Sabbatical brings change to Methodist church

snowicki@modbee.comJune 22, 2013 

DN FUM pastors

Debbie Noda/ At left, is Rev. Brandon Austin (5-21-13) the successor and Rev. Debra Brady, the outgoing pastor of United Methodist Church.

DEBBIE NODA — Modesto Bee Buy Photo

— Sunday will be the final service led by the Rev. Debra Brady at the First United Methodist Church in downtown Modesto.

After 11 years at the church, Brady is taking a one-year unpaid sabbatical, which will coincide with her husband's retirement as a banking technical support supervisor.

"It gives us a time for discernment and to rest and reflect on what the next stage of life looks like for us," said Brady, 55. In the UMC tradition, she said, pastors are considered itinerant ministers who are assigned to their posts by a bishop, and she won't be returning to FUMC. In fact, she added, she must not have anything to do with the church or congregation for two years.

That gives the new pastor, the Rev. Brandon Austin, a native of Tennessee who is wrapping up his leadership role at St. Paul's Methodist in Manteca, time to sink his own roots into the 150-year-old congregation. The 50-year-old pastor will begin his new job in Modesto on July 1 and give his first sermon there on July 7.

The Rev. Mark Wharff, who oversees churches in Farmington, Escalon and Riverbank, will slip into Austin's spot in Manteca. It's not unlike the priest shuffle in the Catholic church, which also occurs about this time each year.

Brady said she plans on focusing on four areas during her sabbatical:

• Resting. "I hope to plant a garden in my yard, grow some vegetables," she said. "I won't just sit on the couch all day."

• Reflecting. "I'm going to be reflecting on what I have learned as a downtown church trying to be in relationship with chronically homeless people," she said. "I'm interested in how communities of faith become a community of healing for people, and how we solve the problem of chronic homelessness without enabling people. It's a very complicated problem. I hope to go up to Seattle to see some innovative things, and to Salinas, Sacramento. It's going to be great visiting other congregations, because I'm usually in my own."

• Counseling. "There's a tool called enneagram that I was introduced to several years ago. It's for physchological and spiritual wholeness based on ancient wisdom traditions. A lot of psychotherapists use it for couples counseling. It's the best, richest tool I've used in counseling and for my own growth. I'll be teaching it for clergy in the ordination process. I could teach it in a church. It could launch a new career."

• Spanish pilgrimmage. "My husband and I are going to do the pilgrimmage, the Way of St. James, in Spain. It's an ancient Christian pilgrimmage with hostels along the way. People do it for different reasons. It's an act of devotion and opening one's self up to prayer and God in a particular way. That will be at the end of my sabbatical."

She said her stint at FUMC has been a rewarding one.

"My entire life, I've lived in the greater Los Angeles or Bay area," Brady said. "This is the first time I've lived where people have multigenerational relationships. I've loved being with these people, a people of faith who love and contribute to the vibrancy of their city. It's been very nourishing to me. It's what made my husband and I think this might be the city where we want to retire."

So Brady and her husband, Steve Veglia, will keep their home in Modesto, although she said she will step away from not only her congregation, but also from the Modesto Rotary Club and other community activities, including as a senior fellow in the American Leadership Forum with the Great Valley Museum.

"I'll be low key and flying under the radar," she said, as Austin does just the opposite and begins to immerse himself in the community, along with his own interests.

He is a graduate of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta and came to take a job at Church of the Wayfarer in Carmel after graduation.

"I've always had a sense of adventure," he said. "My first appointment was serving four little congregations in the hills of Tennessee. So when I arrived in Carmel, I had to really reorient myself (to the culture shift)."

Austin, who is single, said he will "bring a cat with me. Little Bear is a Hemingway cat who has been through several transitions. He's very, very cute" and always popular with his congregations, he said.

His gifts are similar to Brady's, he said. "I think Debra's done such an outstanding job. I expect to amplify or enhance things she and the congregation have already done."

With a background in clinical psychology, he said, "those interpersonal skills will come into play. I'm also the conference chairperson for the church transition task force, so I'll be practicing what I preach. I get a laugh out of that one. In fact, I had scheduled a workshop for Modesto before Iknew I was coming to Modesto."

In his 24 years as a Methodist pastor, he said, he's served in rural churches, urban areas, merged congregations and older congregations, "so I have a breadth of experience. I enjoy the art of storytelling; it's part and parcel of my culture in the South where I grew up, so I use the narrative style of preaching and the use of metaphors."

His talents go beyond normal pastor skills, he acknowledged.

"I'm also a salsa dance instructor and I hope to bring that to Modesto," he said. "It's not beyond me to do a little karaoke now and then. In Lake County, I competed against the county sheriff in the finals in a little bar. That was fun. I've also taught college courses — a smattering of all sorts of things."

Like Brady, he will miss his current church, where he's served for four years.

"They're primarily educators, nurses and Livermore Lab employees," he said of the Manteca congregation. "It was a good match and we got along really, really well and did some good grounded ministry in the short time we were together. We're all grieving a little bit."

Brady could relate.

"I'm in the grieving stage because I've really loved my congregation," she said. "They're comfortable being in relationship with people who don't see eye-to-eye with them on politics and theology. They care for one another. They have initiated a congregational care team and a group that prepares meals for families. I've loved watching that."

First United Methodist Church is at 850 16th Street. A traditional service is at at 10 a.m. Sundays, with a children's Sunday school program and nursery care at that time. A Bible study for adults is at 9 a.m. For more information, call (209) 522-9046.

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at or (209) 578-2012.

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