The Rev. Teresa Lilja, pastor of the Alcovy United Methodist Church, is leading her congregation into "wow moments" where they are seeing church growth, people stepping into new leadership roles and measured depth in their spiritual lives.
Alcovy UMC has served the community since 1886 and offers traditional worship for contemporary people. The attitude is relaxed and informal — the dress is "come as you wish."
Lilja described her congregation as a centered, stable, nurturing core of people. On her first Sunday in 2007, she distributed cards asking them what improvements they would like to see. More than 95 percent of the people indicated a desire to implement children and youth activities. This overwhelming response became the focus of much prayer and background work.
"We are evolving," said the pastor. "We have cleaned and organized the former fellowship hall into a children’s wing for Sunday school and children’s church with classes for elementary and high school age groups. While it had not been uncommon in 2008 to go four to six weeks without any children on Sunday mornings, we have had children in attendance every Sunday since the second week of January. We recently celebrated our first vacation Bible school at Alcovy UMC in over 10 years."
In order to make worship more inviting for families with young children, volunteers filled bags with clipboards, coloring pages, crayons, picture books and stuffed animals.
New leadership roles were filled by Emily Henderson as minister to youth and young adults; Mary Carol Cowart, a teacher from the Atlanta School for the Deaf, serves as children’s minister; Sandra Hodges as the lead teacher for children’s Sunday school; and Mike Ryan as the webmaster.
Lilja believes that faith is a journey — not a guilt trip. Her goal is to introduce a program called "Faith Matters," which opens dialogue between a person and the pastor. It focuses on questions such as, "Can we talk about what matters — can we talk about faith?"
Lilja will lead Bible studies and discussion groups upon requests whether it is a 30-minute group at lunch with co-workers, an afternoon group at home with some neighbors, a one-time discussion on a topic or extended classes by calling (404) 668-4573 or e-mailing her at email@example.com.
She said her favorite moments are when she is in the waiting room of a hospital and people clue in that she is a pastor. As she puts people at ease and assures them that it is OK to ask questions without the fear of being pushed in a corner, people open up to her and allow her to plants seeds of faith.
Lilja has tentative plans to offer a contemporary mid-week or Sunday evening service. Musicians interested in partnering are asked to contact the pastor.
"I believe in offering opportunities," she said. "If you never encounter a different way to worship, you won’t know if it feeds your soul, or if it causes growth."
Born in Michigan and raised in upstate New York, Lilja moved to the Atlanta area from Chicago in 1999 with her husband Ken and children, Carl and JoAnna Gail. She worked in the restaurant business before her children were born. In addition to being a part-time licensed local pastor, she is a stay-at-home mom and has home-schooled for 14 years.
The daughter of Dr. Ira and the Rev. JoAnna Pence, she was first appointed as a pastor in June 2004. Prior to coming to Alcovy UMC, she served several years as an associate pastor at Zoar UMC in Snellville.
"I am the first woman pastor in this church," said Lilja. "My job isn’t to convince anybody that women ought to be pastors — my job is just to do what God has called me to do so that he and I are right with each other."
Lilja invites the community to attend their homecoming service scheduled for September 13 with special music and guest preacher, the Rev. Danny Martin. Lunch will be served in the fellowship hall for everyone.
Located at 12521 Alcovy Road in Covington, Sunday school is offered at 9:45 a.m. followed by morning worship at 11 a.m. For more information, call the church office at (770) 786-0610 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.alcovyumc.com.