Mike Watson wasn’t given much to work with when he was appointed to start a new congregation in his hometown.
“No plans for a service, no members, no money, no idea where this might be. Just go down there and start something,” Watson said.
In 1978 the Dothan District Board of Missions and Church Extensions of the United Methodist Church began planning for a new church on the city’s rapidly growing west side.
A New Church Committee was appointed in early 1979. On May 31, during the Alabama-West Florida annual conference meeting in Montgomery, Bishop Carl J. Sanders appointed 29-year-old Watson as the first pastor.
Within a week, Watson and his wife, Margaret, both originally from Dothan, moved to the new appointment with their son, Ben.
On July 1, the first worship service was held in the cafetorium at Houston Academy with 248 attending. Many came from churches within the district to show their support, but some came to be part of the new church.
Twenty-five people joined when the invitation was given at the close of the service. Two more joined that night.
A steering committee was elected and the church was named Covenant United Methodist Church. The name linked the congregation to the Old and New Testaments and reminded its members of their covenant relationship with God and with each other as part of the body of Christ.
With the new school year about to begin at Houston Academy, services were moved to the chapel inside Wesley Manor, the United Methodist retirement home on Honeysuckle Road. An 8:45 a.m. service was added as a specialized ministry for Wesley Manor residents.
By the time the church was 10 weeks old, 62 people had joined and brought 24 children with them. Already plans were being made for construction of the first unit of the church’s permanent building to be located on West Main Street outside Ross Clark Circle.
“None of us can fully see what the future holds for this new church,” Watson wrote in an article printed in the Dothan Eagle . “We cannot say that we know what this church will be, but we can see that God has something ahead for this church that is truly remarkable.”
In the early weeks attendance averaged 68 in Sunday School, 121 in morning worship, and 69 in evening worship. Currently, Covenant has more than 1,600 attending services.
Watson served at Covenant until 1990, when he was appointed pastor of Dauphin Way United Methodist Church in Mobile. He was elected to the episcopacy in 2000 and assigned to the South Georgia Area. He served there until 2008, when he was assigned to the North Georgia Area. Now in retirement, he serves as the Ecumenical Officer of the United Methodist denomination globally with an office in Washington, D.C.
But it was his days as a founding pastor in Dothan that influenced him most.
“The lessons of faith that that taught me have stayed with me all of my life,” Watson said at the recent celebration of Covenant’s 40th anniversary. “The lessons God taught me through Covenant United Methodist Church are still a part of who I am.”
Ties to Dothan
Tommy Peacock and Watson grew up together in Dothan. When Watson called to invite Peacock and his wife, Kathy, to join the new church, they said yes.
“We were members at First Methodist and we were as happy as we could be. Mike needed some help, and the Lord just told me and my wife to go,” Peacock said.
The only thing the new church had at the time was a pastor.
“We had no members, no hymn books, we didn’t have anything. We just had each other,” Peacock said.
Peacock was on the first steering committee with chairman Walter Moreland, Skip Layne, Mrs. Brent McFarland, and Dr. Sammy Prim.
The early church members served on committees, often more than one, but Peacock said the work was a joyful thing.
“It was a blessing,” he said. “It taught me more about the Methodist religion than I probably would ever have gained.”
Kathy and Prim’s wife, Janice, kept the first nursery at Wesley Manor. Members spread the church’s message and people came to the services.
“We just tried to make them feel welcomed, to make them feel loved, and let them know that the word of God was going to be preached and his songs were going to be sung,” Peacock said.
Land for the church
One day in 1979 Watson was driving out West Main Street and the Lord told him to pull over.
“It was as clear to me as it was when I answered the call to ministry in 1968,” Watson said. “God just said to me this church is going to be right here. This is where it’s going to be.”
He found a phone and called his father, Excell Watson, who was in the real estate business in Dothan. His father said there might be a problem, that the land had been in the Pittman family since the beginning of Dothan and he didn’t think they would be interested in selling.
The Pittman family operated one of the largest plant nurseries in Alabama. Elizabeth Pittman Dodd had title to the land and lived in Mobile with her husband, Tom.
A group that helped start the church went to Mobile to talk with the Dodds but they were hesitant to sell.
Elizabeth’s brother Bill lived in a house next to the property. Also, if the Dodds sold the land, about half the proceeds would go to taxes.
The group asked the Dodds to think and pray about it. When contacted a few weeks later, the Dodds had decided to give the church part of the property and sell it the rest over time.
Watson was told “we do believe that God wants a church there, and we do believe that y’all are going to be able to do this.”
The first unit of the permanent building was constructed about 1982. Bill Pittman joined Covenant, and as Bill and his wife got older he told her that if he died and she decided she needed to sell the house that she should give Covenant first refusal on what she thought was a fair price.
“They did, and Covenant bought it,” Watson said.
Covenant is in as good a spot in Dothan as a church could be, he said, “and it was because God made that possible.”
‘God was calling us’
Sammy Prim has been a member at Covenant since the first day. He said those early times were exciting and busy.
“It was more activity per person to begin with than it is now because there were so few of us,” he said. “We had to do everything.”
The church was formed out of need, not negativity.
“I think when we first started many of us felt that God was calling us there not because we were dissatisfied where we were, because most of us came from churches all over Dothan,” he said. “This was started with a feeling of good.”
Because Watson and his wife were both from Dothan, they had immediate connections to the community. Those relationships made it easier to build momentum.
“The preacher that we had brought along that excitement and enhanced it and pushed it forward,” Prim said.
The church complemented the new subdivisions, people and businesses that came with an expanding west side. It still cultivates an active congregation.
“Covenant has always tried to make room for everybody and to be inclusive,” Prim said. “I’ve never seen us espouse a lot of dogma. It’s not that we don’t have beliefs. We very much have beliefs, (but) it’s not dogmatic kinds of things.”
Covenant’s recognition as one of the top 20 churches in the United Methodist Church in growth comes as a pleasant surprise for Prim.
“We thought maybe if we could get 200, 300 people we would be elated,” he said. “We would never have anticipated this.”
Hays McKay, longtime pastor at Covenant, said the church has seen incredible growth through the variety of worship styles it offers.
“We committed to make them the best for God’s glory and speak a language to people who may feel far from God,” he said. “So, traditional, contemporary and an 11 o’clock contemporary worship to reach younger adults have worked well.”
McKay said the pastor and staff must be together and press forward on a vision of reaching people for Jesus.
“The leadership must buy in as well and God does the rest,” he said.
Being one of the fastest growing UMCs in worship percentage increase over the last five years reminds McKay that the purpose is working.
“Our missions work is strong and vital,” he said. “It’s global, national, and local.”
The church’s care ministries like Celebrate Recovery and grief support help people where they are “and it’s our desire that people feel a sense of welcome and home.”
The kids and student ministries are top notch. “Reaching the next generation is our purpose as well,” McKay said.
Covenant’s mission is to pursue God and unleash compassion, he said.
“We have a communications team that is involved in reaching people through all social mediums and it has such potential for people coming to Christ. Live stream is opening the door for reaching people for Jesus unlike we have seen,” McKay said.
The church’s future appears bright.
“Covenant has embraced change and we have seen God’s results for an ever growing church,” McKay said.
Watson echoed that sentiment.
“It’s just a wonderful blessing to me to be back and to see how that church has continued to flourish and serve God,” he said.