The Rev. George Howle said pulling St. John United Methodist Church out of $3.5 million worth of debt was a group effort; still, it's no coincidence that the church was able to regain its footing once he became the senior pastor in 2005.

News surfaced at the beginning of March that Howle would be leaving the church in June to join the Bishop's Cabinet – a group that has oversight and responsibilities over the United Methodist Churches in the district.

The pastor has been busy preparing for his new role and was just recently available for a sit-down discussion on his time at St. John, including how he managed to assist with the church debt.

Howle said the church put its problems aside to assist victims in the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe in 2005 2005. Their work in providing shelter for victims was a motivator to turn the church around.

“In three years, we paid off $3.5 million worth of debt,” he said. “We became a missional congregation through work in Aiken, in the state and even international work.”

Howle said the church found success because his relationship with the congregation dates back to 1991, when he was the associate pastor. After serving for three years as an associate, Howle left in 1994 and returned in 2005 to what he describes as a “phenomenal congregation.”

“This congregation equipped me in a way that seminary and other appointments before then didn't do,” he said. “This church is incredible, and its missions, programming, ministers and the people are all phenomenal.”

Members and Howle have celebrated many other accomplishments in his time as pastor, including the initiation of the 9:02 service. As advertised, the service, which begins at 9:02 a.m. each Sunday, is a contemporary one that finds ways to engage youth.

“It's a great service and another way that our church has been able to reach more people,” he said.

From here, Howle will be moving to Greenville, where he will be better positioned to oversee the conference. While the new role is a promising step forward, Howle said the transition to the Bishop's Cabinet is a bittersweet one because of his love for Aiken.

“They tell me I'm a good preacher, but I really think I'm a good shepherd. They know I love them,” he said. “To have been a part of this community and church has been a great honor.”

He added, “I don't want to leave this beautiful church and community. But God has called me through the appointment process to become a part of another community. We really do want to go where God sends us, and so I'll continue being the best shepherd I can be.”

Derrek Asberry is a beat reporter with the Aiken Standard. He joined the paper in June. He is originally from Vidalia, Ga., and a graduate of Georgia Southern University. Follow him on Twitter @ DerrekAsberry.