'Don't let me die, not like this': Accident victim survives odds, finds joy in leading churches
By Annette Spence
"If not for his testimony, Scott would be just
another victim of a bad accident," says the
lay leader of Mahanaim United Methodist
Church (pictured) in Abingdon District.
North Keywood Circuit doubles in size
Scott Spence was a 25-year-old welder when his life was forever changed by a boiler that burst and blew scalding steam into the coal pit where he was working.
The force of the blast knocked Spence to the ground, and all of his exposed skin – face, neck, wrists, back of his hands – was instantly burned. The rest of him began to burn when his protective clothing became saturated, cooling and melting on his body.
“I didn’t have time to hurt,” says Spence, although he remembers smacking at what felt like bees stinging his face. “I knew my life was in danger.”
The strong young man, who until then felt he had “the world by the tail,” cried out to God: “Oh Almighty God, don’t let me die. Not like this.”
Today, people who get close enough can see evidence of the November 1993 accident that left Scott Spence with a five percent chance of survival.
“The scars are there, but you don’t see them when you’re with him,” says the Rev. Brenda Carroll. She was Abingdon District superintendent when Spence first knew God wanted him to become a pastor.
Most people only notice the dark prescription glasses that protect his eyes, Carroll says. Then they notice his humility and depth of faith. “That’s just part of who he is – being humble before God.”
For the last nine years, the former welder has served as pastor at his first appointment, the North Keywood Circuit, which includes Blackwell Chapel United Methodist Church and Mahanaim UMC. Together, the two churches have grown from 60 in total worship attendance to 150. More than 70 new members have joined within the last eight years, in a location Spence says is “in the middle of nowhere” in Meadowview, Va.
See photos on Facebook.
The parishioners say the pastor has grown along with their churches, while the now 43-year-old pastor says the parishioners have “loved and supported him” all the way.
“Scott has a huge place in his life for the holy spirit,” said Carroll. “When you have two churches with spirit, and you put somebody like Scott in there, things are going to happen.”
“If not for his testimony, Scott would be just another victim of a bad accident,” said Tim Kelly, lay leader at Mahanaim. “Not everybody wears his scars as a testimony to the Lord. When you’ve got that kind of leadership and members who are willing to work, people will see that church as active and be drawn to it.”
In the instant after he called out to God from a coal chute in 1993, the seriously injured young man felt an unusual calm. He found the strength to climb 15 feet up a ladder where his screaming, scared co-workers were waiting to help.
“I was blind, I couldn’t see, but I could hear voices,” Spence remembers. “Within 20 minutes, an EMT was with me and began cutting off my clothes. Within 30 to 40 minutes I was flown to the UVA hospital in Charlottesville.”
Spence lost consciousness and was unresponsive for five days on life support. His 24-year-old wife, Diane Spence, was informed her husband had minimal chance of living – but needed surgery to survive even a few more days.
“There was so much bad news, but I never did think he was going to die,” says Diane. She prayed constantly, and so did Scott’s mother.
After a six-hour surgery, the doctor stepped out to tell his patient’s family, as Diane remembers: “I’ve never experienced anything like this. We’ve never seen a patient literally get stronger on the operating table … There definitely was some divine intervention.”
The couple would still endure 18 more surgeries, 176 hours on the operating table, three months in the hospital, and 18 months of physical therapy. Scott survived renal failure, sepsis, pneumonia, and of course, brutal pain from burn treatment and reconstructive surgeries.
Throughout the recovery, several miraculous moments left friends and family convinced of God’s presence – like the day a nurse confirmed, to Scott’s great disappointment, that he would not regain his sight.
“When he gets real quiet, I know he’s thinking,” Diane said. “What he was doing was saying a simple prayer for his vision.
“Scott’s eyes were stitched shut, and they had put a lot of this gooey medicine on them to help them heal,” Diane remembers. At that moment, a stitch broke loose and Scott wiped some of the medicine from his eyes.
“Diane, I can read the clock on the wall,” Scott said. “Come over here and let me look at you.”
Mike Hoback recalls that his church prayed for the local boy recuperating from a terrible accident, just as many congregations prayed. In 2002, nine years later, Scott Spence was appointed to pastor the church where Hoback is lay leader.
Blackwell Chapel UMC had recently begun a benevolence ministry for neighbors needing assistance with utility bills, food, medical trips, home repairs, and more. The congregation was ready for a leader to help them reach their potential in the community, Hoback said.
“Scott was very respectful of where we were at that point,” Hoback said. “He wouldn’t ask us to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. We worked together.”
The first-time pastor was thrilled to be appointed to Blackwell Chapel and Mahanaim, not only because both churches were within 13 miles of his home. “I couldn’t believe they were going to pay me to do something I loved,” he said.
