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The Rev. Wayne Dickert guides a raft down the Nantahala River near Bryson City, N.C. Dickert, a 1996 U.S. Olympic kayaker and pastor of Bryson City United Methodist Church, has conducted riverside services beside the Nantahala for the past 15 years.

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.

As a kayaker, the Rev. Wayne Dickert knows how to avoid getting in over his head, but that’s precisely how his ministry began.

Dickert — everyone, even his bishop, calls him Wayner — had been a raft guide and head of instruction at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City, North Carolina, and had long thought about having a riverside worship service at the center. One day in 2007, he was talking to the center’s president and tossed out the idea.

“I knew what the answer would be: No,” Dickert said. “And he says, ‘Sure! What do you need from me?’ and I thought, ‘What do I do now?’”

He was still laity at the time, so his senior pastor and youth pastor helped him get the service, called River of Life, off the ground.

“We set it up like a cross between a summer camp service and a contemporary worship service,” he said.

It became a hit with a paddling community that spends Sundays on the river, so he was able to reach people unlikely to ever set foot in a church building. The last Sunday of each month, Dickert and the congregation would paddle down the Nantahala River after church for what he calls “big, boomin’ fun.”

Now in its 15th year, Dickert chalks the success of River of Life up to building relationships and “being in life with people.”

The Rev. Wayne Dickert gives the sermon during the River of Life worship service at the Nantahala Outdoor Center near Bryson City, N.C.
The Rev. Wayne Dickert (center) guides a raft down the Nantahala River. Joining him on the trip in celebration of the 15th anniversary of the River of Life ministry are Sharon Ray and Will Skinner.

Tim Ray, a paddler from Montevallo, Alabama, who’s attended River of Life services since they began, said he’s seen rafters walking by who wound up hanging out for worship.

“You never know where a seed’s planted,” he said.

River of Life is what’s called a Fresh Expression ministry. The term originated in English churches to describe new forms of ministry that engage those who wouldn’t normally attend a traditional church. It’s an extension of Bryson City United Methodist Church, where Dickert has been the pastor for over a decade.

“I often say this was the first Fresh Expression that I saw organically in the U.S.,” said Bishop Ken Carter of the Florida Conference, who was a district superintendent in North Carolina when River of Life began. “We need institutions willing to do innovative things.”

The Rev. Luke Edwards, who oversees the Fresh Expression program for the Western North Carolina Conference, said River of Life is considered the conference’s first. They’ve since launched about 250 others.

“Wayner just leads with delight and joy and a sense of humor, and that shines through,” he said.

Parishioners listen during worship at the River of Life ministry.
Boaters make their way down the Nantahala River. A group of paddlers joined the Rev. Wayne Dickert for a day on the river in celebration of the 15th anniversary of the River of Life.
United Methodist Bishop Ken Carter (front) joins other worshippers in quiet contemplation along the bank of the Nantahala River during the River of Life service.

One of the unique aspects of the River of Life service is the five minutes Dickert sends worshippers to the riverside to spend solitary time with God.

“Wayner’s invitation is not to sit in your pew and pray, but to go by the water and reflect on God’s presence,” said Carter. “Look at the movement of the water and reflect on how life moves us along and changes us.”

“I love how The United Methodist Church is stepping outside its traditional comfort zone to not only allow but encourage these types of ministry,” Dickert said. “The general population is moving away from traditional settings, so we have to ask how we continue to engage them in ways of hope, just give them a little bit of God’s love.”

Worshippers look out over the Nantahala River during the River of Life service.

He declares that he’s still a fan of traditional church, and he embraces his role at Bryson City United Methodist — even if he doesn’t always follow the dress code.

“The other day, I forgot my shirt,” he said.

To clarify, he forgot his dress shirt, and showed up still wearing a T-shirt from the River of Life service. Luckily, there was a box of shirts he’d collected for donation.

“If it had been a robe Sunday, I’d have been fine,” he said.

Though his ministry began in a non-traditional way, Dickert has grown to love the traditional role of a pastor.

“It’s been super cool. Who knew? Me, a pastor? My calling was God being sneaky,” he said.

The Rev. Wayne Dickert greets parishioners at Bryson City (N.C.) United Methodist Church.
Parishioners sing during worship at Bryson City United Methodist Church.
The Rev. Wayne Dickert visits with parishioners following worship at Bryson City United Methodist Church.

