A Servant Minister with a Missionary Heart
People in ministry often credit certain scriptures that most inspired them to become pastors. But there are also scriptures that people can point to and say, “Wow! That totally describes my pastor!” Congregant admirers of Associate Pastor Leah Hanks of First United Methodist Church in Carthage can name several of those:
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Galatians 6:9 This scripture shows the importance of serving and doing good, but it also shows the value in being very tenacious and not giving up. “Leah Hanks is one of the most tenacious people I know,” says one parishioner. “When she finds a ministry need that she knows really should be met, she is like a bulldog with a bone he is refusing to give up. There is no telling her it can’t be done. She is absolutely tireless, and relentless about finding a way to get it done, no matter how hard.” Church member Tate Barber concurs, saying, “When there is a goal to be achieved or a person to be helped, there are always roadblocks that make it easy to quit, to say, ‘No, we have done all we can do,” but Leah never gives up, never lets the roadblocks get in her way.”
“And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me.” Isaiah 6:8 Leah will always go; in fact, she seems to stay on GO all the time. Church member Nellie Allums says, “She was so special to me when my husband Herb was ill, visiting all the time, and staying at our house the entire day on the day he passed away. He had told her he wanted her to preach at his funeral, and she gave such a wonderful message, making everyone laugh and fondly remember him as she captured the very essence of him. She is just always there for everyone and delivers the best sermons—always so deeply personal, sincere, and meaningful.” Minister of Music Dwaine Hubbard adds, “She does everything at the church. She doesn’t think any job is too menial for her. She is just as willing to organize closets, drive the church bus, prepare and serve snacks or meals, and run small errands as she is to tackle the most demanding of spiritual tasks.”
“I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” Acts 20:24 Leah never puts herself first when someone else has a need and never seeks credit for any of the ministries she accomplishes. As Tate describes, “She is so relatable and real. I knew her first as a mom and fellow parent before I knew her as a pastor, two different perspectives, but she is still unassuming and the same down-to-earth Leah she was before.” Member Brooke Lipsey adds, “Leah has an ever-willing heart for serving others for God! If there is a need, she handles it!”Dwaine adds, “Working with Leah is a blessing because I see her heart for meeting the needs of our congregation, while at the same time always reminding the church to be looking outward instead of inward.”
Raised in Alto, Texas, the second child of four, Leah relates that her paternal grandfather was a Southern Baptist minister, and she remembers spending much of her childhood in the churches and the parsonages in all the places he served. “Church was always a very real part of everyday life to me, not just a place to go on Sundays and Wednesdays. My siblings and I ran around playing all the time in the parsonage and the church, and both of those places were always just home to me. In my teen years, I went through a rebellious period and fell away from many of the teachings I had received as a child, making some bad mistakes. Even though I had learned in church the message that grace and not works saves people, there were people in the church who tried to guide young people by shame instead of by love and grace, and I had a deep sense in my heart that not only was I not worthy, I needed to try to GET worthy before coming back to God. Fortunately for me, I later had just as deep of a sense that God was saying, ‘I don’t know why you let other people dictate that to you when you know better!’ I started going back to church, and my strong faith was restored. I eventually began teaching Sunday School, sharing not only the Gospel message, but all those favorite Old Testament stories that I had loved so much as a child. I really believe that my teen experiences are the reason that I have such a ‘least of these’ focus in my own ministry. I think we just have to make sure that the ones who have not always followed the rules know that they are loved and can still just come on in! I think God was preparing me for church to be holy and special and love and family and home while I appeared to be just a kid playing and running around the church all the time.”
She later moved to Carthage and ended up at FUMC at the invitation of Youth Minister Tonia Crittenden. Not long after she joined the church, the Director of Children’s Ministries position opened, and the pastor urged her to apply. She held that position for several years, and the next pastor saw clearly the pastoral potential in her and encouraged her to become a local pastor and take the course of study in seminary courses that could lead to ordination if she wanted it. The two main differences in ordained and local pastors in the United Methodist Church are that prior seminary training is not required of a local pastor, and local pastors normally do not move from their place of residence without their own request or approval, as opposed to ordained ones, who are usually moved regularly by the church hierarchy. She has about three years left in her course of study. Each semester she receives one seminary credit from the class she is taking. The classes meet for a prescribed number of hours, but they are mostly comprised of at-home work, papers to write, and lots of reading.
Leah has been instrumental in the formation of several special ministries at FUMC—a summer lunch program for children of poverty called Feed My Lambs, coordination of the Panola County Angel Tree, Youth Force Carthage (a summer mission for youth to work on home repairs in the community), youth mission trips to Belize, and LOGOS, the midweek children’s program with a huge outreach component. In addition, she has several intensely personal, one-on-one ministries in which she is the connection between the people and the church. “God seems to send us people that need us,” she says, “and I am blessed to be the one who usually gets to work with them.
Leah is a devoted mother to her three children. The oldest is Mikey, age 24, who is serving in the U. S. Navy in Bremerton, Washington. He is assigned to the USS Alabama submarine as a navigator and electrical technician. Married to Jordan Bishop Hanks, they have Emma, age 3, and Jack, age six months. Leah says, “I am LeLe to them, and it is an amazing thing to see my child be a parent and also see how this gruff Navy man melts over this little girl and this baby!” Daughter Haley, age 20, is a junior at the University of the Ozarks. She is pursuing a double major in theater and history and, according to Leah, “loves to go and do and see and be a part of. She has been to London and Chicago to see shows as part of her school program, as well as to New York with the family. She is a force to be reckoned with, with strong ideals, strong opinions, and a real heart for the downtrodden and marginalized and non-mainstream. She has a strong personal faith and political views and is very much her own person!” Youngest child Collin is 15 and a sophomore honor student at CHS, where he is involved in soccer and band. “He’s the best human being I’ve ever known,” says Leah. “He is kind, shares my heart for ‘the least of these,’ and acts as my little Jiminy Cricket. When I’m about to have a not-very-Christian response to something, he becomes my conscience, and for that I am thankful!”
FUMC Financial Secretary Jeretta Thompson is one of the multitude of members who love Leah’s sermons. “It’s obvious to me that she has been called and annointed by God,” says Jeretta. “Every sermon she does is exactly what people need to hear, so timely and personal and helpful in allowing them to find their own calling.” Member Doris House agrees. “I think she has been a vibrant addition to our church. She is so caring and concerned, very tender, but also very strong. She has to be because of the very big load she carries and all the duties required of her. She is a very special and lovely person, and it would break my heart if we lost her!” There are so many in the FUMC congregation who would say that same thing!