Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” — Jerry L. Van Marter
“Well, the pay is a little less.”
The Rev. Trey Little is laughing out loud at the question: What has it been like going from senior vice president of a big Houston investment firm to pastor of a small Presbyterian Church in a tiny town in Texas?
“The first Sunday I preached there were 25 people in worship, and 50 members,” says Little. “I was pretty convinced I’d been called to the church to make disciples, so I immediately starting focusing on — investing in — evangelism and mission.”
In 1996, Little thought he had life figured out. He was being paid a lot of money to sell fixed income securities. “I wanted to make money and spend it as fast as I could,” Little’s laugh softens as he remembers what that was that like.
“I thought I was going to retire at 35, to golf, hunt and fish, and buy my kids nice things, take my family and friends on vacations.” But then what he valued began to change.
Trey and his wife Leslie were members of Grace Presbyterian Church in Houston. He’d been a volunteer with the youth of the church since 1991 and felt as if he was “kind of going through the motions at work” when the director of youth ministries, Ann Stewart, approached him.
“’Have you ever thought about doing this full-time?’ is what she asked me,” says Trey. “’You’ve got to be kidding me’ is what I thought. They were offering me a position that paid $26,000. I had a daughter, a wife, country club expenses ... but I told them we’d pray about it.”
During that time of prayer and discernment, Trey and Leslie went on their first mission trip together to Reynosa, Mexico with a group of middle school students. The theme for the week was on following Jesus. The leader of the trip pointed out that in Matthew 4 when Jesus called his first disciples they immediately dropped their nets — left what they were doing — and followed him.
“My wife and I began to weep,” says Trey. “We both realized scripture doesn’t say, ‘what does it pay, Lord?’ or ‘what about the country club membership?’ The following Monday I went to Grace and accepted the job of associate youth director for high school students.”
Four years later, in 2000, Trey and Leslie experienced the sense of a call to follow again. His mentor, the Rev. Dave McKechnie, told Little “he had the gifts to do pastoral ministry,” and encouraged him to consider going to seminary. He resisted, but then one Sunday morning he thought, “I can do what Dave does.”
Little couldn’t stop thinking about the influence McKechnie had on his life for 25-years, and wondering what lives he might be able to impact for good in the same way. When he told Leslie what was happening to him during worship, she began to cry leaving the main sanctuary. After some time in the balcony she simply said to him, “Let’s go.”
In 2003 after graduating from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Little accepted his first call at Matthews Memorial Presbyterian Church in Albany, Texas in Palo Duro Presbytery. Two hours from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Albany is a town of less than 2,000 people, with 18 churches, and little growth potential. But even though he was from a 4,500-member church in Houston, Little saw nothing but opportunity in this tiny West Texas church and town.
“Albany is seemingly on the road to nowhere,” says Little. “But Texas Monthly called it one of the best small towns in our state. People come here for sanctuary, to get away from the city. Albany has a nationally acclaimed arts center, a well-educated population that is devoted to community and faith.”
Little was convinced his work as pastor should be about making disciples. He set about doing that by encouraging the 50 members to do more than just come to church. “I wanted them to be the church, to do mission and evangelism,” says Little. He asked his congregation two key questions: “What does your relationship with Jesus Christ look like? Does it mean anything to you other than eternal life? “
“If it does,” (Little is answering his own question now) “then you have a story to tell, one that becomes contagious. “The stories of church folks trying to be who they are, transparent and real, and part of the life in a small town community has created a sense of excitement for Matthews Memorial Presbyterian Church.
“We now try to never miss an opportunity to reach people through relationship, to benefit the larger community,” says Little. “We understand we can’t have the mindset that if we just open our church doors, people will come. Instead we’re learning to reach out to people, beyond our walls, accepting them exactly where they are.”
Now in his seventh year at the church, Little continues to invest in relationships in Albany, just like he did in the financial investment business in Houston, always focusing on earning the trust of a person and the right to be heard.
He’s volunteered to read at the elementary school. He’s held Bible studies in a nursing home. He joined the chamber of commerce and served on a community planning team on how to improve life for of Albany’s citizens. He even accepted a role in a local theatre community nativity play — with a twist — he was the Grinch, his body visibly painted green.
“Listen we struggle in church, with ‘this is the way we’ve always done it.’ Yes we have grown,” acknowledges Little. “But so often the Church bases so much of success on numbers. Hopefully we’re beyond that and growing spiritually, from the inside out.”
Perhaps numbers are inadequate in defining success, but they do tell a story of something happening, of what is possible. Worship attendance at Matthews has tripled, as has membership. The church now has 150 members and their Christian Education attendance has quadrupled to 220. Their budget has increased five-fold to $250,000.
“I want to invest in the lives of church and community members to help them understand what this relationship with Jesus Christ is about,” says Little. “It’s more than just showing up for church. I don’t believe church saves you, but an essential component to Christian faith and growth is ‘koinonia’ — fellowship in the community of God.”
Little remembers what one of his best customers in the investment business said to him, as he was leaving the firm to work for the church: “You’re going from greed to need, never forget that.”
Those words, echo in Little’s mind, when he hears people wonder, “how could you give it all up?” His response, "I don’t feel like I’ve given anything up, all I’ve done is gain. I’ve grown closer to God."
He’s using his gifts, in the opportunities he’s given, to invest in other people’s lives. Only now he’s introducing them to relationships centered in God’s grace through Jesus Christ. “I’m still in the investment business,” says Little, “I’m a high energy guy — this business is perfect for my makeup.
“I’m so thankful to have a new perspective on how I define success in my life,” Trey Little says, “that helps me move in the journey with others from greed to need, always believing in what is possible.”
Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary recently produced a video on several graduates — including Trey Little — and their experiences in ministry.