Familiar territory, new mission

The Rev. Bruce Hitchcock returns to area as superintendent of the Ohio Valley District, United Methodist Church

WELCOME BACK — The Rev. Bruce Hitchcock is beginning a new presence in the area through his appointment as superintendent of the Ohio Valley District of the United Methodist Church. The appointment by Bishop Tracy S. Malone took effect July 1. Hitchcock, whose district office is located at 352 Canton Road, Wintersville, will serve as supervisor of about 60 pastors in 88 churches in the district, which encompasses Jefferson, Harrison, Carroll and Belmont counties. Hitchcock served as the executive director of Urban Mission Ministries in Steubenville for nine years. -- Janice Kiaski

WINTERSVILLE — The Rev. Bruce Hitchcock is back in familiar territory, but he is here in a new capacity and on a new mission.

Effective July 1, Hitchcock became superintendent of the Ohio Valley District of the United Methodist Church, East Ohio Conference, in an appointment made by Bishop Tracy S. Malone.

“Rev. Bruce Hitchcock is a visionary leader, a strategic thinker and one who brings many learnings and experiences from serving in a variety of ministry settings,” Malone said in the announcement made earlier this year. “He has a deep faith and has demonstrated throughout his ministry a strong commitment to discipleship, evangelism and mission,” she said.

Hitchcock succeeds the Rev. Jim Winkler, who was appointed as lead pastor of Mayfield UMC in the Western Reserve District. His return to the area comes after having served since 2011 as pastor of Geneva United Methodist Church, also in the conference’s Western Reserve District.

Before that, though, Hitchcock was the executive director of Urban Mission Ministries in Steubenville for nine years, his local connection. It is a board on which he will now serve.

As superintendent, Hitchcock will supervise about 60 pastors in the district’s 88 churches in Jefferson, Harrison, Carroll and Belmont counties.

“The important question is it’s not so much that you’re in supervision — that’s the primary role — but how do you do that?” Hitchcock said during a recent interview at the district office, which is located at 352 Canton Road, Wintersville. “I am always a person who works with, how can we do this together,” he said of his ministry approach and philosophy.

That he’ll be working with churches he knows in an area not foreign to him is a definite plus, he agrees.

“It is good for me,” Hitchcock said, “because it provides a comfort level on who I am seeing and who I am visiting. It’s good in that sense, and my hope is that they know that I understand the valley.”

Being appointed a district superintendent, though, came as a surprise.

“I never dreamed I would be back here,” he said. “I thought for sure I would get a call to move, but it would be to another church, and I just didn’t think anything about being a district superintendent. That wasn’t on my radar, but it was on the bishop’s radar because of my experience here in the Ohio Valley. She said you know those people, you love those people, I need someone who can work there and relate and be good for the folks here, and that is what it was that brought me back, the relational side of things,” he said.

His appointment as superintendent actually marks a second return to the area familiar to him.

“When I started in ministry I was in Canton,” he explained. “I graduated and after high school I first had an interest then, and I expressed my interest to the Canton district. They waited all of like three weeks and they offered me a church,” he reminisced. “I remember I didn’t have much in the way of education and had never pastored anything, and I said to them ‘Are you crazy? I’m not ready to be in the church,’ and the guy said, ‘Sure you are. The best way to find out if you’re called to be a pastor is to jump in, and you’ll know pretty quick,'” Hitchcock recalled the conversation and the circumstances of it.

“I went to a little place called Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church in Carroll County, which is a part of the Ohio Valley District, and those folks they suffered me for two years and terrible preaching, but they nurtured me, and they taught me, and they really began to form me as a pastor,” he said of his experience as a student local pastor while earning a bachelor’s degree from Malone College.

Ordained a deacon in 1987 and an elder in 1989, Hitchcock has served several churches across Ohio during his ministry career. He served at State Road UMC in Germantown in the West Ohio Conference while attending United Theological Seminary, where he earned his master’s of divinity degree. Upon graduation, Hitchcock served East Rochester-Bayard UMC (1989-93); East Sparta UMC (1993-96) and Huron UMC (1996-2002), before accepting the position at Urban Mission for nine years. In 2011 to 2018, he served Geneva UMC (Western Reserve District).

