After 10 years of ministry at Trinity United Methodist Church, the Rev. John Peel will lead his final church service on Sunday, leaving big shoes to fill for the new pastor, the Rev. Jim Bowden.
Peel, the son of a bricklayer, came to Trinity in 2003, then a dwindling congregation, and laid a firm foundation for rebuilding the community, raising it from a community of 100 to 300 members.
“He’s just been here so long, really a steadying influence,” said Kristie Melvin, a 10-year church member.
On a recent Thursday, Peel sat calmly in his office. Having just gotten off the lawn mower, he wore a Rangers jersey and well-worn jeans. He recalled the small-town Denton of his childhood.
He grew up in a religious household. At age 5, his family moved to be charter members of Asbury United Methodist Church.
Peel fondly recalls his mother’s mantra: “Ya’ll can do what you want Saturday night, but come Sunday morning, you’ll be in church.”
His father influenced him at an early age.
“He taught me if I was going to do something, I had to do it right,” Peel said.
Moving on from his days as a two-time bricklaying state champion and a linebacker at Denton High School, Peel attended the University of North Texas, where he realized that ministry was his calling.
While serving on the finance committee and choir at Asbury, he organized carpools to help bring out 100 young people to Sunday service. Peel said he became aware of the vocation he wanted when one evening his pastor, the Rev. David Kittrell, remarked: “You know, you do more than most associate pastors. You might want to take a look at this.”
From that moment, Peel took his calling seriously. After UNT, he attended Duke Divinity School. Peel laughed, thinking back on his first class, systematic theology, after which he told his professor, “I think I understood about three words!”
Though challenging, the three years at Duke prepared him for coming back home, he said.
He always remembered his purpose was “to learn how to teach the gospel to ordinary people because I am an ordinary person.”
The recognition enabled him to piece together the highly metaphysical concepts of divinity school with the daily experiences of everyday people, Peel said. As his mentor, Kittrell, taught him at the end of a sermon, one must always ask, “So what? What difference does this make in the lives of the people that you’re talking to?”
“My focus in preaching has always been on talking to people, rather than just teaching the gospel,” Peel said. “You have to live what it means to be connected to God in order to help the people around you be connected.”
This focus on the real nitty-gritty of day-to-day life helped Peel lead successful congregations at Paris and Lake Dallas, where he learned that whatever the size of the parish, you must sit down in small groups, such as Bible study, in order to spend meaningful time with people.
Bowden, the incoming pastor, has ministered to several churches across the Dallas-Fort Worth area and has served as a delegate to multiple World Methodist councils and volunteers for Court Appointed Special Advocates as a legal advocate for abused and neglected Texas children.
He said he’s heard many stories of Peel’s “shepherding, hands-on approach to ministry.”
That approach helped create a sense of hospitality within the church, he said.
Peel’s preaching manifested itself in more than words. His frequent visits to parishioners in the hospital and personal involvement in construction initiatives, ranging from the church’s choir loft to the prayer garden, welded together a congregation when it needed it most.
Peel said that this broad range of skills and experience allowed him to recognize his ministry as a blessing rather than merely a livelihood.
“He’s been the heart of this church,” said Lee Booth, a 10-year member. “When he speaks, every word from his mouth is also from his heart.”