In the early days of Methodism, ministers who rode horseback from town to town preaching to multiple congregations at a time were known as circuit riders.
The practice of having a minister serve more than one church was a common practice in areas of low population. Typically, the rider would preach four or five times a day in their respective circuit of churches.
One of the most famous circuit riders was Francis Asbury, a founding bishop in what became the United Methodist Church. Asbury rode nearly 300,000 miles during his ministry.
Although Methodist ministers aren’t referred to as circuit riders anymore, the practice of utilizing one pastor in a circuit of churches is still a part of the modern United Methodist Church.
While he doesn’t ride horseback or travel the distance covered by his predecessors, Jake Herron is a modern day circuit rider as pastor of both Eden and Bethesda United Methodist churches in Jonesborough.
Herron recently was appointed by the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church, which is composed of more than 900 churches in East Tennessee, Southwestern Virginia and Northern Georgia, to the Jonesborough circuit and began his pastoral duties about a week ago.
While it’s difficult at times to divide time between attending church meetings for both congregations, spending time with his family and the other responsibilities of being a pastor, Herron said there are many positive factors in serving multiple churches.
“You get to interact with different types of people and you get to learn different things about the two churches, and it seems like you get to know a variety of people that do a variety of occupations and have a variety of personalities,” he said.
Pastoring multiple churches isn’t anything new for the 26-year-old minister from Athens.
Before moving to Jonesborough with his wife Laura, Herron was the pastor of three different churches in the Tazewell area, where he served for a year.
Every Sunday morning, Herron would drive 24 miles to preach at Tazewell, Lone Mountain and Mayes Chapel United Methodist churches. Beginning at 9 a.m., Herron would preach the same sermon to each congregation, ending at Mayes Chapel, where he typically started preaching at 11 a.m.
“I have to tweak the sermons a little depending on what kinds of things are going on ... related to the churches throughout the week and how the spirit leads me to relate my sermon to them,” he said.
Becoming the pastor of multiple churches fresh out of Asbury Theological Seminary wasn’t something Herron ever imagined he would do. But juggling duties as pastor and finishing up his final year of school helped better prepare him for the multitasking he would face.
“It was very difficult to do school and all the roles of a pastor. I was probably doing 60 to 80 hours a week,” he said. “But it was nice because you feel the way God’s calling you and then you are able to get into that role and then you’re able to help all the people and you can just feel the holy spirit work through you. It’s amazing.”
Herron said the transition from Tazewell to Jonesborough has gone well, even though he and his wife had to leave their other church families behind.
“It was a time where me and my wife knew that God was calling us to a different place and the conference appointed us here in Jonesborough,” he said.
With the UMC seeing what Herron called a 40-year decline in membership, there have been a number of churches in the Holston conference close, in addition to seeing the formation of several new congregations.
The practice of installing a pastor into a church circuit is one way to see congregations stay alive, especially ones in rural areas.
Between the UMC Call to Action Steering Team, which seeks to deliver a plan to the church that will reorder the life of the church, and more people entering seminary, Herron believes the denomination’s numbers will begin to rise.
“There’s a great number of young people who are in seminary and who are getting their local pastoring license, so I think that those kinds of things will really help the denomination,” he said.