The Reverend Stephen DeFur of Cokesbury United Methodist Church in Knoxville was once a serious bicycle racer who experienced both excitement and challenges while taking long rides across the undulating countryside during competitions.
Now he puts in long days as well as a minister navigating the pastoral landscape that includes the highs and lows of his congregation members’ lives and trying to offer inspiring sermons.
And this minister who grew up in Chattanooga has enjoyed this ride, too.
“I’m on the job 24-7 and put in around 65 hours a week,” he said of overseeing the 5,300-member church that has 45 fulltime staff members.
“It’s a massive organization. It requires a lot of time, but I can’t fathom any other work. It’s great to see lives changed every day.”
As Mr. DeFur recently talked over the phone while helping get some groceries to his parents in Crossville, he said his church has no doubt been affected by not meeting in person due to mandates by Holston Conference Bishop Dindy Taylor for safety reasons.
But they have continued to try and meet the needs of the members and others who regularly attend the church services on a typical Sunday during normal times.
While they have had a strong online presence for about five or more years, they hurriedly switched all their ministries completely over within about a 48-hour period when the coronavirus outbreak reached Tennessee and safety measures were urged in mid-March.
That has included not only the Sunday sermons, but also such activities as a Thursday Zoom support group for those who need to talk about issues with which they are dealing.
They have also continued a once-a-week ministry of outreach in a safe and social distancing way. That has included in recent weeks a drive-through food pantry and sending free pizzas to every fire station in Knox County.
“We are making sure we are connecting with people,” he said, adding at the time of the interview that the church was also planning to send some youth to help with the tornado recovery effort in Chattanooga, where a number of church members have connections.
Mr. DeFur also has rich connections to Chattanooga, and first sensed a call to a life of Christian ministry as a freshman at Hixson High School while attending Hixson United Methodist Church.
Hixson UMC’s senior pastor, the Rev. Bob Walker, and the youth (and later associate) pastor, the Rev. David Graves, now a bishop, helped guide him, he said. “Those two guys helped me sense my calling and made sure I stayed on the right path.”
He added that he still stays in regular contact with the Rev. Graves, who leads the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the Methodist Church.
While at Hixson High, before graduating in 1988, Mr. DeFur played football and baseball, wrestled and threw the shot put in track and field.
He later received a bachelor’s degree in recreation from UT-Chattanooga, a somewhat unusual degree for a future minister.
He then went on to Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, where he received a master’s in divinity degree.
He was also a serious competitive bike racer in the early 1990s. In fact, he said he was once racing in Athens, Ga., and looked over at the starting line and noticed a fellow young racer named Lance Armstrong.
After serving at Sam Jones United Methodist in Cartersville, Ga., while at Candler, Mr. DeFur came to Cokesbury in 1996 as an associate pastor, starting an unusual tenure for a United Methodist minister of serving the same church for more than 20 years.
Cokesbury – located on Kingston Pike just east of Pellissippi Parkway on the Western end of Knoxville – has become one of the larger United Methodist churches in the country, and it was previously led by such pastors as the Revs. Jerry Anderson, Ken Henderlight and Steve Sallee.
Mr. Sallee, another former Chattanoogan who also served the now-large Christ United Methodist in East Brainerd, had especially grown the Knoxville church through his leadership before his untimely death from heart and pneumonia complications in 2013.
Mr. DeFur said it was not easy to step in as the new senior pastor for the man who had been his best friend.
“I had to lead and grieve at the same time,” he said. “That’s a relatively unprecedented thing to have happen. But our church has a deep history of taking care of each other and survived that process.”
Cokesbury’s large campus includes worship buildings on both the north and south sides of Kingston Pike, and also has a location in Johnson City. The church also founded the Susannah’s House ministry in Knoxville for mothers battling addiction, and it has looked at starting a similar ministry in Johnson City.
During normal times, Mr. DeFur – who these days enjoys bass fishing, playing golf and walking as hobbies -- preaches one contemporary-style service on Saturday and three on Sundays. Other pastors on staff include Anna Lee, Mark Beebe, Rebekah Fetzer and Charles Maynard.
The Rev. Maynard, who usually leads the church’s traditional service, also grew up in Chattanooga on Signal Mountain, attended City High and is in demand as a storyteller speaker throughout East Tennessee.
Of Cokesbury, Mr. DeFur added, “I think it’s the greatest church in America. I’ve never seen a group of people so engaged and wanting to make a difference. Even though we are cooped up, we are still making huge impacts on the community.”
Until the coronavirus pandemic, the United Methodist Church throughout East Tennessee and around the country and world had been heavily embroiled in the debate over whether LGBTQ clergy can serve or whether gay weddings can take place at churches. Mr. DeFur said his church has tried to focus more on making a difference than making a political point and has stayed mostly out of the discussion.
“I’ve worked really hard to keep myself and the church out of politics,” he said. “We have such a wide and diverse group, it would be hard to get a consensus.
“Our doors are wide open. Everybody needs to experience Jesus. Life is too short and too precious to get caught up in politics.”