BRUNSWICK, GA. | Wright Culpepper and his son Bill will sometimes sit down at the table and talk about church.
But it will be the conference table at Brunswick First United Methodist Church and never, they hope, over the dinner table.
The elder Culpepper, both in age and ordination, will deliver a Father’s Day message on his first day as senior pastor at Brunswick First United Methodist Church, while his son, ordained a deacon, will become his father’s associate pastor.
It is rare but not unheard of for the United Methodist Church to place family members in pastoral duties in the same church. The church has assigned husbands and wives, or clergy couples, on occasions. Years ago, Glynn County had three clergy couples, but they shared parsonages and split up on Sunday mornings to lead different congregations.
Their ordinations make a little difference. Both can preach and be administrators, but as a deacon, Bill Culpepper cannot give communion without the permission of the bishop.
Although it’s officially pastor and associate pastor, the Culpeppers say they will try to be co-pastors with responsibilities assigned by age. The Rev. Wright will take those 40 and older and the Rev. Bill those younger than 40. You would think that would mean the father would preach all the funerals, but perhaps not.
It took awhile to work through all the working parts with the bishop and others who had a say in filling a pulpit during the Methodists’ season of reassignment.
“I told them they’re getting a 60-year-old brain and 30-year-old legs,” Wright Culpepper said.
His son will do all the legwork, he said, and “I’m going to sit and ponder.”
He is joking, of course, because for the past 22 years much of his pondering has been on Brunswick’s streets, dirt alleys and porches ministering to the poor, the homeless and many who need a church but don’t have one.
He filled his first pulpit from 1985 to 1988 at Lizella United Methodist Church near Macon then came to St. Simons Island as the first pastor of a new church, Wesley United Methodist at Frederica. He stayed there from 1988 until 1995 when the Methodists, nationally, were trying to figure out how to minister outside the church walls.
Had he remained the pastor of a church, he would have gone through what is typically a three-year cycle.
“It’s a membership mentality,” he said. “Most spend a year getting to know everybody, a year leading the congregation and a year saying goodbye.”
They offered that outside ministry to Culpepper, and he took it with one proviso: “If you let me stay in the same field I’m plowing. That’s how we started FaithWorks.”
FaithWorks helps provide food, clothing and ministry to the needy, and the organization turned an old downtown Greyhound bus station into The Well, a day shelter where homeless adults can do their laundry, take showers and find work.
He’ll remain as executive director of FaithWorks, which is in the next block from First Methodist, and he and his co-pastor/son plan to have the church branch out in other directions.
On the opposite side of the church from The Well is Glynn Academy, one of Glynn County’s two public high schools and where Bill Culpepper graduated.
“I’ve asked him to consider how we minister to the teachers and the parents at Glynn Academy,” he said of his son.
They also have established a connection across town at Brunswick High.
Bill Culpepper has his own experience. After getting a divinity degree from the University of South Carolina, he went to work 5½ years ago at Mulberry Street United Methodist in Macon where, his father said, “He got a good understanding of what a downtown church is.”
He started in youth ministry then took on other responsibilities before coming home to join his father in Brunswick.
They firmly share one belief that Wright Culpepper said he gleaned from an older pastor long ago. He said that a pastor’s first job is to raise his children and, after that, he can work on becoming a great evangelist or whatever.
“You’ve got 18 years to do it,” he said.
Wright and Ann Culpepper raised two others beside Bill, their youngest. There have a daughter, Catherine Ann, who’s married to an Army Ranger and living in Columbus, and Wright Jr., who is married and lives in Columbia, S.C. Each have two children and are involved heavily in their churches, so you figure they were raised right and married well.
As for family, Bill will miss his father’s Father’s Day sermon, but it’s for family. He’s in South Carolina officiating at a sister-in-law’s wedding.
Both of them say they’ll do their best to not take church home.
One of Bill’s friends is the son of a pastor and a pastor himself. They have a practice for family vacations.
“Anytime one of them mentions church, they have to put $1 in a Mason jar,” he said.
The Culpeppers plan to carry that out with resolve rather than fines.
As for the division of labor, Wright Culpepper will at times work with some congregants on his son’s side of 40.
“We’re excited to move closer to family,” his son said, “if, for nothing else, the baby-sitting.”
The reverend, elder and granddaddy is very willing.
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