The Rev. James Penuel feels right at home at Bethel United Methodist Church in Lewes.
After leading Union UM Church in Bridgeville for the last four years, Penuel was called upon to take over for retiring Earle Baker in early July.
“I think there was a sense that my gifts for ministry matched what Bethel would need and what they were looking for,” he said. “Pastor Baker has done an awesome job of laying the foundation here at Bethel, and I look forward to keeping things going and continuing to reach folks with the love of Jesus.”
Penuel said he’s had a very successful first month at Bethel despite the unusual circumstances.
“I’ve really enjoyed getting to know people and connecting with folks, at least in the way that you can right now,” he said. “It’s been very unique in the way that I’ve been meeting and connecting with people.”
For folks who don’t have access to programs like Zoom, he’s talked with them on the phone or even stopped by their home for a socially distanced front-porch meeting.
“When you start at a new church, a lot of times you’re doing a lot of face-to-face, you’re in people’s homes, but that’s just not possible right now,” he said. “We’re just trying to find new ways to be able to connect.”
Called to serve
Penuel felt called to ministry after graduating from Mardela High School.
“I was kind of feeling disconnected from church and disconnected from God, and I had a lot of questions,” he said. “I started taking philosophy classes, and for me it certainly made me think about my life.”
It made him realize that he needed to draw closer to God, so he started going back to his local church.
“It was there that I started feeling a tug to reconnect with God and draw closer to him in ministry,” he said.
He graduated from Salisbury University with degrees in philosophy and psychology. He then went to Wake Forest University School of Divinity in North Carolina, where he studied for three years. While there, he did youth ministry at a large 700-member church.
“It was a great experience, but I felt called to come back home,” he said.
In 2008, he was given his first appointment, a three-point charge in Sharptown, Md., meaning he was in charge of three small, rural churches in the Sharptown area. He was with the churches for about four years before moving to Bayside Chapel in Selbyville. After another four years, he moved to Union UM Church in Bridgeville.
Penuel, his wife Amber and their two young children now live a few miles outside Lewes, and they are excited about the next chapter.
“We love Lewes,” he said. “It’s a town with a lot of charm and a lot of nice shops. When the pandemic dies down, I look forward to connecting with people and local businesses, and finding ways to partner with them.”
Growing Bethel as a community partner and finding ways to serve Lewes are among Penuel’s major goals. He’d also like to connect with younger families.
Bethel recently restarted in-person services, which follow social distancing and face covering requirements. Those attending are required to RSVP to ensure there is enough space.
“It’s gone really well,” he said. “The trustees and everyone did a really nice job of getting everything together. We have a lot of volunteers who’ve worked hard. They’ve done everything I think that’s appropriate.”
He said it’s nice to have a live audience again.
“I hadn’t preached in front of people in about four months,” he said. “It was good.”
In-person services are held every Sunday at 9 a.m. A weekly virtual service is livestreamed on YouTube at 11 a.m., Sunday, and is available in perpetuity on the church’s YouTube channel.
To learn more about Bethel, go to www.bethellewes.org.