David Gass gave up a 30-year career at Y12, where he was a radiological engineer, and a nice home in West Knoxville to enter the ministry. He was 50 years old when he and his wife sold their home to pay for seminary school, and moved to Baltimore — home of Wesley Theological. He’s now been pastor at Oneida First United Methodist for three years, and is also pastor of Rugby Road United Methodist Church. He and his wife, Carolyn, came to Oneida in 2016 from Fincastle Methodist, just outside LaFollette. Last week, Gass sat down with the Independent Herald to discuss the ministry and the church in general as part of the newspaper’s “Conversations With Preachers” series.
Independent Herald: Because Scott County is a community primarily made up of Baptists or very similar denominations, maybe you can explain some of the differences — the first one being that Baptists and similar denominations elect pastors from within the local church, whereas Methodist pastors are appointed by the sanctioning body.
David Gass: Yes, the bishop and the cabinet determine where you’re going to serve. Basically, it’s a year-to-year decision. Officially, they look at your gifts and graces and determine which church can use your particular gift set and they send you to those churches.
IH: Prior to Oneida, the longest you served in any one church was two years. Is it common for Methodist pastors to have relatively short tenures?
DG: It is, but it’s becoming less common to move around so often. The way it works is we are in the Holston Conference. There’s a bishop who is over the conference, which goes from around Radford, Va. to just south of Chattanooga in Georgia, and from Rockwood to the Tennessee line to the east. We’re in the Tennessee Valley District and there are about 80 churches in our district. There aren’t many Methodists in Scott County, but from my first church, which was Linwood in North Knoxville, I could basically step outside on the front porch of the church and almost see another United Methodist Church. Within a mile I could count about eight United Methodist Churches. Knoxville has a ton of Methodist churches; we’re kinda like Baptists in some places.
I think they’ll leave me here for a while. A lot of pastors don’t want to come to places like Oneida because it’s so far from everything, and I want to be here. So I think they’ll let me stay.
IH: Describe your call to the ministry.
DG: I wasn’t very active in church most of my life. Dad was in the Navy, and I grew up moving from place to place. We just didn’t have time to get involved in church. We always went when we went home to visit my grandmother in West Tennessee, but church just wasn’t a big part of my life growing up. In the mid ‘90s, I walked to a mass retreat. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t believe Jesus was my savior, even not being churched, so to speak. But during that retreat I felt the presence of Christ. I just knew he was alive. For the first time I stopped seeing Jesus as a historical figure who died 2,000 years ago. At that retreat, I felt his presence and I knew that He may have died 2,000 years ago but when He arose, He was still here. I started reading scriptures regularly, every day. I would read books. It just became a part of my life. After a couple of years, I just kinda felt God calling me to do something about it. I felt His call on my life and I was struggling to figure out what that could be. One day I told my wife, as we were riding in the car, I said, “Carolyn, I’ve got something I’ve got to tell you.” She said, “What?” I said, “I think I’m being called to be a pastor.” She just looked at me and said, “What took you so long to figure that out?” So from there I started the process.
IH: So your wife could sense, even before you knew it, that you were being called into the ministry?
DG: She said she knew it and everybody else knew it. Apparently I was the only one who didn’t see it. I was just like why me? I had never been in church. But John Wesley had this thing about grace. He said there are three kinds of grace: Provenient grace, justifying grace and sanctifying grace. Provenient grace is when you look back on your life and you can see God at work in your life. Carolyn and I met when I was a student at UT. I spent half my time down on the strip, going from bar to bar and just having a good ol’ time. One of my friends went to church with her — her father pastored First Methodist of Knoxville — and introduced her to me. It was a blind date. We met on February 13, 1975 and got married on September 13, 1975. About two or three weeks after that first blind date we decided we were going to get married. I caught her father between meetings at church on a Wednesday night and asked for her hand in marriage. He looked down at me over his glasses and he said, “Have you been baptized, boy?” So a few weeks later I got baptized. And I tell people it was really like an infant baptism. In terms of what I was doing, I didn’t really know. I was going up there and putting water on my head so I could marry his daughter. That was the reason for my baptism at that point. But when you look back and see those things that happened, when I met Carolyn that changed my life and I think God was working in my life to move me towards that experience at that retreat 20 years later.
After that, we got active in church slowly. Her folks would come by and pick our kids up for Sunday school and we’d meet after church for lunch. Then it got to where we’d meet them for church. It was a slow process. But it changed my life.
IH: In the Methodist church, being ordained is a grueling process. You said yourself that you don’t just stand up and announce your call to preach. You go through a lot of different levels to make sure you’re sincere, and that process of discernment takes at least a year. After that, there’s seminary school, which is really a process of uprooting your family and taking a leap of faith. At any point during all of that, did you wonder if you’d made the right decision?
