Hodson brings ‘Ask God what’s next’ to Conference ministry
Before he was a minister, the Rev. Phil Hodson was drawn to Galveston Island. He wrote his thesis there while in seminary in Texas. He and his family have taken annual vacations there. He and wife Joelle even talked of relocating there – before buying an RV and traveling the country in their retirement.
Now, as the United Church of Christ’s new South Central Conference Minister, Hodson, his wife and four sons live on Galveston Island — in a 36-foot travel trailer.
“We are so excited to be part of the new thing God is doing in Texas and Louisiana, to walk alongside so many loving congregations and gifted pastors and be part of imagining ‘what’s next’ in partnership with the Holy Spirit,” Hodson said.
“The South Central Conference was the one we knew we wanted to be part of from the beginning, because we see the shifts across the southern United States as extremely beneficial to a progressive denomination. The people coming into our area share our values and desire to be in community with others. So that’s where we set our sights, trusting that God would guide the way — and God did!”
Hodson was affirmed as conference minister in April, after four years as pastor in Wichita, Kan. He served Pilgrim UCC and Fairmount UCC — two congregations that came together to form Wichita UCC in 2019.
Ministry of ‘resurrection’
Shared values, building community and ‘fixing’ are key to Hodson’s ministry. He’s a second-career pastor, having left a business and marketing career as a serial entrepreneur to attend Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas in 2010.
“My paternal grandfather was also a minister and he offered me advice at the beginning of this journey that I rely on all the time: When you arrive, set goals and work to achieve them. When those goals are achieved, ask God what’s next and follow accordingly.”
Hodson was determined to follow that path in the service of the United Methodist Church after graduation in May of 2014. “My ministry has been one of resurrection, giving me the opportunity to be part of new birth through several successful church mergers and a new church start,” he said.
But that new church, built in a military community in Oklahoma, proved to be too progressive for the denomination. The congregation, which grew to more than 150 people, a third of them children, was open to all. “We found our joy didn’t sit well with everyone in our theological tent,” Hodson said, noting the church was dismantled and he was dismissed. “I was denied ordination and branded a ‘heretic’ by the Board of Ordained Ministry.”
So in 2017, he and his wife prepared to move on. Hodson considered leaving the ministry and “a denomination that no longer felt like home.” He and Joelle planned to relocate their family to Galveston and “find something else to do.”
Enter the Holy Spirit
But the Spirit intervened.
“While cleaning out my office, my phone rang. On the other end of the line was the Rev. Alan Miller, a UCC Conference minister and friend of my father’s for decades. Unbeknownst to me, my Dad had reached out to him as we were discerning our next steps, and Alan said to me, ‘I hear you think Jesus was a liberal.’ Having nothing to lose, I confirmed that theological philosophy, and Alan said, ‘So do I. Have you ever thought about the United Church of Christ? We could use someone with your particular gifts.’”
The former Penn Northeast Conference Minister put Hodson in touch with Edith Guffey, Kansas-Oklahoma Conference Minister. She sent his resume to the two UCC congregations in Wichita, which were looking to share a pastor. He was called there in September 2017 and ordained in the UCC in July of 2018.
“I had the opportunity to journey with wonderful people and together we saw the congregations become one body, grow with new life and diversity, and thrive,” Hodson said, referring to the merger of Fairmount and Pilgrim in 2019. “We invested in online media right before COVID hit and were ready to go entirely virtual in March of 2020. During that time we bought a new building, said goodbye to former properties, and prepared to reinvent once more on the other side. I worked alongside staff and volunteers who gave themselves every day, working tirelessly, and got to see the Spirit move in truly mighty ways!”
Over lunch one day, Hodson talked to Guffey about the process of re-imagining church. And, he said, she asked him, “When this is done, what will you do next? Where is God calling you to think about long-term?” But instead of moving to a bigger pulpit, she encouraged him to think about a move into Conference ministry.
