How I Became a Disciple

Apprenticeship is a Core Value for us in the Mississippi Conference. An apprentice is a person who is learning a craft or a trade from a master. An apprentice learns through immersion in the life, story and work of the master. The language of apprenticeship is simply a new way of talking about the age-old mission of the church to make and to become disciples, that is, students of Jesus Christ. In each edition of The Circuit Rider during 2014, the Board of Discipleship will be offering a segment called "How I Became of Disciple" as a means of living out our Core Values. We hope you enjoy learning from your brothers and sisters who are telling of their journey in discipleship as we all seek to apprentice ourselves to our Master.


Rev. Chris McAlilly,
Chair of the Mississippi Conference Board of Discipleship

September 3, 2014

I didn’t grow up in a church-going home. We occasionally went to church, which was the Baptist church my mother was raised in. I was baptized about age 8 or 9, but only because some buddies were being baptized.

However, when I was 14, my parents divorced. We were living in Flowood at the time, so my mother and I moved back to West Point, our hometown. In 1970 there was no room for divorced mothers in the Baptist Church, so some family members invited us to attend the little Methodist church where they belonged. I was instantly welcomed by the congregation and the youth group. I was also welcomed by the pastor, Rev. W. T. Dexter and his wife Betty.

W. T. Dexter was a larger-than-life character. He had been Sheriff in Tishomingo County [Iuka] and his neighbor sheriff just across the line in McNairy County, Tennessee was the legendary Buford Pusser. His sermons were often punctuated with real-life events and adventures, but always told to enhance the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. W. T. and Betty Dexter were the most passionate people of faith I had ever encountered. They became my second parents and through them I and my future wife Susie both accepted Christ.

Almost immediately, I began to sense God’s call on my life. I didn’t know what it was in the beginning, but with the guidance and discernment of the Dexters, I eventually responded. I entered the candidacy process in 1979 and accepted my first appointment in 1980 while I was a senior at Mississippi State University.

Through the years, I kept in touch with the Dexters. Even though W. T. died in 1999, Betty continues to live in Iuka and we speak regularly.

One final note: In my years of ministry, I was fortunate to work with a couple of senior pastors who had great influence on my life and ministry. One was the late Bill Appleby. Bill was the most incredible administrator and planner I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. Whatever gifts I have in administration, I owe to Bill. Later, I had the privilege of working with B. F. Lee. B. F. was a tremendous leader and demonstrated to me the meaning of courage. He led Starkville First UMC through a challenging time at great personal cost, but he faced it with great courage. In later years when I found myself in those challenging ministry situations, I leaned on the example B. F. Lee had given me.







My Faith Journey
Bob Rambo, Senior Pastor, Christ UMC

April 16, 2014

Part I – A Godly Heritage: Birth to High School

My spiritual autobiography began long before I was born. It was written in the hands of my grandmother and great aunts, sitting on the porch shelling peas on a summer evening. It was scrawled indelibly beneath my grandfather’s initials in the heart pine ridge beam raised to hold the tin roof on the tabernacle of the Wesleyan Campground in Union Point, Georgia. It was murmured softly before my mother ever whispered my name, as she and my father returned the news of my life to the Giver of all good things. Though the boundary lines of my life fell in pleasant places, and though I had a godly heritage, there inevitably came a time when I had to push back on those boundaries and spend my inheritance in riotous living. Before I was out of high school I wanted to know why the same people went to get sanctified at the altar every year at camp meeting—where was this holiness that everyone shouted about, and why did it never seem to stick? If the Spirit reveals the truth to God’s people, why were the holiness colleges our family revered so late to repent of their racist and sexist admissions policies? Why did teachers at my Baptist high school excoriate Catholics when it was not clear that they had ever met one? Why were there so many rules and so little joy?

Part II – Freedom to Do Things My Way

By the time I got to college I was ready to do things my way. My newfound freedom was nowhere more enjoyed than in the life of the mind. One particular memory from my sophomore year plays out in stark detail. Our Honors Seminar was discussing William James out on the steps of Evans Hall (at a liberal arts college the winds of intellectual change blow more freely outdoors), when a nice Christian girl blithely suggested a point based on the inerrancy of the Bible. My response was swift, rational and cruel. Afterward, I thought about how good it felt to come out and say that religion was a construct, an ideology masking political power, a psychological projection of inferior persons. At the time, I was pretty sure those insights were original.

Never one to set my sites too low, I applied to creative writing programs that were way above my pay-grade, and was rejected by all of them. Not aware at that time that my creative ego was writing checks my talent couldn’t cash, I set out for Missoula, Montana to try and make it as a writer. While I had long admired that city for its writing culture, what I didn’t know at the time was that it was also well known for its drug scene. It’s hard to make sense of this portion of my life, other than to say I was lost—personally, spiritually and intellectually.

