SODDY-DAISY — When pastor Jeff Myers was in the hospital four years ago with sepsis, he wasn’t only concerned about his own health.
He was also focused on the financial health of his church.
For more than 20 years, Union Fork Baptist Church in Soddy-Daisy had been dealing with the burden of paying off a large bank loan. And Myers believed it was time for that to change.
“When I came out of the hospital, I just came out with a vengeance,” said Myers. “I told the church, ‘Hey, we’re going to really start doing something about this.’ ”
The congregation responded in a big way.
With sacrificial giving and consistent praying, the church was able to pay off the remainder of its debt — more than $400,000 — over a period of four years.
Earlier this month, on March 5, the church “burned the note” and officially began a new chapter in the history of Union Fork, the oldest Baptist church in Hamilton County.
Myers said the success story was fueled by the unity of the congregation. Simply put, the members of Union Fork didn’t want to be known as a small church with a big debt.
“We just challenged everybody all the way around to make a sacrifice,” Myers said. “The sacrifice of the people is what got us out of it.”
The fact that Union Fork — which currently runs about 70 on Sundays — was able to accomplish their financial goals in the face of the pandemic makes it all the more remarkable. The congregation even raised enough money to remodel the church in addition to the funds they raised to pay off the debt.
“To some people, $400,000 might not sound like a bunch,” Myers said, “but when COVID hit, it made things really tough.”
Dennis Culbreth, director of missions for Hamilton County Baptist Association, said Union Fork’s story can be an inspiration for other churches that are in similar situations.
“What happened at Union Fork is very exciting,” said Culbreth. “Until Jeff (Myers) was called to Union Fork, they had given up and expected to die. They had approached a larger church about giving their building to that church and disbanding.”
Instead, Union Fork overcame the obstacles and defied the odds by continuing to continue.
“We lost quite a few people around COVID time, but we kept the doors open,” Myers said. “When everybody was closing down, we just built a stage outside and started having drive-in church.”
When Union Fork called Myers as its new pastor four years ago, he brought a fresh vision to the church. And, after recovering from a very scary bout with sepsis, Myers implemented a new plan for the church.
“We started challenging the families,” he said, “And I told the church, ‘we’re going to take (the offerings) every fifth Sunday and it’s going to go all toward debt.’ We didn’t do any selling or anything like that, but everybody just (came together).”
Culbreth said Myers has been a great shepherd at Union Fork. “He has been a great leader and encourager,” he said. “He and his wife love the people and they, in turn, love the Myers.”
Shortly after arriving at Union Fork, Myers dealt with sepsis twice in the span of about eight months. “I was in pretty bad shape,” he said, “But God just pulled me through.”
Many years before Myers’ arrival, Union Fork took out the loan to build a new building. At the time, in 2001, the church was averaging around 350 people. But many members — who had signed pledge cards — left the church over the course of a few years, leaving behind the big debt for the remaining members.
At that point, things looked bleak for the future of the church. But Myers arrived and helped the church begin to turn things around.
“Under the leadership of pastor Jeff, the church rallied and really focused on getting out from under the debt,” Culbreath said. “Jeff has led them to be outward focused and evangelistic. God has used him in amazing ways.”
Even during COVID, when the church was holding services in the parking lot, Union Fork found ways to continue to move ahead.
“During drive-in church, we had a couple wanting to join and I said, ‘Alright. Everybody that accepts them into our membership honk your horn,” said Myers with a big laugh. “That might have been a first.”
Myers said that seeing the church emerge from the burden of debt helped changed the mindset of the members.
“It was great for two reasons,” he said. “For one, nobody likes to hear a preacher harp on money. Secondly, it helped the church move away from the negative thoughts for the people who stayed at the church all these years. … The folks who’ve stayed, these are really blessed people.” B&R