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35 Wonderful Years

On the evening of Tuesday June 14, 1988, Bishop Earnest A. Fitzgerald ordained me as a Deacon in The United Methodist Church. Three years later, on June 12, I again knelt as he ordained me an Elder in The United Methodist Church. Thus, I've rolled out of bed every morning for 35 years to serve as a pastor in that great denomination.

But today will be my last. Today, June 30, 2023, I end my ministry as a United Methodist pastor. Tomorrow, I begin my new service as an Elder in the Global Methodist Church. A wonderful chapter in my life is ending, and now I look forward to a new adventure in ministry.

I take this step with deep gratitude for The United Methodist Church. My home church, Bethany in Fayette County, Georgia sat just a half mile up the road from my boyhood home, and the people there nurtured me into the Christian faith. Sundays meant Morning Church, Sunday Night Church, and touch football or softball, depending on the season, in between. I learned there that "Love, Mercy, and Grace," #153 in the Cokesbury Hymnal, is one of the greatest songs ever written, and I also preached my first sermon to that congregation. They kindly encouraged me and launched me into ministry.

From there I was blessed to serve W.R. Cannon Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia for three years. Those good folks gave me my start in ministry by trusting me with their youth. What incredible confidence they had in me, and I couldn't have asked for better support from that congregation. When we left there, they gave us a brick with a note attached - "No matter where you go; take a piece of us with you." And we have.

Next, the North Georgia Annual Conference allowed me the honor of starting a congregation, Lanier in Forsyth County, aptly named as it sat barely two miles from the shores of Lake Lanier. We began in a skating rink - we often joked that we were true "holy rollers" - and from there the fledgling band moved to a house which we ultimately expanded twice as the church grew. Finally, we were able to build a multi-purpose building providing room for worship and fellowship. At Lanier I learned that a church really is more than brick and mortar; rather, it's the people and the common faith they together hold, truly, as the old hymn says, "the tie that binds."

Both our boys were born while we were at Lanier, and they weren't happy when the Bishop told us it was time to pack and move to Jasper United Methodist in Pickens County at the very edge of the North Georgia mountains. Before you know it, though, they were mountain boys, and they were in love with a church that embraced them and with a place that had the charm of Mayberry. Regina and I were, too. We'd been warned that nothing would ever be like starting a church. That was true, but we discovered that was like saying your second child won't be the same as your first. Your heart just grows a little bigger and your love grows with it. We learned, as some in Pickens County say, that "it doesn't matter where I am as long as I can see Sharptop Mountain."

After six years in Jasper, I asked for a part-time appointment so I could study marriage and family therapy. Highland in Griffin, Georgia was a small wooden building painted bright white, but more than that it was a joyful gathering of folks who sang "Power In The Blood" like no other. They threw their arms around us and our boys, celebrating with them as they played sports, got their first deer in the woods of Pike County, Georgia, and graduated from high school. At Highland, I learned how to make hush puppies and I learned that I better have a favorite NASCAR driver. After two years with Highland, the Bishop doubled our joy by appointing me to serve Hanleiter Church as well.

Like Highland, Hanleiter received us as if we were family. I'd preach there at 9:30 and then we'd jump in the car and scoot over to Highland for a repeat performance. Our sons never complained about hearing the same sermon twice, though they did often spend the ten minute ride between the two correcting me on details I'd messed up. Hanleiter's ladies introduced me to their Maundy Thursday Quiet Meal - an hour or so of eating in total silence followed by a short devotional and Holy Communion. It's one of the few times I've ever been quiet for a whole hour, unless I was asleep. Sheer torture, but actually very moving and meaningful. The menu for the meal is very simple, just a chicken dish and some asparagus, and, yes, they insisted I eat the asparagus. Most of them were old enough to be my Mother, so I did as I was told.

Next, we spent four years at Thomaston First in Upson County, a church with one of the most beautiful sanctuaries I've ever seen, especially at Christmas. We soon discovered that the real beauty of that church was not its architecture, but its people. They taught me how to crack a couple hundred eggs on a Saturday morning for a Community Breakfast and then to scramble them with a blender. Once I got the hang of that, they handed me a spatula and trusted me to cook them. They took care of me after I blew out my knee, rejoiced when our youngest son got married, and rejoiced again when our oldest got into Veterinary School. They provided us with our first parsonage since W.R. Cannon, and they made it very much our home. I got chills every time they sang "It Is Well With My Soul" and they also introduced me to preaching in a Contemporary Service with a band. I loved it all!

Then, I returned to my home county to serve Providence, a suburban church that was barely twenty years old. While there, Miles, our oldest, graduated from Vet School and then decided to ride a bicycle all the way across the United States. Every Sunday, they had us show on a screen where he was on his journey and they delighted in his stories from the road. They prayed that crazy boy across the country and they celebrated with his parents when he finally made it home in one piece. They also rejoiced with us when we became grandparents and they, many of them grandparents themselves, were nice enough to look at a thousand pictures of Hazel. They showed me the power of people coming to the altar to pray at the close of a worship service - what a testament to their faith!

At Providence, we faced the challenge of COVID together. It wasn't easy, and it wasn't without differences of opinion, but the congregation held together, even building me a Preaching Platform to use in two outdoor services each Sunday. We also dealt honestly and lovingly together with the issue of human sexuality, the issue that has so divided The United Methodist Church. They listened to a variety of perspectives, sought out a wide range of information, and wrestled to make an informed and faithful decision.

Just last year, in June, we came to Fort Valley in the South Georgia Conference so that we could be closer to Regina's family and could help provide support for her parents as they dealt with health challenges. This congregation has subsequently loved us through the death of Regina's father. They, too, sought to objectively consider the issue of human sexuality and the Christian response to it. I've been so impressed with how they organized themselves, with how they prayerfully studied and, like Providence, how they sought out information. I watched them vote and make the decision to leave The United Methodist Church, a decision they did not take lightly, but rather reverently.

If you see Fort Valley Methodist Church, the first thing you'll notice are the spectacular stained glass windows. Take a deeper, closer look and you'll see that far more spectacular is the grace and kindness, the love, of these wonderful people. In just a year, they've let us know that Fort Valley is indeed our new home.

In another blog , I'll share why I made the tough decision to leave the denomination of my childhood. Some of those churches I've loved and served will likely leave The United Methodist Church in the next year. Others will remain. No matter. I'll love each and I'll appreciate them all, for every one of them blessed my life in immeasurable and eternal ways.

Likewise, I will forever be grateful to The United Methodist Church, to the North Georgia Annual Conference (and South Georgia, though for only this one short year), to my clergy colleagues, to the District Superintendents who oversaw my work, and to the Bishops who appointed me and granted me the opportunity to serve these great congregations and the authority to lead them. Obviously, I have my differences with the denomination and the direction it will go, but nothing will change my appreciation for the impact it has had on my life and my faith.

I've had 35 wonderful years of ministry in The United Methodist Church and a lifetime of worship and service within it. I begin this new day with a full heart and with this continuous prayer for my friends in The United Methodist Church - May the Lord hold you in the palm of His hand, no matter where you may go . . .

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