As a child, Spence attended a Baptist church but “drifted away from the church as a teenager.” His wife’s parents were members at Mahanaim, where Scott and Diane were wed.
Before the accident, the young couple “didn’t make time for church,” Scott admits. After the accident, they visited churches and found a home at Robert’s Chapel UMC in Broadford, Va. There, Scott discovered joy in teaching Sunday school and working with the youth. He used his lay-speaker training to share his story with both religious and secular groups. He was encouraged by his pastors, the Rev. Bill Cahill, and later, the Rev. Ray Neese.
“I fell in love with the people. I fell in love with the church,” Spence says. When he was invited to speak at an ecumenical revival, the feedback was so positive that Spence spent the next year realizing (and resisting) God’s call for him to become a pastor.
See video of Spence on YouTube.
“I thought my scars would be a hindrance at first,” he said. “I thought about visiting sick people in the hospital who would think, ‘He ain’t much better off than me.’”
Equipped with new leadership, the North Keywood Circuit prepared to take off. “Diane and I began to push and work for cohesion,” Scott said. “The two churches are only three miles apart. They not only share a pastor, they share a community.”
The congregations started by combining Christmas programs and Vacation Bible School. Last summer, 40 kids attended the North Keywood VBS.
About seven years ago, the pastor and his parishioners discovered a ministry gold mine. Mahanaim already had a softball team, but the two churches combined and began participating in a Saltville church league. They designed jerseys in Virginia Tech colors (maroon and orange), and the pastor made it clear that wearing the uniform was a high honor accompanied with the expectation of Christ-like behavior. He set a policy that team members didn’t have to be church members, but they had to attend worship two Sundays in a month’s time before representing North Keywood.
Spence describes the success of North Keywood’s softball ministry – and the indoor volleyball league his circuit created two years ago – as “infectious.”
“I can’t tell you the impact that sports ministry has had on young families,” he said. “If I can get them on the softball field, I can get them into church.” The pastor is also pleased that the ministry induces exercise into the daily lives of his church members.
This past winter, North Keywood had five teams (35 people) meeting at Hayter's Gap Community Center to play two other teams (Madam Russell UMC and a Church of God team) in volleyball. This summer, North Keywood expects to have four softball teams (40 people) playing in a church league of seven teams.
“It’s brought people together, and it’s brought our churches together,” Kelly says of the sports ministry. Hoback estimates that half of North Keywood’s worshippers are under age 50, compared to 25 percent before the sports ministry began.
The benevolence ministry that coincided with Spence’s arrival is also going strong, members say. Blackwell Chapel raises $10,000 annually through apple butter, spaghetti suppers, and ice cream suppers – funds that are redistributed to the community. Mahanaim dedicates 10 percent of every Sunday offering for neighborly needs.
In January 2012, North Keywood sent its first youth group to Resurrection. Twenty-five youth and six adults attended Holston Conference’s annual spiritual retreat in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
“There’s an air of excitement among these two churches that says they want to make a difference for the kingdom,” notes the Rev. Sandra Johnson, current Abingdon District superintendent. “Here is a pastor, by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, serving and engaging two ‘vital congregations.’”
A lot has changed in the last decade. After the accident, physicians said Scott’s injuries could prevent him from having children. Eight years ago, Diane gave birth to their second daughter, Dianna. Their first daughter, Autumn Jade (A.J.), is now 14 years old.
When Brenda Carroll suggested he attend college and seminary, the new pastor balked at first.
“I can’t do that,” Scott said. “That’s nine years of my life.”
In 2011, the pastor graduated from Emory & Henry College with a bachelor’s degree in religion and a 3.6 grade point average. He just completed his first year at Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury, N.C.
Scott still has “aches and pains” that he doesn’t talk about, his wife says, and he’s been warned about a future with arthritis and osteoarthritis.
However, the man who first worried that his scars would distract people from his ministry no longer carries that burden.
“My scars are an asset,” the pastor says. “People who see me in the hospital know that I’ve been on that side of the bed.”
Years ago, as he underwent surgery after surgery to resemble the man in the wedding photo that his daughters don’t recognize, Spence prayed for God to remove his scars.
He now realizes that God answered those prayers.
“I am more handsome now than I ever was when I was 25,” he says. “Once people get to know me, my scars are removed and they see my passion for Christ. That’s the resurrection story. I’m a resurrection story, and my life is better than it ever was.”
Annette Spence, editor of The Call, is not related to the Rev. Scott Spence. The North Keywood Circuit was recently recognized by the Holston Conference Cabinet as a "Bright Spot," exhibiting qualities of a United Methodist Vital Congregation.