It is Time to Stand

The following is an edited version of what I shared with my congregation at our Administrative Board meeting on Sunday, October 2, 2022. I mostly edited for clarity and expanded the text a bit to fit the wider audience. This is a pretty clear picture of where I am in my journey. I have taken a stand and I am trusting that God will be faithful as I live out my call.

I was not a Methodist in my early life, but when I was a teenager, I choose the United Methodist Church. I do not have a common story such as coming to the church because of a dynamic youth ministry or because my parents joined, and I followed suit. As a matter of fact, my parents who are both believers faithfully attended my United Methodist Church in Samson, Alabama yet they never joined that or any other United Methodist Church. As difficult as it may be to believe that a teenager can think this deeply, I became a Methodist because I believed that the Methodist understanding of faith most closely resembled the way I understood my walk with Christ. 

Fast forward to my college days. I attended Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama – a United Methodist school. And though I believe God had been gently calling me for quite a while during my teenage years, it was during college that I recognized and accepted my call to ministry. My call did not come through a revival or a discipleship weekend like Emmaus or Discovery. No, my call came during a Methodist history course. You see it was John Wesley’s passion for evangelism, his ordered system for spiritual formation, and his belief in holiness of heart and life that made my spirit come alive and when I knew in my heart that this was what I was supposed to do with my life. That same spirit of what it means to be Methodist is what drives me even today to do what I do for the kingdom. And so, in 1996 I took my first ministry job and began exploring ordination within the UMC. My journey is a much longer story than I have time for in this post. I may write about it later. But the short version is that it took 20 years to see that vision become reality, and in 2016 I became a clergyperson in the North Alabama Conference. 

I did not come in blindly. I was a youth delegate to the Alabama/West Florida Conference, and I have served in four different Annual Conferences. I had long known about the difficulties facing the UMC. When I was commissioned in 2016, I came in with hope and a desire to be a part of a denominational renewal that I and many others believed was so desperately needed. I believed there was a way to move forward together and find common ground and shared purpose. Someone just needed the right idea to make it all work. I even put my name in the hat for General Conference delegate because I still had hope that we could retain our social and theological stances and yet find a way to move forward together. Yet after the 2019 special General Conference, I witnessed the reactions, actions, and inactions of so many to the decisions that were made there. I watched as bishops, clergy, and laity vowed to disregard and not live by the decisions of that General Conference. That was the beginning of my understanding of the difficult truth that our divide was deeper than I had ever realized.

I love the United Methodist Church. In 2018 when I was ordained, I answered yes to questions that I had studied our doctrine and polity and that I believed they were in line with the Holy Scriptures, and that I would preach, support, and maintain them. I meant every single word of those vows. I still do. Yet as I have studied, read, and listened to others I have come to understand that some within our denomination do not share my conviction and commitment to our doctrine and discipline. Others say they do but have very different interpretations of what many of our shared words mean. Let me be clear, I do not believe this is one or two fringe folks within our denomination, but rather I have seen this lack of compliance and agreement to our shared covenant in bishops, district superintendents, and General Conference delegates from across our connection. These are persons who are called to be our leaders and decision-makers. Additionally, I have had conversations with some clergy in our own annual conference and future candidates in United Methodist seminaries. These people also share very different views about how we should live out our covenant together. Their understandings of a whole host of issues are very different than mine, and often while we use the same words to describe our faith and our Methodist heritage, we have very different understandings of what these words mean. While I value diversity of thought in many areas, I feel that we must have a commonly understood vernacular when we talk about our most foundational beliefs.

I love the church I currently serve. As a deacon, I have a unique situation of being able to have some agency in choosing my appointment. In 2019 when my wife and I felt called to come to Decatur First, we had endured difficult circumstances and those experiences had left us with scars. The people of this church loved us and made us feel not just welcomed but loved and valued. It was and is a gift without which we would not have been able to find healing. I hope to remain at Decatur First for many years to come. I believe in long tenures. Yet, because of my devotion to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I must first and foremost follow his call wherever he leads me. Even if this means I must leave the United Methodist Church and ultimately Decatur First.

For churches within our denomination, there is currently an expiration date (December 31, 2023) on being able to leave the United Methodist Church. Even though this provision is not perfect, I do not believe another window like this one will ever open again. For clergy in our denomination, we do not have an expiration date; a clergyperson can leave at any time he or she chooses. However, as I have discerned that I do not have a long-term future within the United Methodist Church…and as more churches and even more members leave our denomination…for me, there is a “yet to be determined expiration date.” Should the church I currently serve discern to leave, I hope to remain there and continue the work we have started. If the church discerns to remain United Methodist, I will remain until I feel that Jesus calls me elsewhere, but in truth I envision that being a brief time. I also realize that there may come a time when the church feels that I am no longer a good fit for them or has to let me go because they can no longer afford an associate pastor. 

