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Pastor, family killed in crash following storms

Photographs of the pastor's family adorn the altar of Lafayette (Tenn.) United Methodist Church during the Sunday worship service following the traffic deaths of the Rev. Michael Welch and his family. A UMNS photo by Tom Gillem.

By Tom Gillem*
Feb. 12, 2008 | LAFAYETTE, Tenn. (UMNS)

This undated family photo shows the Rev. Michael Welch, his wife, Julie, and children Jesse and Hannah. The oldest son, Garrison, was not in the accident. A UMNS photo courtesy of the Tennessee Annual Conference.

After a ferocious tornado pummeled their rural Tennessee county with death and destruction, members of Lafayette United Methodist Church thought their first Sunday worship service together would be a time to give thanks for survival and to seek divine guidance to minister to their battered community.

With no deaths or significant property damage among its membership, the church had been transformed into a family crisis center, and its pastor, the Rev. Michael Welch, quickly became the United Methodist denomination’s go-to person to organize relief work in a county that had lost at least 13 lives and more than 400 homes.

Instead, worshipers who gathered on Feb. 10 grieved an unimaginable loss––the death of Welch and his family in a traffic accident on Feb. 7, two days after the storm hit.

Welch, 51, died, along with his wife, Julie, 45, and their children Jesse, 14, and Hannah, 11, when a tractor-trailer carrying relief supplies slammed into their van on Highway 52, a traffic-choked two-lane highway just west of Lafayette. An adult son, Garrison, was not in the accident and survives the family.

Instead of seeing their pastor of almost four years in the pulpit, members heard a message of encouragement from their immediate past minister, the Rev. Amanda Diamond. She said God had transformed the congregation through the ministry of Welch and his wife––preparing the church for just such a moment as this.

"God has prospered you and brought you into a new day, and He's telling you that you are the light," said Diamond. "You are his vessels. This community is devastated, and I know in the midst of a physical devastation they are looking at you all. … They are being amazed that you can continue to reach out, that you are concerned about your neighbors because the light of Christ is in place in you."

Bishop Dick Wills of the Tennessee and Memphis Areas and local District Superintendent Ron Lowery attended the Sunday service to express the grief and concern of the entire United Methodist Church.

"I wanted just to come and worship with your precious congregation today," Wills said. "You had one of the most special pastors and families ever. Our hearts and prayers surround you. As United Methodists, we are never alone. When one of our congregations suffers, we all suffer."

A memorial service for the family was planned for Feb. 12 at the Lafayette church.

'Fierce integrity'

Welch, who had a master’s degree in social work, was studying to be an elder in The United Methodist Church. He was an ordained minister in the Christian Church Disciples of Christ and served several United Methodist congregations before making the decision to become a United Methodist minister. From 1994-1997, he was on the pastoral staff of Stephen Ministries, a nonprofit organization in St. Louis that equips lay people to provide one-on-one ministry to people in crisis.

"You had one of the most special pastors and families ever. Our hearts and prayers surround you." –Bishop Dick Wills

Since arriving in Lafayette, Julie taught Bible studies in the church and supported other mothers in the community who, like her, home-schooled their children.

"The first day I was here (after the storm), every single person said these words to me: 'Julie taught us that we are to praise God in all circumstances,'" said Diamond, who now serves at First United Methodist Church in nearby Hendersonville, Tenn. "And every single person who said that to me emphasized the word all."

The Rev. Jeff Wilson, Welch’s longtime friend from their seminary days at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, told the worshipers that Welch was a country boy from Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., who "had a tremendous heart for the Lord" and a "tremendous head for the Lord."

"He was a man of fierce integrity. His journey in faith and his ecclesiastical journey through churches and into the Stephen Ministries and now in The United Methodist Church … is a testament of that faith and his unwillingness to subjugate that faith and the convictions that he knew to any outside force of this world or any other place," said Wilson, who is on staff at Brentwood United Methodist Church in suburban Nashville.

Recalling a conversation with his friend after the Welch family moved to Lafayette, Wilson told the church that the Welches "not only loved you and loved the community, but they came home again."

"This country boy with a big heart for the Lord and a big head for wanting the knowledge of God came home again because, once again, he was in the roots of who he was, in the presence of the power and the spirit and the love of people who loved God, and that moved to the very essence of his soul. You were a blessing for him, and I know that he was a blessing for you, as he was for so many of us," Wilson said.

Memorials may be sent to the Welch Family Disaster Relief Fund at either the Macon Bank & Trust or Citizens Bank, both in Lafayette. Donations for survivors of the Welch family may be sent to the Welch Memorial Fund, Lafayette United Methodist Church, P.O. Box 122, Lafayette, Tenn. 37083.

*Gillem is a freelance journalist based in Brentwood, Tenn.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Video Links

Community remembers minister, family killed In crash

Macon Co. pastor, family killed in crash

Minister, family of Lafayette church killed in crash


Bishop Dick Wills: “you are not alone”

The Rev. Amanda Diamond: “you have been given a vision”

The Rev. Jeff Wilson: “a loving father, a loving husband”

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United Methodists respond to storms



Tennessee Annual Conference

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