“Watching Phil work with two local congregations and navigate all that needed to be done, I saw he had a number of gifts that would translate well into serving as a Conference minister,” Guffey said. “So when he expressed interest, all I had to do was to be available to answer his questions and provide him opportunities to learn processes, procedures and polity of the UCC.
“Conference ministry is a combination of executive management and pastoral skills. Search committees always think about the pastoral skills, and pastors get that in seminary. The executive management piece is harder to come by. I spotted that in Phil right away,” she continued. “He’s also very curious. I like that he just goes for it.”
In the fall of 2020, Hodson and his family took a leap of faith. He applied for the South Central job, and ran for office. After losing his race for the Kansas legislature in November and tired of the stresses of the pandemic, the family decided, while working and schooling remotely, to hunt for a travel trailer. In December, the Hodsons bought the RV, and with the blessings of the church, took off, “deciding not to put off until retirement what made sense in the present!”
Phil, Joelle and their sons — Xander, 10, Xane, 7, Xackary, 3, and Xavier, 1, (who was just a few months old at the time) — set out for Galveston to spend the month of January there together. Hodson interviewed for the South Central position while on vacation in Texas.
They returned to Kansas after their getaway, and put the trailer in storage — until after Hodson’s election as South Central’s new leader. When they put their home on the market, it sold in four days, so the family went back to the RV, downsizing from five bedrooms and 2,400 square feet to two bedrooms and 400 square feet.
“We spent May in Galveston, June and July at Slumber Falls in New Braunfels, then returned to Galveston in August to prepare for the new school year,” Hodson said. “While we are now officially ‘house hunting,’ we’re in no rush and are enjoying the freedom — and easy cleaning — this gives us. It still amazes me how everything came back around to living out crazy dreams from long ago!”
Hodson began his new role in the South Central Conference on July 15.
Baptism by hurricane
Just over a month later, Hurricane Ida roared ashore. The Category 4 storm became the second-most damaging and intense hurricane ever to make landfall in Louisiana, behind Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“When Ida came, I was supremely blessed to be surrounded by others who had ‘been here before,’” he said. “We utilized the UCC 2021 Storm Appeal as the most efficient means to steer resources where they could do the most good and were in contact with the Insurance Board as our churches assessed the damage. This is what is so wonderful about our covenantal relationship, how we are able to care for one another well.
“We’ve had one church significantly damaged and one with minor roof damage. We are waiting on insurance figures and congregational decision-making. What’s been most interesting is how this has created an opportunity for us to re-imagine what ministry might look like across New Orleans.”
Working with Disaster Ministries‘ Lesli Remaly and Back Bay Mission‘s Construction Manager Craig Steenkamp, Hodson spent several days visiting with pastors and congregations in September to see the damage the hurricane left behind.
“I am convinced that the ethos of New Orleans aligns with who we are as a denomination, and that the demographics are ripe with opportunity for a strong UCC presence,” he said. “When God ‘makes all things new,’ sometimes it happens in unexpected ways! We’ll see how the Spirit moves as those discussions continue in the coming months.”
On the home front, Joelle is busy getting the family settled into the community and the older boys have transitioned back to classrooms with new classmates. “We have been fortunate to be able to swim regularly, walk the beach, and spend a great deal of time outside, which has been very helpful,” Hodson said. “For me, the most wonderful thing about living here has been that, coming home from my travels around the Conference, I cross a large bridge that passes over Galveston Bay and gives access to the island. Each return, no matter the hour, I put the windows down and open the sunroof to feel the sea air and smell the water. It is a great reset for me as I am able to focus on my family and move from a work mindset.”
He sees his role in the church as a ‘fixer’ – as he listens for what God has called him to.
“I’ve simply worked hard and endeavored to bloom where I’ve been planted. Because of wise mentors – my grandfather, a former bishop, and especially Edith Guffey – and angels unaware like Alan Miller, I am blessed to be in ministry and offer my gifts and talents to the United Church of Christ.”
Hodson is one of four new Conference ministers around the UCC. Read about the others here.
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