He and wife, Melissa, are the parents of two sons and a daughter.

Coming to Urban Mission was his first time back in the area since Pleasant Grove UMC.

“That was my first time back in the Ohio Valley,” he said. “It was good there, and I loved the experience — the people, the area — this is one of the most beautiful parts of the state,” he said.

Hitchcock said he has always enjoyed working with people.

“As a pastor and at the mission, my goal was always to help people become who God has made them to be, so I’ve always pushed people to pray, to spend time in prayer, to spend time with God, to stop paying attention to the frivolous things of this world and pay attention to what’s important,” he said.

“In some ways that’s still what I’m going to do — there’s supervision working with pastors and things like that, but I’m not going to change that push. It’s who I am,” he said.

“We have to make ourselves available to God, we have to discover God within, in other people and all around us, and the more we do that, the more human, the more decent, the more compassionate we become, and so that part of me can’t change. That’s who I am and what I do,” Hitchcock said.

“There is such opportunity, such beauty and such wonder here that people need to appreciate and go after it,” Hitchcock said. Many of the same churches he worked with in his capacity as the mission’s executive director are smaller now, “but that’s happening all across the states where you find the numbers who are attending church, that’s just dropping everywhere and in every demographic, in the cities, in the rural areas, suburbia, everywhere. There is a sense of people saying we’re not what we were. No, we’re not, but it doesn’t mean we’re less,” he said.

“I think my biggest challenge is the same challenge that individuals face sometimes — when you wake up in the morning or go to church on Sunday morning that you’re eager to greet God, because God is eager to greet you. Everyday, God greets us, and it’s the same for the churches and to keep a focus on what God is doing and wants to do in the congregation,” Hitchcock said.

“There’s not a congregation in this district that can look at me and say well we really don’t know what we’re supposed to do, we don’t have a vision, we don’t have an idea for ministry because everybody has read the gospels, and if you can’t get a clue for what Jesus was doing and what he did, that’s what is expected of our congregations and our communities,” he said.

“Many of our small towns have just been devastated, and so you look to the church to be an anchor, and the church can be an anchor not just for worship, but the church can be an anchor for helping schools, it can be an anchor helping fire departments, it can help on the social level of holding communities together that really have nothing in common anymore. Many of the places that used to be towns and villages are unincorporated now, and they’re just sitting there, and the churches have a primary role in addressing that poverty there and holding people together, so I think that as well as the message of God’s love, the gospel of grace, the roles of the church are increasing, not shrinking,” he added.

Asked what one thing he would most like to get across to readers, Hitchcock responded, “The whole perception of church in the Ohio Valley. I think the treasure that exists in the Ohio Valley are the congregations, not just United Methodists, but all the Christian denominations in this Valley, all the congregations in this Valley are good people who stand ready to help, to care and to build,” Hitchcock said.

“And I would like people to look at and know that here in the Ohio Valley we have everything we need to succeed,” he added. “There is nothing that we lack as a culture or as a people. There is nothing we lack to be highly successful, to be happy, to be thriving in the Valley. There’s nothing we lack. We just have to put it together and focus on it and work on it, and I think that the church is poised. We are the perfect people to be the center of that kind of movement, and I would really like our culture to quit looking at congregations as a group of people who cause harm. That’s an old image of the church that I haven’t seen in a long, long time,” he continued, “because every church congregation I know, whether it’s the Methodists or the Presbyterians or the Roman Catholics, all of them that I know have powerful ministries going on and are doing great things.

“I wish the culture at large would see it and embrace it,” he said.

He also posed a question.

“When was the last time you had an encounter with God”? When was the last time you specifically sat down to focus on God alone and nothing else, because if you haven’t done that, it’s no surprise you feel that God’s nowhere around you,” Hitchcock said.

“If you can’t, focus on worship and prayer. I encourage everyone to do that.”

(Kiaski can be contacted at jkiaski@heraldstaronline.com.)