The Rev. Mike Morgan, who will lead Gainesville First United Methodist Church come September, likes to say that being a pastor is his vocation and being a comic strip artist is his avocation.
Morgan, who replaces the Rev. Scott Hearn at the church on Thompson Bridge Road, said he is looking forward to serving his new congregation, especially leading socially distanced morning and evening Sunday services outside.
Hearn is moving to Trinity on the Hill United Methodist Church in Augusta as part of the appointment process the United Methodist Church undertakes each year. Hearn has served at GFUMC since 2016.
From his first impression, Morgan said he noticed a strong sense of community spirit in Gainesville, one that is not closed off to newcomers.
But before pursuing his ministerial career over 31 years ago, Morgan worked as a cartoonist.
He earned an associate in fine arts from Young Harris College and a bachelor’s in graphic design from the University of Georgia, then set off to work for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. His career then took him to The Telegraph in Macon, where he worked as an editorial cartoonist for several years.
“It was while I was living and working there in Macon, when I first felt stirrings to the call of an ordained minister,” he said. “I left my job at The Telegraph and went to Emory University’s Candler School of Theology for three years.”
Morgan said he began his first appointment as a United Methodist pastor in Macon, and soon afterward, his friends at The Telegraph reached out to him with a freelance cartoonist opportunity.
“I said, ‘I would love to be cartooning again, but here’s the thing — the job of an editorial cartoonist is to make people mad,’” Morgan recounted. “I told them I’m not sure that’s what I want to do, and I have no doubt some of my parishioners won’t share all of my political opinions.”
So, Morgan offered a compromise and suggested writing a weekly comic strip about a church.
Morgan said The Telegraph loved the idea. In 1991, his creative work “For Heaven’s Sake!” took flight and was quickly picked up by Creators Syndicate, an American independent distributer of comic strips and columns to daily newspapers and digital outlets, including The Times.
The pastor describes “For Heaven’s Sake!” as a fictional congregation (emphasis on the fictional) that “celebrates faith and pokes fun at the foibles of God’s people, including church pastors.”
“My philosophy is that I take my faith in God very seriously, but we faithful people are better off if we don’t take ourselves overly seriously,” Morgan said.
Having served at six different United Methodist congregations in Georgia, Morgan said he has experienced his fair share of both positive and negative reactions to his creative avocation.
He said he’ll never forget when a young lady from church pulled out the folded-up comic strip from her purse, put it in his face and exclaimed, “Is this about my husband?”
“I said, ‘Well I don’t know, do you recognize your husband in that comic strip?” Morgan recounted. “We both started laughing.”
Occasionally, “For Heaven’s Sake!” references current events, which Morgan said once prompted some members of his congregation to complain to the staff parish relations committee chair. Realizing that people may have misinterpreted the point of his comic strip, he explained its meaning during his church’s morning announcement.
“It seemed to work pretty well,” he said. “I got several thumbs up and a couple of people said, ‘I didn’t like it when you first put it in the paper.’ And a few said, ‘What’s the problem?’”
The Times will be publishing Morgan’s cartoon in the Life section every weekend.
Morgan’s first Sunday at Gainesville First is Sept. 5.
Frank Norton Jr., head of the local United Methodist staff parish relations committee, has been a member of Gainesville First UMC for 64 years. He said his church has kept a strong line of active and engaged pastors.
“He (Morgan) has some big shoes to fill, but I’ve been extremely impressed with him and his energy,” Norton said. “His unique background will play well for Gainesville First and this community. He’s coming from Greensboro, a similar lake-oriented community, and we’re excited about that prospect.”
Before his appointment to Gainesville, Morgan served as a pastor at Greensboro First UMC for seven years. His church family plans to hold a drive-by send-off parade for Morgan and his wife on Sunday, Aug. 16. Gainesville First held a similar event for Hearn on July 26.
“It’s bittersweet,” Morgan said. “It’s hard to bid farewell to people you’ve grown so close in ministry together, particularly at a time like this because we can’t have the usual rituals of farewell.”
If he could relay one thing about himself to the residents of Hall, Morgan said he would tell him that the most important aspect of his calling is to help people grow as followers of Jesus Christ.
“What I like to do is help people discover new growth in their relationship with God as we work together to serve God’s people, especially those who are in need,” he said.