DG: Oh yes, lots of times. I wondered. Seminary was rough. I was 50, I had a real good job, I was an applied health physicist. We had a nice house in West Knoxville. It was a good life. Then we sold our house and moved to Baltimore, where neither Carolyn nor I had ever been. It was basically an 80 percent pay cut. It was hard. But everything has worked out wonderfully well. Just like life, there are ups and downs in everything, but I wouldn’t change a thing. We’ve ended up here in Scott County, where my wife and I both love it. I’ve told the folks in my church, we’re not leaving. I’m looking forward to staying here until I retire. And then we may stay after that. The people of Scott County that we’ve met are just wonderful. Somehow or another after living in Knoxville and Baltimore for so long, Scott County just feels like home for us.
IH: For those who aren’t familiar with the Methodist Church, what is the primary difference between Methodists and Baptists, or are they really not so different at all?
DG: I think Methodists look a lot more towards how God is working in the world today, whereas my perception is that Baptists are more concentrated on after this life and heaven. I may be wrong about that. And we believe in heaven too, of course. But I believe we can move towards that in the here and now. Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” And it came near because He was here. And He’s still here through the Holy Spirit. He is active in the world. I don’t think we have to wait until we die in order to see Him. He also said, “Whatever you do for the least of these you’ve done for me.” So he’s here in the “least of these.” That’s the bigger part of who we are and how we look at God being present in the world. We try to see Jesus in the faces of the folks in the Mission House, and in the faces of the people who come to church needing money for gas. Even though 90 percent of the folks who ask for help other than food we just aren’t able to help, because our resources are so limited, we do what we can to bring a little bit of heaven here so people can see Jesus before they die.
IH: What is the role of church — any church — in a community?
DG: The role of the church is to be a place where people can come for help with their spiritual needs and for help with their physical needs. The role of church is to show people Jesus. People should be able to come to church and see Jesus. Paul said the church is the body of Christ and when people look at the church that’s what they should see: Christ.
IH: Maybe the most visible ministry here at Oneida First Methodist is the food pantry, which is probably the second-largest in Scott County behind Operation Sharing. Talk about that effort.
DG: I think the food pantry helps bring our community together. Our church supports it financially, and we have volunteers from the church who go down there and work, but we also have students from Oneida High School who come two to three times a week and help unload trucks from Second Harvest. They come on Thursday mornings when we are distributing food. If it wasn’t for our students, I’m not sure we’d be able to do what we do. They are truly a blessing to us. So I’m thankful they’re willing to help. The Boy Scouts come on the first Thursday when we’re open in the evenings and help out that night. So we’ve got people from all over. We’ve had folks from Well Springs United Methodist in far eastern Campbell County come to help us. We’re blessed, and I think people see Jesus when they’re being fed. And we see Jesus in the people who come. I see that as one of the things Jesus calls us to do. That’s why He was here: to feed the hungry and give sight to the blind.
IH: What is your message to people who don’t have a church home, when you tell them about Oneida First United Methodist?
DG: They’re welcome here. Whether you believe or don’t believe, we like the old saying, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” We welcome everyone. We don’t want to steal people from the Baptist churches, but we’re trying to find ways to reach out to folks who are unchurched. We’re meeting next week with the pastor of a recovery ministry in Powell who’s coming up with some folks from the metro drug coalition to see if there’s a way we can start a ministry to help folks recover from opioid addiction. Folks in my congregation have sons and daughters and nieces and nephews who are struggling and they’ve come to me and said, “What can we do to address this?” That’s one of the things I worry about. I don’t know if we can do a celebrate recovery type of ministry with the services and meals, but we will do what we can.
IH: Any other thoughts you want to share?
DG: I’m blessed to be here at this church. Jesus is alive, and He’s alive at this church. The day after we moved in, I found out I had bladder cancer. I stopped at the district superintendent’s office on the way home and we prayed about it. I called the chair of the pastor-parish committee and we prayed. My first Sunday I told the congregation, “I don’t know what’s going to happen.” It’s my first month on the job and I’m going to preach one Sunday and then I’m not going to be able to be here for two or three weeks. The congregation gathered around and prayed for me. And then I went and had surgery. They took the tumor out. And the doctor, she went back and told my wife and kids, “It’s not cancer.” To me, that was just an answer to prayer. That was healing. A miraculous healing. I know that doesn’t happen all the time, and it doesn’t even happen often, but I felt God’s presence. I’ve felt it here in this church and through the people here in this church. My wife and I are just so blessed to be here. And when they gave me Rugby Road, I was just thrilled to get them, too.