When the Rev. Ed Thompson began his second tenure in the Presbytery of West Virginia – the latest stint starting in 2016 as the mid council’s general presbyter – he had a goal of worshiping with all of the churches in the region. Seven years later, as Ed heads into retirement, he is on the cusp of achieving that goal. It’s been time well spent.
“One of the things I’ve really enjoyed is just visiting churches and seeing how everyone is doing ministry,” said Ed, who estimated he has been to 120 churches in the presbytery. “There’s some really creative things going on and things that are flying under the radar screen, so to speak.
“It’s been neat to see these churches that I’ve heard about, see the people, see the buildings, get to hear their stories and see what they’re doing.”
That relationship building is what made Ed a perfect fit for the Presbytery of West Virginia. Those connections also brought him back to the area as well. From 1995 to 2007, Ed served at McKinnon Presbyterian Church near Charleston while also being one of the presbytery’s quadrant ministers. He then took a call at the Presbytery of North Kansas for eight-plus years where he served as its general presbyter and stated clerk. But the previous relationships he formed in West Virginia made him want to return to the region.
“We’ve had some great people who are really faithful, deeply committed to their faith and churches, and that’s good to see,” Ed remarked. “That was good to come back to. That was certainly one of the things that drew me back is the people I knew and worked with here. I have a lot of respect for the people.”
While getting to know so many people in West Virginia is certainly a high point for Ed during his calls here, there are certainly other areas where he is proud to have left his fingerprint.
“We were able to sell the office building (in October 2022) and make the transition to working virtually,” he said. “I think that has gone well. I don’t think we’ve missed a beat, and if we have, we haven’t missed many. In some ways maybe that was the blessing of the pandemic. It showed us that this was possible, that we could do this.
“Before the pandemic I would have said I know we’re going to have to sell the building eventually, but I want to kick that can as far down the road as possible. After the pandemic, once we were back working in the office, I realized we can do this, we don’t need the building to do ministry.”
At the start of Ed’s first call with the Presbytery of West Virginia in 1995, the presbytery had 18 people on staff and 12 people working in the building. By the time the building sold in the fall of 2022, there were just four people working in the building and seven on staff. It’s one of the ways the presbytery has greatly changed during Ed’s time in the region.
“There are fewer churches able to afford full-time seminary-trained pastors,” he said. “We now have more commissioned pastors serving our churches. Right now, we have 17. When I left in 2007 there were about eight. The number of commissioned pastors has doubled.
“In a lot of ways that’s a positive. We have some great commissioned pastors who are doing good ministry, and they’re really committed to the churches they serve. They love their people, and I think there’s a good connection with the congregations. Almost all of them, if they’re not native West Virginians, they’ve spent a lot of time here. Sometimes when you have pastors coming in from out of state, they’re not able to make that same kind of connection. They have a deeper connection with the people and with Appalachia in general.”
While the pandemic was certainly a big obstacle that many mid council leaders had to overcome, Ed doesn’t look back on that time as a down period for the presbytery.
“Covid was an issue, but in some ways it was more just a bump in the road,” he said. “In some ways, I think covid ended up being a blessing because it really forced churches to put worship services online, which I think is a good thing. Pastors are frustrated that people aren’t coming back to in-person worship, and I understand that, but I also think we’re reaching more people because we have our services available online. We’re able to make connections with shut-ins and people who have moved away. God is at work in that.
“In the beginning, it actually made us closer, in terms of pastors, because we started doing weekly Zoom meetings to check in with people. In those first few weeks we’d have over 30 pastors online connecting, venting, learning from one another and sharing stories. And that was a good thing.
“We’re down to (meeting) once a month, but we still have good conversations, and it’s a good way for people to connect.”
Because he likes West Virginia so much, Ed plans to continue to live in the Charleston area and really doesn’t have a plan for what is next. Ed, an avid baseball fan, and his wife, Jacquelyn, have plans to visit Yellowstone National Park, but beyond that Ed really doesn’t have much on the horizon.
“I just felt like this was a good time to step back and reassess and see what comes next, see what God has in mind,” he said. “I’m still in relatively good health. There are certainly needs out there, and we’ll just see what happens and see what God has in mind for me.”
Ed’s final day as general presbyter at the Presbytery of West Virginia is July 31. The presbytery is working to call a transitional GP by the beginning of August, someone who will have big shoes to fill. If he could give an eventual successor some advice, it would be this:
“Visit the churches, visit the pastors, get to know them,” he said. “It’s one thing to look at numbers and statistics. It’s another thing to actually see what they’re doing. Get to know them and come in with an open heart and an open mind.
“You don’t need to bring Jesus to West Virginia. Jesus is already here. I would hope someone coming in would get to know and love and really respect the people that are here.”
That’s something Ed has done effectively in West Virginia during two separate calls in the state. It’s a large chunk of his ministry that Ed will always cherish and look back on fondly.
“I will have spent almost half of my ministry in West Virginia,” he said. “It’s going to be almost 43 years of active ministry and almost 20 of those have been in West Virginia. There’s obviously something here that’s attracted me. God has led me back here just to stand by the people, to encourage them, to help them work through this pandemic, to help them work thought the transition, to selling the building and to working remotely.
“I love the people of this state and I respect them, too. For the most part I came in with an open heart and an open mind, and I just tried to listen to their story, what they’re trying to do. I hope I have encouraged them. I hope and I feel like I’ve been a pastoral presence during my time here, especially during the pandemic. I hope it’s been a blessing to the people.”