Modern day circuit rider

Apr. 26, 2013 @ 05:02 PM

On the American scene in the 18th and 19th centuries, he circuit rider was a prominent figure.

He brought religion to European settlers as they spread from the coastal regions westward. He carried his books and belongings in his saddlebags and preached wherever he could, perhaps in a meeting house but more often in a home or at a work site.

The region now encompassed by Vance and Warren counties was on the route of many circuit riders. One of the most prominent was Francis Asbury, who came with the Methodist version of Anglican theology. He made at least three visits to North Carolina in 1780, 1783 and 1790.

Tangible rewards for the circuit rider were minimal. Asbury described the pay scale as “grace here and glory hereafter.”

The circuit rider, traveling from town to town on horseback or by horse-and-buggy, may be a vestige of the past. But a modern equivalent lives on in the minister who serves more than one church.

Vance and Warren counties have more than a dozen United Methodist churches. Some are too small to have a full-time preacher. Shocco United Methodist Church and Providence United Methodist Church, both in southwestern Warren County, share the services of Rev. Eric Schubert.

A native of Iowa, Schubert came to North Carolina almost four years ago to study at Duke Divinity School. He expects to receive the master of divinity degree in May.

Schubert, 39, is familiar with small town rural living. He grew up outside of Britt, Iowa, with its population of 2,000.

He was a high school choral director before deciding to go into the ministry. He and his wife, Bobbye, took a year to make the decision, he said, because “she didn’t marry a minister.”

The couple moved to North Carolina with their two daughters so he could take up his studies at Duke. A third daughter has since joined the family, and a fourth child is expected in June.

The Schuberts have had no trouble adjusting to the community or to the churches he serves.

“Our churches have taken care of us very well, as have other pastors and their families,” he said. “Sometimes we’ll have someone call us and say, ‘You guys need a date. When can I come over and babysit?’ Our girls love them. They ask us, ‘When are you going on a date again?’”

The schedules of the churches are coordinated to accommodate a pastor doing double duty. At Providence, the Sunday morning worship service begins at 9:45 and ends about 10:45, allowing Schubert sufficient time to drive the seven miles to Shocco, where the worship service begins at 11:15.

He is comfortable serving churches the size of those at Schocco and Providence.

“There are all kinds of churches,” he said. “In a larger church you can find anonymity. Here you know who people are.”

Like the circuit rider, these churches represent an important part of Methodist history. The Shocco congregation was formed in 1785. The present building was erected in 1918.

The Providence church, which dates from the 1870s, serves the Afton community but also draws members from Norlina and Warrenton, Schubert said.

He describes both as wonderful, loving communities.

The congregations are small but faithful, he said. Average attendance at Sunday services numbers about 32 at Providence and 15 at Shocco. Small choirs lead the singing of hymns.

Revealing his ear as a former choral director, Schubert said, “They have some very good singers.”

Now, like the circuit rider of old, Schubert will be moving on. He is preparing to mount up for his next move. He will receive his divinity degree in May and head for Iowa.

The churches are holding a packing party for the Schubert family today to help them get ready for the move. He’ll do the double duty on Sunday, then drive his wife and daughters to Iowa on Monday.

He will return to North Carolina and remain until he receives his divinity degree in May.

Schubert has already received his assignment as a member of the Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. He is going to Greenfield, Iowa, a town of about 2,000. The size of his congregation there will be somewhat more than the total of the two congregations he has served in Warren County.

But he won’t be getting saddle sores riding between churches.

Contact the writer at