EDEN — Standing side by side in the Leaksville United Methodist Church pulpit, the Revs. Rennie and Lauren Sims-Salata are learning as they go the new concept of co-pastoring.
Working together is a challenge for any couple, but sharing a pulpit, is a different aspect for the young couple who conducted their first sermon here on June 11.
They replace the Rev. A.C. Brock, who served for nine years as the church’s minister.
“We prayed to use our complementary gifts within the same church family and community,” said Lauren Sims-Salata, explaining she and her husband have felt called to copastor for years.
With no available guidelines, they “kind of make it up as we go,” she said, aided by advice from friends who’ve shared the role.
“I believe in the Wesleyan emphasis on grace,” Lauren Sims-Salata said. “I see and feel grace at work all around us, regardless of whether people name it as such.”
Having just moved to Eden in mid-June, the Sims-Salatas are still learning about their congregation, their goals and vision.
And COVID-19 has done a lot to change what parishioners consider as priorities, the couple explained.
“For all of us right now, learning how to engage and be relevant in what is not yet, but will be, a post-pandemic world” is essential, Rennie Sims-Salata said. “For the church, it has brought a lot of new possibilities. For one, the first hurdle has gotten us out of the habit of saying ‘But, it has always been that way,’” he said.
And the couple will strive to pitch in and fortify projects already underway in the area.
“We must join in the work that Christ is already doing in our community,” Lauren Sims-Salata said.
In worship, the two alternate who preaches and who reads during the worship service each week.
The pastor who is preaching has a general sense of the spiritual direction of the service, Lauren Sims-Salata said, “but we do sit down together and talk about pieces and parts.”
And they don’t always concur.
“We are a married a couple; we don’t agree on everything,” she admitted.
The husband and wife write their own sermons, sometimes using the Revised Common Lectionary, prescribed passages for each Sunday throughout the year.
Other times, they create sermon series based on things occurring in the life of the church, the community and the world.
So far, Lauren Sims-Salata has preached two services and her husband is scheduled to lead today’s service.
Born in Springfield, Ill., Lauren graduated in 2005 from Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, Mo., with a bachelor of arts degree in music and a bachelor of science degree in psychology.
Wondering whether to pursue music as a career, Sims-Salata followed the advice of her “incredible” college voice teacher, who told her about, Dr. Carla Lefevre, a professor at UNC-Greensboro’s School of Music.
She applied to UNCG, landed an audition and enrolled, school, got an audition and enrolled, intending to become a voice teacher, herself.
After two years, Sims-Salata earned her master’s degree in vocal performance and went on to Charlotte to serve as Young Artist in Residence at Opera Carolina there.
For the next year, the talented vocalist brought fairy tales to life for public school children across the state, touring classrooms with operettas – children’s stories set to operatic scores.
In Charlotte, Lauren Sims-Salata began recognizing her call to the ministry, she said.
While at UNCG, she had been the only one in her small class who did not plan on a life as a performer.
“I did not eat, breathe and sleep my music like most of my peers,” she said. “I thought at the time that was because my intention was to be a teacher, not a performer. In reality, it was the start of God leading me in a different direction.”
Eventually, Sims-Salata became involved at Charlotte’s Hawthorne Lane UMC ministry where she was able to express her calling.
In the fall of 2009, she enrolled at Duke University’s Divinity School in Durham, where she would earn her master’s of divinity degree in 2012.
That’s where she met her Rennie her first semester.
“The first year at Duke is pretty regimented, so most classes are large lecture situations,” she explained. That first semester, students were allowed one elective class, and Lauren chose a Wesleyan studies class with 16 students.
“I ended up sitting next to Rennie,” she said.
They married on Aug. 20, 2011 — almost two years after the day they met. And fittingly, their union was solemnized by the Rev. Dr. Stephen Gunter, the professor of the class in which they met. They now have a son, Benedict, 4.
Lauren’s first pastoral appointment was as associate pastor at Brevard First United Methodist Church in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She served eight years there, then pastored at Black Mountain United Methodist Church for a year before coming to Eden.
Rennie Sims-Salata, who shares a background in choral music with his wife, said he had also planned another career before feeling compelled to preach.
A native of Carencro, La., his parents divorced when he was nine, and his mother moved Sims-Salata and his younger sisters to Maryville, Tenn. Rennie attended Maryville College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music theory and composition.
As he approached graduation in 2005, Rennie Sims-Salata had to fulfill a final degree requirement – an internship. Interested in choral conducting, Sims-Salata chose to work with the music director of Maryville’s First United Methodist Church, Terry Wilson.
Part of the internship required him to attend Sunday morning worship services.
In one of those worship services, “I was ignoring the sermon as usual, and I felt this powerful presence of God saying, ‘Here I am’.”
That message led Sims-Salata to examine his faith and spirituality, he said.
During that process, he had some other experiences, including a retreat with other college students and teaching a Sunday school class for the choir on Easter Sunday.
“In both events, people had to affirm gifts for pastoral ministry – more than I had ever received for my music,” he said.
“As I explored that, I found that to be true,” Rennis said. “It seemed a more natural fit.”
And in 2008, he enrolled at Duke Divinity School where he earned his master’s degree in 2011. His first appointment was to Giles Chapel UMC in Asheboro.
From there, he served two churches at the same time: Long’s UMC and Cruso UMC, both in Haywood County.
The first year they were married, Lauren lived in Durham three days a week and spent the rest of the week in Asheboro.
In 2012, after she graduated, the couple moved to Brevard. Rennie pastored at Acton UM Church in nearby Asheville before going to Mills River UM in neighboring Henderson County.
These days with a 4-year-old, “it’s a juggling act right now because, until the fall our son is not in school …, so we have a lively office situation … the two of us and our son there are at the church,” Rennie Sims-Salata said. When school resumes, Benedict will enter pre-school. During Sunday worship services, he typically spends his time in the church nursery.
In the mountains, Benedict was with his mother on Sunday mornings, so the toddler considers it a special treat to now spend Sunday mornings with both of his parents, the couple said.
Although both were music majors, Sims-Salatas had not performed together until Palm Sunday when they delivered a duet, “The Palms,” at the Mills River church.
The couple agreed they feel “united in bonds of love with those who share our faith.”
“We seek bonds of peace and act in love with our opponents, and we build bonds of grace with those who are broken,” Rennie Sims-Salata said.