By Robert Carnes, Communications Associate at Dunwoody United Methodist Church
In a denomination known for shuffling ministers on a regular basis, Dr. Wiley Stephens has remained the senior pastor at Dunwoody United Methodist Church for the past 24 years.
Over that time, much has changed in and around the church. The congregation has doubled in size. The facilities have grown by leaps and bounds. Dunwoody has transitioned from an unincorporated suburb to a growing city. The one constant has been Stephens preaching from the pulpit on Sunday mornings.
“I came to Dunwoody with one young grandchild; I’m leaving with four grown grandchildren,” said Stephens. “I’ve seen the community become a city. I’ve gotten to serve on various boards and agencies for the conference. I even gotten to author two books.”
After over 50 years in ministry, nearly half of which was at Dunwoody, Stephens announced his retirement in February of this year. This retirement officially took effect during the North Georgia Annual Conference in early June.
Appropriately enough, this conference took place in Athens, Ga., the same city where Stephens grew up. He would go on to earn a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and even enrolled in UGA’s law school before dropping out to pursue a career in ministry.
In the Methodist denomination, bishops, not individual churches, determine where the pastors are assigned on a yearly basis. That means Stephens was reappointed to the same post 24 separate times.
He attributes that longevity to a genuine connection with the congregation and community.
“It just worked,” said Stephens. “[My wife] Linda and I have always felt very blessed to be here and just hoped the congregation was happy to have us.”
Saying farewell to a beloved leader and mentor after so many years is difficult, but is also filled with a joyful recollection of good memories.
Joy Culbreth was a member of the Staff-Parish Relations Committee that originally brought Stephens to Dunwoody UMC in 1990. The Committee annually assesses the church to assist the bishop in his task of matching clergy with churches.
“When Wiley came in, it was a smooth transition because he was adaptable and accessible,” said Culbreth. “Most importantly, he was a peacemaker, which we really needed at that time. It was a great fit.”
Twenty-four years later, Culbreth now works on the Dunwoody UMC staff as the Director of Special Events. Among these special events she has recently helped orchestrate are a dinner program and BBQ lunch honoring the career and legacy of Stephens.
Six generations of Kathleen Miers’ family has attended Dunwoody UMC — all six generations overlapped at some point with Stephens’ tenure. He presided over the confirmation and wedding of Miers’ granddaughter, as well as the baptism of her three great-grandchildren.
“This church has always been an important part of our community,” said Miers. “When Wiley was assigned here, we were having financial problems and other difficulties. But with his devotion and hard work — just look at us now. I have been a part of this church for a long time and it has been exciting every time we’ve developed and grown.”
Even outside Dunwoody UMC, Stephens has become respected among his peers and colleagues for his long-term dedication. The Rev. Richard Hunter, senior pastor at Sugar Hill United Methodist Church, has been a colleague of Stephens in the North Georgia Conference for over 30 years.
“Wiley is well-respected in the conference because he’s an effective delegate, a consensus builder and a voice people listen to,” said Hunter. “He’s been able to mentor a number of people over the years. He’s a good person to go to for advice because he sees the big picture.”
As someone who once succeeded a long-term senior minister, Hunter understands how difficult it can be to follow a well-established leader.
“Wiley leaves a legacy at Dunwoody,” said Hunter. “He’s seen people grow up in the church and that’s allowed him to build lifelong relationships. It’s hard for another senior pastor to follow, but Dunwoody has the leadership to make the transition and Wiley knows how to prepare a congregation for change.”
It’s no overstatement to say that Stephens leaves big shoes to fill. So how do you replace a legacy? That is the challenge before the Rev. Dan Brown, who will serve as Dunwoody’s new senior pastor.
“Wiley is an outstanding pastor, an incredible leader and one of the best preachers in the United Methodist Church,” said Brown. “He has been my friend a long time. I respect him and I consider it an honor and privilege to follow in his footsteps and build upon the work he has done.”
For the past year, Brown has been the district superintendent of the Atlanta Roswell District. Not only is this the same region that includes Dunwoody UMC, it’s also the largest district in the entire denomination.
“Being a district superintendent has given me a broader view of the church,” said Brown. “I’ve had the chance to interact with all sorts of different pastors and see that there are many ways to do church and do it well. My challenge is to help Dunwoody take the next step.”
No doubt this experience, in addition to nearly 37 years of ministry at seven different churches around north Georgia, has helped prepare Brown for his upcoming role. More importantly, he has the endorsement and support of his predecessor.
“Dan knows this church because he’s worked closely with us for the past year,” said Stephens. “He’s ready to hit the ground running. Our greatest days are ahead.”