Following in a father’s footsteps sometimes means filling some pretty big shoes. Or, in the case of Revs. Thad Haygood and Jack Varnell, some pretty big clergy robes.
Just as their fathers have done, both Rev. Haygood and Rev. Varnell serve South Georgia United Methodist churches. Rev. Haygood is the senior pastor of Dublin First United Methodist Church, and Rev. Varnell, a third-generation United Methodist pastor, serves Unity and Live Oak United Methodist Churches.
And just as their dads did years ago, both sons recently served as chaplains for Georgia elected officials.
As a sixth-grade student, Rev. Varnell accompanied his dad, Rev. Benjy Varnell, to Atlanta to watch him serve as the House of Representatives’ chaplain of the day. Back then he had no thoughts or ambitions of following his father into ministry. But on Monday, March 26, nearly 14 years later, he found himself standing in the same spot in which his father once stood.
“This was something my dad had done before me, and that my uncle and grandfather had also done,” Rev. Varnell said. “To stand up there and to be in that position and to follow them was a very humbling experience.”
Invited by friend and Unity UMC member Representative Jason Shaw, Rev. Varnell was given 10 minutes to speak to the representatives. With a focus on Philippians 2:3-5, he gave a short devotion on humility and urged representatives to do nothing out of selfish ambition, to regard each other as better than themselves, to put the interests of others before their own, to live lives of humility and to serve others with the mind of Jesus.
“I thought it was a good word for our elected leaders, not only for our state, but for our country as well. It’s good advice for all of us,” Rev. Varnell said. “Jesus shows us a God who gets down on His hands and knees and serves, and that’s who we’re supposed to model our lives after.”
Being a part of something that his grandfather, uncle and father had done was meaningful, he said.
“It’s an honor to be a part of a family that has been serving this Conference for so long and does such a wonderful job at it,” Rev. Varnell said. “I want to do my best to live up to their legacy and continue the great work that they’ve done, not only for the Conference, but for the Kingdom of God. It was special to be able to walk in their footsteps and follow them.”
To say that the elder Rev. Varnell is a proud father is an understatement.
“He’s a lot more poised than I was, and he did a lot better job than I did, I guarantee!” said Waycross District Superintendent Rev. Benjy Varnell, who twice served as the House of Representatives’ chaplain of the day, once in the mid-1990s while pastoring Nashville United Methodist Church, and once in the early 2000s as pastor of Swainsboro UMC. “We are very proud of Jack; he did very well. It was a great thrill for Mary and me to be there and to see him do that. It was a great message and gave them a challenge to work together for the common good.”
Just one day later, Rev. Haygood spoke to the representatives.
Invited by church member Rep. Matt Hatchett, who serves District 143 in Dublin, Rev. Haygood’s message focused on the 23rd Psalm.
Emphasizing that the psalmist wrote, “He makes me lie down in green pastures,” not “suggests or encourages me to lie down,” Rev. Haygood said that God offers rest for mind, body and soul.
“We can train our minds to rest, and we can exercise our bodies so they will rest, but only God can give us rest for our souls,” he said.
Ending his devotion with the words from the song, “Sanctuary,” Rev. Haygood challenged the group, as representatives of the state of Georgia and of their various areas, to be representatives for God as well.
“It was very humbling experience, but at the same time it really made me proud to be able to represent the South Georgia Conference, to follow in my dad’s footsteps and have him sit right there with me, and to be able to share a word of encouragement and hope to the representatives,” he said.
The entire day was somewhat surreal, Rev. Haygood said, and having his parents accompany him made the day that much more special (wife Laura and daughters Gentry and Ruth could not be away from school for the day).
“I can’t even really describe it,” he said. “My parents are so supportive of me, and they have raised me with such love and solid guidance. It again adds to the feeling of unworthiness. I think, ‘My dad’s supposed to be the one up there, not me!’ In a way I almost feel so unworthy, but it was just awesome to have them there and to know that they love me and support me.”
Rev. David Haygood, now retired, was serving Wrightsville First United Methodist Church when he was invited to be the Georgia Senate’s chaplain of the day 36 years ago. His son was only 4 years old at the time, and too young to accompany his father to the senate chambers.
Being back and watching his son give the day’s devotion was like déjà vu, Rev. David Haygood said.
“We are proud of Thad and are grateful for his ministry,” he said. “It’s always moving to see your son do these things. We’re grateful that he’s in ministry and a member of the South Georgia Conference. It is a humbling experience, frankly, to have your son doing for you what you used to try to do for him. I can remember the first time he served me communion. To quote Bear Bryant, I’m very proud of him and very humbled.”