Walnut Creek’s Hughes to retire from full-time ministry

Published 6:47 pm Friday, April 3, 2015

Pastor Tony Hughes gives a brief sermon at a Lenten luncheon on April 1. Hughes will retire from full-time ministry on June 7.

Pastor Tony Hughes gives a brief sermon at a Lenten luncheon on April 1. Hughes will retire from full-time ministry on June 7.

When Walnut Creek United Methodist Church Pastor Tony Hughes took to the podium for the last Lenten luncheon on April 1, he opened with a bit of wisdom he said he learned early in his career.

The secret to a good sermon,” he said to the crowd seated at tables across the church’s fellowship hall. “is a good beginning and a good ending—and to make them as close as possible.”

While laughter filled the room, Hughes’ understanding of time goes far beyond a witty quip.

The long-standing pastor—28 years to be exact— of the church recently announced his retirement from the ministry, and while his last day on the job is June 7, he said he felt he was getting out at the right time.

“Twenty-eight years is a long time,” he said. “I’ve prayed I wouldn’t overstay my welcome, and that I’d know when it was time to go, and I knew. And I’m good with that, just as clear as a bell.”

The 71-year-old said he felt like an anomaly among Methodist preachers—in the best way possible.

“First of all, I have been just totally an exception to the rule,” he said. “Methodist ministers move about as a norm. (They spend) three-to-five years and then on to a new church.”

Hughes’ last Lenten luncheon as pastor opened with the servers and those who help put the luncheons together coming out before the sermon to show their appreciation, as Lisa Ousley Abbott sang “Thank You” in honor of Hughes.

When the song was finished, Hughes was presented with a collage of pictures from across his career.

The Lenten luncheons have become a staple of Walnut Creek under Hughes.

Hughes said the opportunity to celebrate Lent was something he hoped all Christians could take.

“A lot of Protestant churches don’t celebrate Lent,” he said. “It’s a staple of the Catholic church, and has been in the Episcopal church and the Lutheran Church and in the Methodist church. We’ve retained those celebrations and times for the church, Lent and Advent being the big ones. A preparatory time for Easter and a preparatory time for Christmas, to celebrate.”

Hughes said he likened the season as a period of introspection for the believer.

“It’s like our salvation; if you’re a believer and you’ve been saved, it’s a one-time event, but you revisit it and from time to time; you renew it,” he said. “Lent and Holy Week gives us time to reflect on our lives and gain (a sense of) renewal, because that’s how we have our vitality for the work…of the people of God.”

Hughes said he helped start the luncheons two decades ago as a means of reaching out to the community.

“This is our 23rd year,” he said. “When we first started, it was maybe 30-35 people. So we took a wall out, and (now) the hall will hold about 100. We’re filling it up. It’s grown over the years.”

Church pianist Joan McGriff said the church’s growth and stability can be directly tied to Hughes’ tenure as pastor.

“Tony’s just an outreach person,” she said. “He’s out and about. People know his name.”

Hughes said he came to the ministry later in life, after a career in construction and land development.

At 31, he said he gave his life to God, but the call to ministry took a little longer.

“In 1969, I surrendered my life to the Lord,” he said. “I immediately felt a calling to the ministry, but I just couldn’t fathom it was for me. So from 1969-1974, I fought it. It didn’t work, so I said ‘Okay, I’m ready.'”

Hughes went on to attend Huntingdon College in Montgomery, earning a degree in education and psychology in 1978, and graduated from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 1985.

After a probationary period, Hughes took over at Walnut Creek on June 14, 1987, where he has been ever since.

McGriff—who has attended the church for 20 years—said she’s seen the church expand a great deal thanks to Hughes.

“He’s been a blessing,” she said. “He’s a friend as well as a pastor. It’s going to take us a while. He is a person you want to work for. He’s a good leader.”

McGriff also said the church is hopeful for a pastor who understands the importance of the luncheons to the church.

“We’re depending on God to take care of us with a pastor that wants to continue these lunches for the community,” she said. “It’s brought in a lot of members for us. I think a lot of people have joined this church because of this particular outreach. It’s grown every year,” she said. “Every year we’ve had to add chairs.”

Hughes said retiring having served one church was a blessing.

“I’m retiring with a great sense of the fact that at least to some degree, I’ve been obedient to God, and God has been able to do some things that I don’t think could’ve been done with a pastor moving every three-to-five years,” he said. “There’s been a continuity that one can build on, and (with) Christ being the foundation as the Bible says, with (the pastor) here sort of shepherding the whole thing, (we’ve) made more progress.”

Hughes said he will continue to serve the United Methodist Church in a part-time role, and wanted the church family and community to know how much he appreciated their role in his life.

“I’d like for them to know how blessed I feel to stay in one place for a great part of my ministry,” he said. To reach out and be a part of civic organizations and the great school systems, it’s been a blessing.”