JEFFERSONVILLE, Ga. — As a former high school football coach, Dan Wright loves the challenge of building a winning team.
So, when Wright transitioned from the playing field to the pulpit in a career change four years ago, he welcomed the chance to serve as pastor at Jeffersonville Baptist Church, a 175-year-old congregation that had fallen into decline a half century ago.
Over the past decade, Sunday morning attendance has hovered around 30, according to the Annual Church Profile, a yearly census of Southern Baptist churches. Even so, Wright sees championship potential in the congregation that will be celebrating its milestone anniversary on Sept. 22.
“I have come to love this place,” he said. “This is a phenomenal church, a unified church where people truly love one another. I’m committed to its revitalization, and, unless the Lord writes on the wall with His finger and tells me to leave, I’m staying right here.”
A social studies teacher and coach for 20 years, Wright said he felt led by God to become a pastor. He received a Master of Divinity from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 2018 and a doctorate in educational ministry focused on church revitalization from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2023.
With his wife, Laura, and their four children, they have invested their time and energy in rebuilding Jeffersonville Baptist. Laura, a graduate of Southern seminary who was a longtime children’s director at First Baptist Church of Gray, is now teaching fourth grade at Jeffersonville Elementary School.
Jeffersonville, population 933, is a shrinking city. Located in the geographic center of Georgia, it has not prospered like other parts of the state that are flourishing amid widespread industrial expansions.
The church, founded in 1849, started with nine members, some white and some Black, who, according to a book of church history that has grown brittle with age, adopted a covenant and articles of faith “as a basis upon which they would unite in church relations and endeavor to keep house for the Lord.”
Cynthia Methvin, 88, said the entire congregation is “very much” worried about what the future holds for the church.
“I’m afraid it’s very sad,” she said. “So many of us are senior citizens.”
The congregation’s hopes are pinned on Wright, who she describes as a wonderful preacher and Bible teacher who has gotten the congregation involved in a variety of community outreaches, including revamping the city’s park that had fallen into disrepair and starting a weekly men’s prayer gathering.
“We’re just very fortunate to have him,” Methvin said. “He loves us, and we love him.”
Wright, who works part time as a teacher at Twiggs Academy, a nearby private school, recognizes that the challenges the community faces are the same challenges that are impacting the church.
“We are very strategic about praying for our community,” he said. “I would say if you’re not immersed in prayer, you won’t survive in a church like this or any other struggling, dying church. There’s nothing you can do except trust in the Lord.”
Thanks to his training at Southern seminary, Wright understands the challenges from the practical and spiritual standpoints.
“I wrote a whole dissertation just on that,” he said. “If you think you can revitalize a church just by changing the music and programs, you’re wrong. I came to this church saying, ‘we’re going to turn it around.’ That’s easier said than done.”
Wright, who arrived at Jeffersonville at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, said the key to rebuilding the congregation is reaching new families while caring well for the current, mostly elderly, church members.
“I need to shepherd these people well, and I need to reach their kids and grandkids,” he said.
Wright’s coaching expertise is helpful in that regard. He likens it to seeing to the needs of his team while recruiting new team members.
“Coaching is similar to pastoring in that you’re setting a vision, setting expectations,” he said. “You’re also the motivator. I want members of my church to know that, even at 90 years old, I need them active and engaged in the ministry of this church.”
Two women nearing 80 years old are tag-teaming the church’s children’s ministry. One of them plays piano during worship services.
Veteran Georgia preacher Ricky Thrasher, a statewide consultant at the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, said the Jeffersonville Baptist can have a bright future.
“It can be revitalized,” he said. “It can be done. It’s just a matter of hanging in there and not giving up.”