- The Rev. Jerry Neff is the volunteer pastor for the new United Methodist Church of the Pines in Jasper, Texas.
- It consists of East Texans who decided to stay United Methodist even though their churches disaffiliated.
- Neff is officially retired and had a double lung transplant less than a year ago but feels called to serve the new church, driving three hours each weekend to get there.
These days, the Rev. Jerry Neff breathes with lungs that used to be in somebody else. Preaches with them, too, though he’s officially retired and not even a full year past having a double lung transplant.
The 68-year-old Neff and wife Laura are driving three hours every weekend from their home in Galveston, Texas, to Jasper, Texas, where he leads worship for the new United Methodist Church of the Pines.
It consists of about 60 East Texans who decided to stay United Methodist and form their own worship community after their local churches disaffiliated. Neff volunteered to be their pastor.
That was a little over three months ago, and his commitment has only deepened. Along with new lungs, Neff has a revised bucket list — and item No. 1 is helping United Methodist Church of the Pines make a good start.
“If God wants me to do this,” he said, “God’s going to provide me the strength.”
Laura Neff describes her husband as invigorated by the challenge. His flock of United Methodist refugees consider themselves blessed to be sharing Jerry Neff’s pastoral skills and new lease on life.
“What a gift, a total gift,” said Phillys Morian, who was handing out bulletins at the new church’s Jan. 22 service. “He said — I guess the first Sunday he was here — that he wanted to use that gift with us.”
Neff is not the only retired pastor to offer help to those who want to stay United Methodist after their church has left the denomination. But it would be hard to top his back story.
He was one of five sons — including his identical twin, Steve — born to the Rev. James Thomas Neff Sr. and Bobbie Neff. The family moved from parsonage to parsonage in the Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. Jerry had no interest in a ministry career, having seen his father’s everyday frustrations.
“He’d come home from a meeting some nights and want to take a bite out of the tile,” Neff said.
Once away at college, the preacher’s kid even quit going to church. But he wandered back — prodigal son-like — after a couple of years.
“To be quite honest, I made a lot of mistakes,” Neff said. “I got to a point where I needed to grab hold of my life. The only place I knew that could happen was the church.”
Neff had planned to be a lawyer but soon found himself answering a call to be a United Methodist pastor. He and Laura moved to Dallas as a young married couple so he could attend Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology.
For more than four decades, Neff would follow his father’s lead, serving as a Texas Conference elder. He eventually was a senior pastor for megachurches and did two stints as a district superintendent.
When he retired in July 2020 as senior pastor of Galveston’s Moody Memorial United Methodist Church, Neff was feeling the effects of repeat bouts of pneumonia. Soon, he required supplemental oxygen to walk more than a short distance.
A pulmonologist diagnosed Neff as having interstitial lung disease, which is progressive and incurable. He was told he was a good candidate for a double lung transplant. But he had special reason to be cautious.
His twin suffered from the same disease and received a double lung transplant in 2019. Steve Neff died from complications 300 days after the operation, never having left the hospital.
Ultimately, Jerry and Laura Neff considered how circumscribed his life had become and decided to take the risk.
“I was dying an inch at a time,” he said.
Neff had been as heavy as 290 pounds and doctors told him he had to lose 50 before he could get on the transplant list. He lost 54 pounds in eight months, limiting himself to 1,500 calories a day, drawing on recipes from skinnytaste.com.
Once on the list, Neff and his wife had to be ready for a summons to Houston Methodist Hospital. Five weeks later, the phone rang when Neff was at home and Laura at a church event with their granddaughter.
“They called me and said, ‘We think we’ve got a couple of lungs for you,’” Neff recalled. “Can you be down here in two hours?’”
Neff asked for a little more time and got it. The next day, Feb. 26, 2022, he underwent an eight-hour transplant. The Rev. Charles Millikan, vice president for spiritual care and values at Houston Methodist — and a longtime friend of Jerry’s, sat with Laura the whole time.
