After spending several days in 2009 at the annual conference for the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, Willimon, who serves as bishop for North Alabama, was exhausted.
“I had no business being anywhere near a church,” he remembered this week with a laugh. “I just wanted to go home.”
Instead, Willimon was talked into visiting Northwood United Methodist Church in Florence to meet a pastor named Peter Hawker. It didn’t take Willimon long to realize why Hawker was being recognized around the conference as an energetic and motivated pastor.
“From the parking lot, I could feel the spirit,” he said. “And when I walked into the church, it was palpable.”
Sitting on the first few rows were several teenagers and children — an unusual sight, given their general desire to sit in the back of the sanctuary. They weren’t all members at Northwood. Many of the youth sitting in those front pews were from the United Methodist Home for Boys.
It had long been a mission of the church to minister to the disadvantaged, those who “didn’t really fit anywhere else,” as Hawker described them. Helping at-risk youth had become a mission for the church.
“Rev. Hawker stayed in my mind as one of the most inspiring testimonials to a church recovering its mission: ‘We’re here for God and nothing else; not to be served but to serve,’” said Willimon. “I knew he was something special.”
A year later, when Anniston First United Methodist Church found itself looking for a senior pastor, Hawker’s name began circulating.
While Hawker’s success during his four years at Northwood had put him on the radar, he wasn’t about to take full credit.
“If you’re doing something for the glory of God, your reputation goes before you,” the 60-year-old Hawker said this week. “I can’t do it alone. What I accomplish can’t be done without the glory of Jesus.”
Hawker would be stepping into an even greater challenge, attempting to lead a congregation recovering from more than a year of upheaval and uncertainty. In December, former senior pastor Bill Brown had stepped down following a three-month investigation into an administrative complaint filed against him by his previous church in Montevallo.
But the congregation stood strong, determined to meet its future head-on without dwelling on the past, said Minnie Stovall, who served as interim pastor from mid-September through January.
When Hawker arrived, Stovall said he was met by a congregation that – like the movie – was waiting to exhale, ready to move on, which was why they embraced their new pastor immediately.
“He’s got the heart for God. A mind for Christ, and the courage of the Holy Spirit,” she said. “Of course, I realize that I just described the characters from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ … but it works.”
On Jan. 9, Hawker led his first Sunday worship at Anniston FUMC. Since that day, the congregation has steadily grown, adding 21 new members.
“Peter represents that new breed of pastor who are very missionary minded,” Willimon said. “He understands that the congregation needs to have a mission, a focus beyond its own comfort zone, if it’s going to be faithful to Jesus’ mandates.”
Though only into his third month, Hawker is steadily working on his vision of what he wants FUMC to do within the community.
“The biggest push we want is to have people out there getting their hands dirty,” he said. “We want them to become involved, getting to know their neighbor’s name, developing relationship, breaking bread.
“The chief complaint against Jesus was that he ate with sinners. I want Anniston to be know as the place where sinners eat.”
Crime and faith
Peter Hawker was born in the small town of Feltham, England, which is southwest of London. He moved to the states when he was 14 years old.
He playfully describes his still very distinct accent as “American-British,” making him sound a bit like the Geico Gecko.
In 1999, he retired as a special agent with the United States Army working in economic crime. His final assignment was at Fort McClellan, where he taught a class on advanced fraud investigation. It was a fortuitous job for he and his wife, Aurelia.
“We loved Alabama so much that we decided to stay,” he said.
For Hawker, there’s an easy correlation between catching criminals and preaching.
“In my job in law enforcement, you meet a lot of people in moments of crisis,” he said. “When someone sees me coming, it’s probably not going to be a good day for them. In ministry, we tend to see people in their happiest moments – marriage, birth of a child – and their worst – death, divorce. Both careers intersected at the highest emotional stages of humanity.”
It was such a moment that Hawker felt called to become a Methodist minister. It was 1996. His mother became deathly ill and was rushed to the hospital, where doctors initially gave up hope of her ever recovering. But three days later, she did just that.
It was a turnaround doctors called “simply amazing.”
While Hawker already had a solid foundation of faith, he discovered something else while sitting in the hospital waiting room. “I realized that I had something of substance that many of them did not,” he said. “I wanted to share what I had with others: that hope, that knowledge, that love of Jesus Christ.”
Growing up, Hawker attended the Church of England, where he was first inspired by a religious teacher’s love for scripture, an influence that has stayed with him ever since. But it was his wife, who was raised Methodist, that led him along his current path.
Hawker retired from the Army in October of 1999, having already enrolled in the Chandler School of Theology at Atlanta’s Emory University.
“The real push for me was the Wesleyan theology,” he said. “It’s the theology of grace, social justice and reaching out to others.”
Willimon sees in Hawker a quality that has become vital to pastors if the church has any hope of growing toward the future.
“We’ve reached a point where being a personable, intelligent and confident pastor isn’t good enough,” Willimon said. “It takes a vision. We’ve had compassionate pastors before. What we need now is someone who can lead. Peter has that.”
Contact Brett Buckner at firstname.lastname@example.org.