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Methodist pastor retires after more than four decades

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
June 29, 2012 at 1:29 a.m.

Westbrook gives his last sermon to a nearly filled  United Methodist Church in Port Lavaca.

DID YOU KNOW?

• There are eight Methodist Conferences in Texas: Central Texas Annual Conference, New Mexico Annual Conference, Texas Annual Conference, North Texas Annual Conference, Northwest Texas Annual Conference, Oklahoma Indian Missionary Annual Conference, Rio Grande Annual Conference, Southwest Texas Annual Conference

• The United Methodist Church denomination was created April 23, 1968, when Bishop Reuben H. Mueller, representing The Evangelical United Brethren Church, and Bishop Lloyd C. Wicke, of The Methodist Church, partnered at the constituting General Conference in Dallas.

• The origin of Methodism begins with the ministries of John Wesley (1703-91) and his brother, Charles (1707-88).

•  Both John and Charles Wesley were Church of England missionaries who traveled to the colony of Georgia in March 1736.

• Organized Methodism in America began as a lay movement.

• The first conference of Methodist preachers in the colonies was in Philadelphia in 1773.

•  The United Methodist Church has approximately 11 million members.

• Methodism is the third largest body of Protestant Christians, with 75 million members.

Source: umc.org

In the Rev. Carl Westbrook's office, liquor-and-wine-labeled boxes are scattered and stacked throughout the space. Inside each box contains the contents of the pastor's more than four decades in Methodist ministry.

"I don't drink, but they're the strongest boxes you can get," the 70-year-old pastor giggled. "There's a lot to pack up before we move to Victoria."

Last Sunday, Westbrook retired from First United Methodist Church in Port Lavaca - the church he's served the past nine years.

He also delivered his final sermon under a Methodist appointment.

But even though he's grown up in the church and been licensed to preach since age 16, the decision to step down wasn't a difficult one to make, he said.

"We just thought it was time to retire, and it felt like it finally made sense. So in February, I wrote my letter to the bishop and asked for retirement," he said.

Except for two years of his life, Westbrook has served God and his church.

But it was during those two years, when he quit the ministry out of frustration with church hierarchy, that Westbrook was introduced to the real need for God in secular society.

"I quit because I had become discouraged with the church," said Westbrook , reflecting on his decision to leave the ministry in his early 20s. "Not ever having been exposed to the inner workings of a bureaucracy, I became disappointed and disillusioned, and dare I say, disgusted? And being somewhat immature, I saw that my only recourse was to quit, so I did."

But Westbrook later learned that God was using those years to stretch his faith, and teach him about unchurched people - people he'd previously had little interaction with.

"I spent two years working in a petrochemical complex. I learned a lot about the world, and God used that time to grow me up and to introduce me to 'real people,'" Westbrook said. "As an adult, that was my first exposure to them."

For two years, Westbrook worked with what he described as "rough guys," who behaved and thought differently than he did. The minister also became known at work as the "preacher-boy" type, and was nicknamed, "Holy Joe."

"There was a lot of profanity and drinking . and I had never had a drink in my life," he said. "But those guys taught me about life. We were friends. We counted on each other, and looked out for each other. We had to in our line of work."

Westbrook said the two years he spent working alongside his rough coworkers allowed him to understand the world in ways he hadn't before.

"What God showed me in that experience is that I didn't have to be like one of them in order to be one of them," he said. "And that's been a life lesson - that I don't have to be like the people I minister with, or to, in order to be with them, or be an advocate for them. For me, that was the first real hard life lesson I learned that I've held on to."

But Westbrook's time at the petrochemical plant wouldn't last. He and his wife Elizabeth Westbrook were settled into a comfortable life when God came looking for Westbrook to return to his ministerial post. The couple had recently purchased a new home, and for the first time Westbrook was bringing home a sizable income from the plant. But Westbrook said God finally told him it was time to return home.

"I was in the shop one day by myself working on an instrument and I could feel the presence of God fill the room. I knew immediately he was there. I did not hear an audible voice, but the thought was dropped in my head, 'You've done your thing long enough, now it's time to do mine,'" Westbrook said.

The spirit-filled revelation excited the young pastor, and he went home eager to tell his wife the good news. He soon realized his bride wasn't so thrilled with the possibility of change.

"I remember screaming and crying and saying, 'No,'" said Elizabeth, giggling. "We had already bought a home and things were going along smoothly, and I was just comfortable in the life we were in. And at that time, change wasn't something I dealt with as well as I do now."

But re-entering the ministry turned out to be a seamless process, and the pair was surprised to see everything fall into place. Almost immediately, Westbrook found a job, the pair was able to find another occupant for their home and the pastor was able to part from his co-workers at the plant knowing he maintained a good example of Christian life.

And for the next 40 years, he kept that model.

"He has been phenomenal. Carl is very passionate about the gospel and he has never been afraid to stand up and be counted when the flow is going in the opposite direction," Elizabeth Westbrook said. "He is one that other pastors seek out because they know he can be counted on."

During his four-decade-long tenure, Westbrook has served in Methodist parishes throughout Texas, including Victoria, Three Rivers, Los Fresnos and Port Lavaca.

He has 42 years with annuity in the Methodist church, and continues to be enlivened by serving God and leading others to a relationship with him.

"This is what I've done my entire life. And I know I wouldn't have wanted to do anything else," he said, smiling.

Retiring in Victoria, does not mean Westbrook is leaving the ministry he said. And he has plans to visit as many different church denominations as he can.

"I want to see how other churches do it. I've never really had the chance to do that before," he said.

But Westbrook is also excited about the next chapter of his life -- and to see what God's has planned for him.

"The fact is, I don't know what I'm going to do yet ... I don't know what I'm going to do when I grow up," he chuckled.

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