By Andrea Hall, Express Correspondent
When Peace United Church of Christ lost its full-time pastor in the fall of 2011, it was time for the church members to step up.
“We realized, as a congregation, if the church is going to survive, we have to do it,” said Mike Cleeton, who is currently studying to become a licensed lay minister for Peace United Church.
Working alongside Pastor Byron Henn, who is a retired, part-time United Church of Christ minister, the two men have helped the church grow and continue to serve the community and its congregation.
Currently, as a non-licensed lay pastor at the church, Cleeton leads three to four Sunday services per month along with Lenten services, calls on the sick and elderly, and performs funeral services.
As a licensed lay pastor, Cleeton will be able to perform the church’s sacraments, including communion and baptisms. Currently, Henn performs all of the sacraments as needed.
“If the church needs something, I want to be able to do it,” said Cleeton, who began taking classes in DeWitt last fall. To fulfill his certification, he is required to attend classes for about 12 hours per weekend, six weekends a year.
“It was something I could do and something the church could use. It worked out perfect,” said Cleeton, who has filled in during church services six to eight times a year for nearly a decade.
Cleeton began to lead services more regularly in the fall of 2011, and the congregation agreed to hire him and for a one-year trial period.
“It worked as well as we anticipated,” said Cleeton, which is when he decided to pursue his lay pastor certification.
After Cleeton is certified, he and Henn will continue to work together to serve the church. “I enjoy it,” he said, and hopes to do it as long as possible. “It’s something I look forward to.”
Having a part-time pastor and a licensed lay pastor means the church doesn’t have to pay a full-time pastor, and it works out well for Cleeton, who is retired. “It’s a win-win situation,” he said.
While Cleeton didn’t attend seminary, he said he gained his biblical knowledge through growing up in a religious home and having a grandfather as a minister.
He also spends 10 to 15 hours a week researching and studying the bible. He didn’t use computers much while teaching eighth grade English, but he has found the Internet to be a great source of information. “It’s a gold mine,” he said.
Speaking in front of crowds is also something that has come natural to Cleeton, having taught English for 25 years. “I found out I learned a lot more teaching than going to school,” he said.
Having been part of the congregation for most of his life, Cleeton said he has a different perspective and tries to find ways to connect with and relate to the congregation.
“He (uses) the passage, but he also relates it to everyday life,” said his wife Peggy Cleeton.
Even though they don’t have a full-time minister, members of Peace United Church want to continue to be a full-service church.
As a member of the Monticello Ministerial Association, the church continues to contribute to community-wide church events, including nursing home visits, contributing articles to the Monticello Express’ Uplifting Moments column and helping with the community food pantry.
Last summer, the church held its first Vacation Bible School program in almost a decade. Cleeton said church members are stepping up, with a “What can I do?” attitude.
Eight new members joined in the last year, and the average Sunday attendance is between 50 and 60 members. “We’ve tried to continue to be a full-service church,” said Cleeton.
The church also tries to make the service enjoyable and educational for the church’s youth. Sunday School is offered during the service following the children’s sermon, which allows parents of young children to engage in the service.
“We really want the kids and young people to feel welcome,” he said.
Several times a year the church holds family events including swimming parties, fishing, picnics and bowling parties.
In 1978, Cleeton and his family moved to Monticello when he accepted a position as head coach for the girls’ basketball team. He also taught eighth grade English from 1978 to 2003.
During his tenure, he also served as the middle school and high school athletic director. He said he coached “a little bit of everything” except for wrestling and golf. He retired from teaching in 2003.
Peace United Church of Christ is located at 410 E. Cherry St. in Monticello. Services are held Sundays from 10 to 11 a.m.