By Allison Lindsey, Advocate contributor
In 2017, Rev. Leigh Ann Raynor retired after 36 years faithfully serving churches in the South Georgia Annual Conference. Enjoying retirement life between Thomasville, GA and Waynesville, NC, Raynor was content to take things one day at a time, preaching occasionally, caring for her pets, and traveling. Little did she know that God was not finished with her ministry and vow to The United Methodist Church.
This January, Raynor and other United Methodists in Thomasville found themselves displaced after their church voted to seek disaffiliation. Looking around and asking God, “How can I help?,” Raynor found that God wasted no time in responding. She felt a conviction in her heart and knew God was calling her once again to take a lead in ministry.
Raynor began receiving phone calls following her local church vote from those who wanted to remain in The United Methodist Church.
Dan Salveter, a lay person in the Thomasville area who has worked with high school and college students for the past 15 years in his local church, is one of those passionate about remaining United Methodist.
“I feel convicted in my heart that God has called me to live out my faith in loving one another,” said Salveter. “I believe this ‘new thing’ will best allow me to live out the call God has placed on my life, to love one another as He loves us.”
With God’s prevenient grace going before them, this new body of believers - now known as the United Methodists of Thomasville - found a space to meet at the nearby Episcopal Church.
Their new faith journey began the first Sunday in February, and they have been meeting weekly ever since. The hospitality they found at Saint Thomas Episcopal Church has been gracious and inviting as this group gathers for worship, study, and to discern next steps.
Rev. Wallace Marsh, rector at Saint Thomas Episcopal Church, shared a Benedictine reflection about the importance of hospitality in preparing his church for their guests each week: “Just as we enrich our guests’ lives, so they enrich ours. We welcome men and women of every race and culture, rejoicing in the breadth and diversity of human experience that they bring to us. Their lives enlarge our vision of God’s world. The stories of their sufferings and achievements and their experience of God stir and challenge us. If we are attentive, each guest will be a word and gift of God to us.”
With people ready to meet and a location secured, Raynor immediately found herself posing the question, “How does one start a new church?” She admits to initially having been fearfully focused on all the things of which they would not have in this new beginning: no historic, beautiful sanctuary to meet, no magnificent pipe organ with a skilled organist to help enter into God’s presence, no choir singing beautifully and opening God's Word in song, no money, no committees, and no structure in place.
But God quickly revealed to her that it was time to stop focusing on the things they do not have and focus instead on what they do have.
“We have the presence of God, the love of our Savior Jesus Christ, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit,” said Raynor. “We have people who are committed to Him through a denomination that we love and to which we have devoted ourselves.”
The strength in the connection has been seen in friends and colleagues reaching out to encourage and support Raynor and members of this group through this challenging time.
“We have the prayers of faithful friends. We have the support of ministerial colleagues, many of whom have contacted me and one of whom has said his church will help support us financially if we need that,” said Raynor. “We have a Bishop, David Graves, who reached out and reminded me that he is praying for us and is committed to us.
“So, yes, there is a lot we don't have, but God has shown me that what He has provided is now, and has always been, more than sufficient.”
What the United Methodists of Thomasville found their first gathering and each Sunday since has been the very heart of worship as found in Acts 2 describing the early church. Time has been taken for the healing to begin, to share and give testimony to each other’s feelings of both hurt and hope, to break bread together through communion, for individuals to use their talents to play instruments, to sing special music, and to spend time together in God’s word as they learn and grow together.
Those gathered have shared just how meaningful the time to worship has been and the joy of witnessing the Holy Spirit at work among them.
“I find myself looking ahead to a future of discovery, one where my heart and mind are open to possibilities of growth and change, and for that I am very thankful,” said Lynn Stowers, a United Methodist in the Thomasville area who has been attending the gatherings. “I am also a little anxious, truthfully, but I know God is with us—after all He sent us Leigh Ann and the members of the Episcopal church. What better evidence could we have than those two facts? Our journey will be ongoing, one I look forward to with great anticipation, for we are experiencing the Way Jesus spoke about so often. What greater happiness is there in this life?”
The United Methodists of Thomasville are diving deep into the story of Exodus as God led the Isrealites out of Egypt. They are even finding parallels as they feel their own sense of wandering in the wilderness, and, yet, they have seen how God continues to go before them and provide all that is needed to worship and serve him faithfully.
They are trusting an unknown future to their known God.
Bishop Graves and conference leadership are committed to walking alongside those whose desire is to remain United Methodist through church revitalization and planting. There are several resources available for individuals and churches on the conference website through the Moving Forward in Mission page. Additionally, Anne Bosarge, Director of Leadership Strategies and Local Church Resources, has been meeting with groups across South Georgia to help them tap into the resources available, discern next steps, and plan for their future together.
Look for other new things springing up in Brunswick, Albany, Camden County, Folkston, Douglas, and Valdosta just to name a few! If you would like more information, please contact Anne Bosarge at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Allison Lindsey is a member of St. Mark UMC in Douglas, Ga. and chairs the Conference Nurture Team.