I have prayed long and hard about how to share my feelings and convictions on this subject or even if I should. I value the relationships I have built within my church, and I have been blessed by the ministry we have shared together. In the same way, I value the relationships I have with other clergy of the United Methodist Church and the support I have received from our Annual Conference. We have an outstanding Bishop and I have been blessed to serve under her authority. I have felt the encouragement of so many in our clergy connection as I have been a part of this Annual Conference. Some have known about my convictions for a while – even some who do not share them. We have worked to find common ground and work together for shared purposes. Others may have already guessed my beliefs on this matter. Others may be surprised or even disappointed. Some may even feel hurt that I am now taking a stand. I feel sorrow in knowing that another person may feel hurt because of my actions. Yet I must not deny the call of the Holy Spirit on my life … even if some cannot walk the same path as me. If you are reading this and you disagree with my convictions, I hope that you will understand that I am trying to live as faithfully as I can to the gospel and to the work to which I have been called. I have tried to be a loving and gracious presence for everyone. 

I am in the United Methodist Church until I am not. And as long as I am in this denomination, I will abide by the Book of Discipline. I will teach United Methodist theology…because it is currently my theology too. I will do this even though I believe some will continue to refuse to follow our teachings and uphold our shared covenant. However, I envision a day very soon when my convictions no longer align with those of the United Methodist Church. I do not hold ill will against those who wish to remain or feel called to stay. I simply have come to a very different conclusion, and I can no longer stay silent or envision a place for me long term in the United Methodist Church.

Why have I come to that place? Well, I could talk about our disagreement over human sexuality, but I believe that is a symptom rather than the root issue, and there are many who have unpacked that piece of our denominational split. I could talk about a lack of integrity in some parts of the institution and mistrust of the system. That too has been written about in multiple places, but that is not my largest concern. For me, it is the fact that the United Methodist Church is heading down a path theologically that I will not be able to continue down. The church has veered off course missionally and is no longer invested in supporting and growing local churches. We are not living into a full expression of our mission statement (I will be unpacking that soon in another post). At some point soon, we will come to a fork in the road, and I will need to make a choice and take a different path.

What is that different path? At this time, I believe that the best option for me will be to eventually join the Global Methodist Church. I know that many have tried to paint it as a hateful, homophobic, and legalistic movement. However, that has not what I have found in my research and discernment. I have found that it holds pretty much the same theological beliefs that we as United Methodists now hold. However, it provides better accountability to allow those beliefs to be lived out among the clergy and laity in the local church and more accountability for our leaders at all levels. Additionally, I find that the primary focus of their organizational structure is to support and empower the local church. Please understand, I am not saying the grass is greener in the Global Methodist Church because I do see areas where I feel there needs to be more conversation and discernment on how best to be a church. However, I believe the soil that this church will be planted in is much more conducive to healthy growth because their foundational understandings, their passion for living in holiness,  and their vision for the future speak to me in the same way that the Methodist history class did at Huntingdon College.

When the Lord calls me to make this move to a new denomination, I do not believe I will be leaving Methodism. I will simply be aligning with a new expression of what it means to be Methodist. This phenomenon is not new to our movement, it has happened many times over our 200+ year history. John Wesley himself did not want to start a new denomination. However, when circumstances made it the only viable option, he ordained bishops and elders who would eventually form the Methodist Episcopal Church in America.

I ask that you pray for me and for Ragan. She has walked alongside me on this journey. She is committed to following the call of Christ wherever he leads us. This has not been easy, but I was reminded by a friend recently that in Ephesians 6 the apostle Paul teaches us to put on the full armor of God, and then after we have done everything we are to stand. This is because the one who calls us is with us in this season and is faithful to us and stands with us. And for me, it is time to stand.

One thought on “It is Time to Stand

  1. Dear Toby and Ragan, you have walked a very difficult and lonely path. Just because your beliefs align with our family’s beliefs doesn’t soften or assuage your anguish. You are loved and respected by so many! You were a beloved, effective pastoral pair. We grew as individuals and as a congregation because of your love and leadership. Your handprints are all around our church in individual changed lives. We love you. Godspeed. Come home to a denomination that needs and loves you.

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