.org.