“When I arrived, our first Sunday, we had around 17 people [at church] and three were my husband [Keith], my son [Jacob] and myself,” said Dickinson, who today has another son, Thomas. “They all came up for communion and they all could kneel at the same time. The sanctuary is small and seats about 80 to 100, and it felt very uncomfortably empty at the time.”
The church has grown from 39 members then to 103 today, Dickinson said. So when she decided in March to leave it for a job as associate pastor of discipleship at Athens First United Methodist Church, it was a tough call. The Vinings church, which announced May 5 Dickinson would be leaving, will host its final service with her at the helm this Sunday.
“It’s been a very difficult decision and a difficult year knowing the move was coming up,” she said. “I think there are times in our lives when we think it’s time to move on. I think God puts that inside of us. We gain a restlessness in us. … The congregation … has been a great support system for me. But for my family, it was really the best thing for us in our lives.”
Since arriving in Vinings, Dickinson has opened the church to the community, hosting events and inviting nonprofits such as local organizations and drug and alcohol addiction support groups to meet there or to partner with the church. She also added ongoing Bible studies and created a children’s program to draw more families. Dickinson said she credits “prayer and dependence on God” partly for the church’s success, but the church’s members said Dickinson deserves much of the credit.
“She’s a teacher. Beth’s gift is definitely teaching. That’s one of the reasons the Bible study has done so well,” said Jennifer Coffey, chairwoman of the church’s staff-parish relations committee. “Her sermons, everyone always gets them. She’s also able to teach a variety of people.
“We’re very diverse, and with her teaching abilities, she’s able to teach different classes. In Vinings, we have people who are extremely wealthy but also those who are transient. Through her, we’ve become a very welcoming congregation.”
The Rev. Bruce Cook, a member since 1988, founded the Crime Victims Advocacy Council the following year as a church outreach program. It meets weekly at the church.
“We had a murder and a suicide [in Vinings] in the last three years, and the way she handles things is great with her counseling or grief,” Cook said. “She’s not overly trained and clinical like I am, but she’s outstandingly trained and clinical by instinct and by nature. I haven’t seen anybody just show up like that seven years ago. I’m in awe of her, and I’m another Methodist chaplain.
“This is how she works in my opinion. She sees a need and then she goes to find something to meet that need. She saw people struggling financially in the church [during the recession], so she goes in and gets the Financial Peace class” by Dave Ramsey.
The church’s new senior pastor, Julie Schendel, starts June 23. Dickinson, a Lilburn native who graduated from the University of Georgia, has lived in Athens before. But leaving the Vinings area, where her mother, Diane Lockerbie, and sister, Katie Davis, live, will be bittersweet.
“It is very hard to say goodbye to a lot of them [church members] because I think of them as family,” she said. “They have been a really great support system for me personally. We’ve experienced a lot together, in my families and their families, when their children were born or when someone has died. We’ve shared life together.”