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SHREVE -- Bill Lawson leaned back in his office chair, surveyed his surroundings and sighed.
"I took eight boxes of stuff out of here," he said of his study inside Shreve United Methodist Church, "and it looks like I haven't touched the place."
It's easy to accumulate a lot when you've been at the same church for 17 years of a 38-year ministry.
But Lawson's time at Shreve is quickly coming to a close, as is his clergy career. His last day at the church was Sunday, June 25, after which he and his wife, Robin, will relocate to Taylorsville, Ky., to be closer to their two sons, daughters-in-law and two grandchildren.
The Lawsons were honored by the Shreve congregation last month with a "Faithful Shepherd Celebration," which included music and a congregational meal.
"My prayer is that our congregation follow Christ in the pattern which pastor Bill set before us as our pastoral shepherd," said Staff-Parish Relations Committee member Ken Cochran.
It's been nearly two decades since the East Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church paired Lawson and Shreve. A native of Jefferson County in eastern Ohio, Lawson recalled he had to get a map and locate Shreve, since he'd never heard of the place. At the time, the Lawsons were living in Cadiz and were hoping the new appointment would take them to a small town or somewhere out in the country, Lawson said, since neither of them had ever developed a fondness for city living.
Right from the start, Lawson said, he and his wife were welcomed by the congregation. Their belongings arrived a few days before the parsonage was ready, he said, so then-members Ken and Lois Miller offered them storage space inside the Cow Palace on state Route 226.
The day of the move, "a large group of men in pickup trucks came," and completed the move in just four hours, while the women of the church went about cleaning and preparing food in the Lawsons' new home, he said. The day ended with a picnic in the backyard.
It's those people he will miss, said Lawson, even though the names have changed as people have come and gone over the years. Still, he said, membership numbers have grown in a time when many churches struggle with the loss of members. For that, he credits the Shreve congregation. "I think," Lawson said, "it's the love of Jesus. You have people who meet Christ and because of that, they love other people."
The growth in numbers also resulted in a growth in facilities. Lawson was on hand when the church added a new sanctuary, elevator and additional classroom, kitchen and fellowship space and also when Shreve's activity center was built on a parcel adjacent to the church site on Main Street. Over the years, the Shreve membership has grown its mission relationship with fellow believers in Cuba as well.
But with all the activity, Lawson said "our mission has been pretty consistent -- to be a mission-minded, Bible-believing evangelical United Methodist Church."
Pastors in the United Methodist Church technically are appointed on a yearly basis, before which both the church and the pastor answer questions about their relationship, and pastors are asked to inform the conference what issues they have that play into whether they would like to be considered for transfer or remain where they are. For the first few years at Shreve, Lawson said he would dutifully fill out the paperwork but "after a while, it occurred to me that I want to be in a place where people desire to do great things for God."
And so year after year, he stayed in Shreve.
Now that the packing is well underway, Lawson said he looks forward to his move south, where he hopes he and his wife can fulfill their dream of building an earth-shelter house and where Robin Lawson, who has been active in therapy dog work during her time in Wayne County, can start a similar organization in Taylorsville. "We're excited to be able to retire, for the possibility of retirement," he said, but at the same time are sad to leave the people they've come to know over 17 years. "It's like you're leaving part of your close family," he said.
Lawson has spoken to the Rev. Michael Grant, who will succeed him at Shreve, and he offered him a bit of advice: "I said, 'love the people and let them love you, too. Lead the people, but let them lead, too, because there are good leaders here," he said. Grant, who most recently pastored Poland UMC in the Mahoning Valley, is in his 25th year of ministry.
"My prayer and the prayer of the congregation (when considering candidates) was not to be a copy of me," Lawson said, "but who could do a better job than I've done. There is a potential for growth to occur that would not occur if I was still here."
Reporter Tami Mosser can be reached at 330-287-1655 or firstname.lastname@example.org. She is @tamimosser on Twitter.