Living into a miracle
Jerry Neff is claustrophobic, and worried about waking up intubated. But as he came to consciousness the morning after his surgery, he saw a Gideons Bible on a shelf beyond the foot of the bed.
“I focused on that. I said, ‘OK, God’s got this. He’s in the room with me right now, and he’s helping me breathe.’”
After three hours, Neff’s breathing tube was removed. Thirteen days after the transplant, his doctors let him go home.
In the early stretch of his recovery, he wrote the family of the Louisianan whose lungs he received.
“I cannot take away the grief of your loss,” Neff’s letter said in part, “but I can pledge to you that I will do all in my power to honor the gift of these lungs.”
Through the summer and fall of 2022, Jerry and Laura Neff observed with concern the large number of Texas Conference churches voting to leave The United Methodist Church, many of them aligning with the new, traditionalist Global Methodist Church. His and Laura’s commitment is to big-tent United Methodism, and they personally support full inclusion for LGBTQ people.
One disaffiliation hotspot worried the Neffs particularly: Jasper. Jerry Neff had been pastor of First United Methodist Church there from 1994 to 2000.
“Sometimes you get an appointment that’s just your spiritual home,” he said. “It’s the place that you have connections you’ll have for the rest of your life. That was Jasper for me.”
As First United Methodist Church of Jasper considered whether to disaffiliate, Neff was invited to come make the argument for staying United Methodist. He did, but on Oct. 17, 2022, the church voted by a 74% margin to leave.
Other local United Methodist churches also decided to disaffiliate, leaving no convenient option for those who wanted to stay with the denomination.
“It was like a food desert, only it was a United Methodist desert,” Neff said.
The Neffs’ close friends Tom and Luanne Talbot were among those at First Jasper who opposed disaffiliation. Neff joined them and others in talking about the possibility of a new United Methodist worship community.
“I said, ‘I’ll come back and preach, and I’ll do it for free. Can y’all find a place?’” Neff recalled.
First, the local Catholic church offered a meeting room. Then Trinity Episcopal Church of Jasper volunteered its sanctuary, in a time slot just after its own Sunday morning service.
“We’ve been praying for our Methodist friends,” said Jane Spencer, Trinity’s senior warden.
On Nov. 5, 2022 — All Saints Sunday — Neff led the remaining United Methodists of the Jasper area in their first worship service together, held at Trinity Episcopal. Phillys Morian was there.
“It felt like a group hug,” she said.
Soon the new worshipping community chose the name United Methodist Church of the Pines. It reflects the forested landscape but also that people are coming from various East Texas communities, not just Jasper.
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Every weekend since that first one, the Neffs have made the long drive from Galveston so Jerry can lead United Methodist worship in the Episcopal church. Attendance has ranged from the 40s to the 60s.
Trinity’s pianist, Marsha Peppas, also plays for the United Methodist service, and Spencer and some of the other Episcopalians stick around for it. The space gets temporarily Methodized, including the use of United Methodist Hymnals (stored on a shelf when not in use) and portable wooden Cross-and-Flame pieces, built by Matt Morian of the new congregation.
The joy the United Methodist Church of the Pines folks feel at worshipping together is clear during the service — and afterward.
“Nobody leaves,” said Luanne Talbot. “Everybody just wants to be together and talk.”
Neff is on steroids and other strong medicine and has had one transplant-related setback — an “acute rejection episode” that sent him to the hospital for a two-night stay. But his overall health has continued to improve, to the point that he recently was cleared to play golf again.
For now, he’s focused on helping United Methodist Church of the Pines get chartered and begin to serve the community.
“We’re going to look for need and we’re going to respond because that’s what the church of Jesus does and that’s what kingdom work requires,” he said.
Neff preaches at full strength, thanks to the transplanted lungs. And his sense of humor is definitely intact.
“I started (ministry) in a 63-member church. I laugh and tell people, ‘I’m in a 63-member church again. I made it back!’”
Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or [email protected] To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.
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