BURTON — In mid-summer, former pastor Bruce Billings retired from leading two separate congregations at two Burton churches — simultaneously.
Billings, 60, had presided over Atherton United Methodist Church and Phoenix United Methodist Church for 18 years and 10 years respectively.
“It was hard to leave the people that we’ve grown to know and love but at the same time it was time to go. God was telling me it was time to go,” Billings said.
Dividing his attention between multiple churches isn’t a new concept to Billings, who has been assigned to churches all over the state, at times juggling three churches at once. He’s been minister in towns such as Paint Creek, Otisville and Otter Lake.
In West Forest, Billings delivered sermons from a church that still used outdoor bathrooms. He and church members instated buffalo dinner evenings to help pay off the rebuilt church’s mortgage.
For now, Billings is focusing on enjoying his retirement with two grown children Michael and Andrea and his three grandchildren. His retirement coincides with wife Linda’s retirement as a schoolteacher from the Lake Orion school district.
Billings grew up in Flat Rock and says he was called into the ministry as a teenager, graduating from the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, in 1977.
In 37 years of being a pastor, Billings has ushered in changes to the churches he led, from technology with the use of projection systems and audio visual equipment during masses to worldwide mission trip destinations.
“In some ways, church doesn’t change,” he says. “Our purpose stays the same but the way that we go about it has changed. The way that you communicate the message changes.”
Per Methodist rules, Billings cannot return to either Phoenix United Methodist or Atherton United Methodist for one year.
Billings said he doesn’t plan on returning and he’d like the new pastor to find ways to transform and change his new congregation.
“I just don’t think it’s fair [to return],” said Billings, who’s in the process of finding another church home to attend as a member of the congregation.
Billings says he has found a sense of accomplishment in running what he refers to as a “no strings attached ministry” at both the churches he retired from.
“The thing I’m particularly proud of in the church is allowing people to have an idea and saying to them ‘OK, you find the people and we’ll do it.’ We didn’t micro-manage. We just gave approval,” he said.
An after-school program called Wednesday Kids flourished for more than 10 years under Billings’ direction at Atherton United Methodist. He also allowed that the church be opened up to Boy Scout meetings, Alcoholics Anonymous gatherings and various support group meetings. Additionally, an “ugly quilt” group of ladies formed, making sleeping bags out of old blankets and fabrics for underprivileged kids.
At Phoenix United Methodist, an underused fellowship hall was turned into a dance studio that grew to include 150 students.
“It made a big difference over the years,” says Billings of the programs and projects. “Conflicts were easily resolved and we stuck together long enough to work through things.”
Missions also became an integral part of the churches, with Billings organizing volunteer trips to Haiti and Liberia.
“I really think we’ve accomplished a sense of mission both locally and globally,” he said. “I think it really energized the church.”
Billings said that it was ultimately difficult to leave the churches where he presided over masses, counseling sessions, funerals and weddings.
“That’s the wonderful thing about being with the church for 18 years, you’re there in times of celebration and loss. I shared this with these families and that was very special to me. I’ve been able to touch people’s lives.”