But ask Sturdivant, who is taking a sabbatical from the ministry to write a book, and he’ll tell you that the most remarkable thing about the improvements isn’t that they happened, but how they happened.
When he arrived in 2001, the tiny, run-down building on Byron Highway was showing every one of its 80-plus years. “I was really depressed when I first got here,” said Sturdivant, who delivered his final sermon last week. “I didn’t even think it was open.”
The condition of the church was also uppermost on the minds of the congregation, which Sturdivant found was “obsessed with getting a new building.” The congregation was filled with wonderful people, he said, but like a football team in a huddle, they were all facing inward and “all anyone else could see was their backsides.”
Challenged by Sturdivant to identify what they felt a calling to do, one congregant, Jan Page, answered with an idea that would become known as Kaleidoscope. The program delivers customized goodie bags and home-cooked meals to those dealing with cancer, mostly as a pretext to provide human contact, compassion and hope. The program has since become the church’s signal outreach effort.
Ironically, as the members of the church stopped focusing on their building and started reaching out to the broader community, talk about a new building fell by the wayside, and conditions at the church began to improve, bit by bit.
“The church is not about a building, it’s about paying attention to people who are lonely, or in need, or who are hurting,” he said. “Even things like buildings will take care of themselves if you just care for other people.”
Sturdivant’s desire to see the Byron United Methodist Church reach beyond its own walls has become a hallmark of his tenure, the longest in the 130 years since the church was chartered. The church now works closely with other area churches, conducting ecumenical services on major holidays and cooperating with neighboring St. Anne Catholic and Discovery Bay Presbyterian churches to form the Delta Christian Community Food Bank. It’s all in keeping with Sturdivant’s belief that people, not institutions, are what’s important.
“It’s not what you believe, it’s who you are,” he said. “Religious differences get in the way. Jesus was about loving people and caring for people .”
Sturdivant is well aware that the church and congregation are not the only things that have benefited during his time in Byron. After a challenging stay at his previous church, he believes God sent him to Byron for his own good as well as his congregation’s.
“He put me around people who kept challenging me, and who kept up the presence of the Spirit in my life,” he said. “If I didn’t have them to rub up against, I’d still have those rough edges.”
Nancy Torres, music director at BUMC who came to the church when Sturdivant did, believes his leadership has helped not only the congregation as a whole, but her personally. “He empowered me to grow in my faith,” she said. “To use my need to be creative with music in this way was invaluable to me. I intended to leave when he did, but God had other plans. The greatest honor and respect I can pay (Sturdivant) is by staying and continuing the work we’ve done together.”
Dan Strauch, a member of the church for 34 years, was the chairman of the pastoral committee that brought Sturdivant to Byron. Although Sturdivant has done much for the church, Strauch said, his biggest achievements are yet to come.
“I think sometime in his future he’s going to impact people around him like he never believed was possible,” said Strauch. “Others are going to be looking to find a way to get in his footprints. He has that in him.”
Sturdivant’s book, tentatively entitled “Ten Blessings,” will be something of a memoir based on his journey through life and the ministry over the last two decades. He’s not sure how it will all come together, but he knows that writing it will help him connect his past to his future.
“I’ll get some understanding about what I’ve learned in the last 18 years, and what I can do with (that knowledge). My mind and my heart have a much better working relationship than before. My heart used to follow my brain; now it’s the other way around.”
Sturdivant and his wife, Maria, will live in Byron during his sabbatical, maintaining the personal relationships they’ve developed over the years. The couple was married in the church, and both have left their mark on the congregation and the community. (If you live in Byron, you’ve heard some of Maria’s handiwork: Every Sunday for 11 years, Maria has rung the church bell 13 times, once for each Apostle and for Jesus.)
Whatever the outcome of his writing or wherever he and Maria end up when his sabbatical ends and they’re assigned another ministry, hands-on service to humanity will remain their focus.
“People don’t want to know stuff about God, they want to experience God,” he said. “By moving from face to face to face, changing hearts and minds, we have the best chance to build a great society. We’re not in competition; we’re in communion.”