The Rev. Erin Burt, Dickert’s 2019 pastoral intern, said he helped her embrace both styles of ministry as well.

“I expected to lean toward River of Life, but I fell in love with both,” she said. “These people just dig deep into their community in any way they can. They’ve forever changed my ministry.”

One of River of Life’s main missions is funding well projects in Haiti, all started by an unexpected love offering at one of the early services.

“Since this ministry was born up out of the water, we decided to use any money that came in to do water resources around the world to give other people hope,” Dickert said.

The first few years, the group supported smaller projects based on whatever money they had, but they dreamed of funding a community well. With a price tag of several thousand dollars, Dickert assumed that, in his words, “a bunch of dirt-bag boaters can’t afford this.”

The Rev. Wayne Dickert guides a raft down the Nantahala River.

Enter Pam Carter, who was a conference missions coordinator at the time. The Western North Carolina Conference has a missional relationship with Haiti and through those connections, River of Life was able to fund its first well. It just celebrated its 135th.

“We never thought we’d be able to get one. It’s just amazing to see how God has worked through all of this,” Dickert said.

“It fit beautifully with a group meeting weekly in water that is so clear you can see the rocks at the bottom. That’s not the case in Haiti,” Pam Carter said.

The Rev. Wayne Dickert greets Pam Carter during the River of Life worship service. Carter, who coordinated missions for the Western North Carolina Conference, helped facilitate using money raised by the River of Life to drill water wells in Haiti.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, River of Life has shifted its focus to raising money for personal protective equipment for Dr. Eugene Maklin and New Hope Hospital in Cap-Haitien, Haiti, a ministry partner with the conference.

There had been concerns about being able to meet during the pandemic, but restrictions on outdoor gatherings were eased about the time River of Life was to begin its season, which runs between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Dickert has been surprised by how much crossover he saw between River of Life and Bryson City United Methodist during the pandemic. Previously, the ministries had been “two separate fishbowls,” but as online worship services became more popular, he saw River of Life regulars in online Sunday school, small groups and worship at Bryson City.

“Usually a Fresh Expression spins off of a traditional church and becomes its own thing, but last year, River of Life became sort of an anchor for our more traditional church, which is pretty cool,” he said. “It speaks more to discipleship versus membership, and I’m all about that.”

Clara Belle leaps from a rock into the Nantahala River while Tom Womble provides encouragement.
The Rev. Wayne Dickert (center) visits with fellow boaters during a rest break on the Nantahala River.
The Rev. Wayne Dickert visits with Shirley Waters after Sunday service at Bryson City United Methodist Church.
The Rev. Wayne Dickert guides a raft down the Nantahala River.

An Olympic year is always special to Dickert. He was a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic kayaking team and an alternate on the 1992 team. He’s humble about those achievements, insisting, “Where I live, you can’t throw a rock without hitting an Olympian.”

He’s been rooting for 17-year-old Evy Leibfarth, a Bryson City resident and family friend who made this year’s team. She advanced to the semifinals of both the kayak and canoe slalom but missed out on the medal rounds.

“She's a little rock star. I would venture to bet that at some point in her career, she will get an Olympic medal,” he said.

At the July 11 service celebrating River of Life’s anniversary, Dickert delivered an Olympic-themed sermon titled “In It to Win It,” where he cited Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:24-25: “In a race, everyone runs but only one person gets the prize, so run to win. … Athletes train for a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize.”

As Dickert reflects on the ministry’s milestone, he’s also considering its future. Since United Methodist pastors are itinerant, there’s the likelihood that he may be appointed elsewhere. He dreams of an opportunity to mentor his successor.

“If I do need to leave this place, right now it would be hard for River of Life to keep going, so I’m looking for the right person to run with it, keep doing good things in Haiti and maybe even have a little fun on the river,” he said.

If he does find himself appointed to a less-river-adjacent location, Dickert said he’ll always look for creative ways to do ministry.

“When it feels like the spirit’s kind of pointing me in a certain direction,” he said, “I just don't have any better sense than to go, ‘Sure, why not? What could go wrong?’”

Joey Butler is a multimedia producer/editor and Mike DuBose is staff photographer for United Methodist News. Contact them at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

Credits:

Mike DuBose