GROWING IN GRACE
A love letter to South Georgia Methodism
There hasn’t been a moment in my life when I haven’t been a South Georgia Methodist. It’s true. For nearly 37 years, the compass of my faith in Jesus Christ has pointed to South Georgia as the home of my faith journey. Where do I begin to express my gratitude for this conference – this spiritual space marked with country churches, oak trees that hang just low enough in the summer, beautiful fields lined with peaches and pecans, college towns where young people hear a call to the ministry, sanctuaries where people come to worship on Sundays, and communities where they live to be the church every other day.
Sure, we have that imaginary equator known as the gnat line, but anyone from here knows that’s okay because you’re already fanning because of the summer heat. We don’t always get it right and we can be a bit dysfunctional at times, but, at the end of the day, this is South Georgia, where we’re alive together in Christ. And that aliveness has touched my life in a number of important ways.
The clergy who have had an influence on my journey, and who continue to mentor me as I grow as a leader, are too many to name:
Marcia Cochran was my pastor for 15 years, and I can remember a time when the sound of a man’s voice in the pulpit was strange to hear. She inspired me to fight to continue to level the playing field so that others have this same experience.
Joe Roberson was my candidacy mentor and dear friend. We lost a giant in South Georgia the day Joe died. He taught me about urban ministry and about making room at the table for all people. He was a constant cheerleader in my life and he made me want to be a cheerleader for others.
Tommy Mason was my senior pastor for three years while I cut my teeth in ministry as an associate pastor. Tommy taught me how to be thoughtful and intentional in the decisions I make. At every turn, he reminded me that discipleship is the primary goal of how we lead people to grow. He taught me how to keep the main thing the main thing in ministry.
There are countless others who have served to encourage me, especially when I was down. They have pushed me to grow when I was being lazy. And they have helped me find the most authentic “me” to bring to my leadership in the church.
And there are countless laity who have taught, and continue to teach, what it means to give your life to Jesus in worship and service. We clergy live in such bubbles that it’s easy to forget it’s the laity of South Georgia who are the backbone of ministry.
I’ve learned important lessons in South Georgia. I’ve learned what it means to love and be loved. I’ve learned that salvation in Jesus’ name is the most important gift I could ever receive – so important that I’ve made it my life’s service as a debt of gratitude for such a gift. And I’ve learned from real people of faith the lesson John Wesley teaches that the Bible really does contain all is necessary to begin to comprehend the mystery of salvation. I’ve learned that the church is not fully itself if it’s not reaching out, welcoming in, and providing space for all people who grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.
As we live into this current season of denominational conflict, it is these gifts (and so many more) t?hat I cling to. How do we simultaneously live both in conflict and in service with one another I recently had a friend ask me that question because he knows that I hold a theological position about inclusion in the church that may not be held by the majority of Methodists in South Georgia. He asked me how I could serve in a conference where I stick out like a sore thumb. It’s a fair question to ask.
I suppose I would begin to answer that question with two simple words: proximity matters. The shouting and fighting we see at General Conference happens because those people don’t live together. They don’t serve together. They don’t enjoy fried chicken after district set-up meetings together. They don’t pray for each other’s kids when they face surgery. And they don’t rearrange their schedules because a colleague has lost a parent, a spouse, or their own life and there’s a funeral to attend.
I wish I knew what the future holds for Methodism. I hope it’s a future filled with hope. Scratch that – I’m a South Georgia Methodist and I’ve been taught that we’re a people of the Resurrection. Hope is the future God has for us all, by the power of Christ. Whatever that hopeful future is, and wherever I may land when the chips settle, there is one thing I know as sure as I know that macaroni and cheese is the perfect side to fried chicken: If home is where the heart is, then no matter where I end up, my heart will always be home among South Georgia Methodists.
The Rev. Ben Gosden is senior pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Savannah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.