Part III – The Prison of My Own Way

At one of the many low points during this time, I was sentenced to 30 days in jail in
Chamberlain, South Dakota. After reading all the books in the library, plus the Dante and
Dostoyevsky I had brought from home, I cursed my luck and picked up a copy of “The Message.” Paul’s words in Galatians 5 seemed to name my life better than even the novelists could. “It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness…” I didn’t know if Paul was right when he said that God could bring fruit into our lives in the way that apples appear in an orchard, but I was pretty sure that he had described the mess I had made out of things so far. When I returned home to Georgia, I was ready to admit that I didn’t know much about anything, and that I would need to devote some time and attention to finding out.

Part IV – God Has Redeemed My Life from the Pit

One Sunday morning not long after that, my brother asked me to sing a song to accompany his Sunday school lesson at Athens First UMC. Though I was pretty hostile to the idea of setting foot in church at this point, I agreed to help him out. Afterward, he wanted me to go to morning worship; I hesitated but finally went. I still remember thinking that it would be good for a few laughs at least. That Sunday, Carolyn Moore preached about the Magi—seekers willing to go far to find out what is true. One sentence rang in my mind,
“If we fancy ourselves seekers for God, then at worst we will search diligently, and at best we will search desperately.” At the end she gave an altar call for those who wanted courage to search for the truth. The church was packed and as everyone rose to sing “I Surrender
All” in closing, I found myself thinking, “Man, this is such a cliché!” But nevertheless, I felt something stirring, so I went forward—not to be saved—but to test, to taunt and to bargain. Regardless of whether I was justified over time or all in a flash, what remains certain is that God has redeemed my life from the pit. There was never any doubt that I would be an absolute wreck without the saving mercy of God.

Having returned to the church in such dramatic fashion, I was totally committed to the life of my local congregation at Athens First UMC. I sang in the choir, ate fellowship suppers, went to Walk to Emmaus and Disciple Bible study and attended worship three or four times a week. Around this time, I also started attending a Presbyterian house church where the members ate together, took care of their elderly and vigorously discussed the finer points of Christian doctrine and practice. In spite of my reservations about the Westminster
Catechism, I was impressed not only with their intellectual seriousness, but also with the deep sense of vocation with which they conducted their lives together. It was there I began to see what it took to move toward sanctification—namely, a set of communal practices that allowed members to enter into an embodied alternative to modern American culture.
Nevertheless, it was the Methodists who had a culture of calling, and they urged me to consider ordained ministry. I’ll remain grateful to both of these congregations for showing me the church at her best.

Part V – Through the Wilderness Towards Holiness

At the personal level, I still struggle with the everyday practices of piety that enable holiness. One of the biggest challenges is how to make time and space for prayer when my kids possess a sixth sense alerting them to wake up as soon as they hear Daddy tip-toeing toward the coffee pot. Where my early spiritual journey was marked by the magnetism of justification (either for it or against it), as my journey wends through the wilderness toward holiness, I’m often without orienting markers of achievement or progress. The irony now is that I’m the guy going down to the altar at camp meeting, seeking the gentleness and patience that comes with holiness but not attaining it…yet. When I find myself in the place of asking, though, I can begin to make out figures in the distance. Some of them seem like giants in my imagination—men and women whose images are carved in stone, whose feast days are written on the calendar. However, when I look closer to hand I see the traces of others who,
like me, continued to put one foot in front of the other on their way toward the land that was promised—men like my father, who after all these years has found that holiness of heart is also holiness in life. He has discovered that holiness looks a lot like loving the incarcerated and the forgotten. Like him, I hope that my spiritual biography is still being written as I near the end of the road. Indeed, in the end it seems that the story of our spiritual life is always told by others—by those who whispered our names before birth and by those whose names are on our lips at their final closing.

Rev. Joe Gunby
Pastor, United Methodist Church at Bishop and High Shoals, Georgia
Athens District

April 2, 2014

I always knew God existed. I always knew that God had a purpose for me. I just did not know what that purpose was. Growing up in a Christian household I questioned my place in this world. My parents did not attend church regularly, but my brothers and I did. My parents made sure that we knew that God was an important part of our life, even though we were not active participants in worship services.

It was during one of those revival times that I encountered God. My best friend, David had attended revival at our local Baptist church and had personally encountered God during the service. The next morning on the school bus, I could tell that something was different about David but could not put my finger on what it was. I just knew that I wanted that difference for myself. David told me what had happened during the service and encouraged me to go that night. So, I went and I encountered a risen Savior. I felt the pull of God calling me to the front and asking me to give him my heart and I answered his call.

It wasn't until many years later that I finally understood God's intention for me. For years I knew I was saved. I still questioned things about my life and my place, but no one was willing to answer those questions. After years of seeking the answers to my questions I finally found them in the form of several kind, caring, knowledgeable and committed United Methodist leaders who were willing to listen to my questions and give me the answers that I was seeking. Through these witnesses my faith grew. Through this growth, I continued to seek God's wisdom and direction for my life and that of my family.

Throughout the years I came to trust in the God that I had given my heart and soul to so many years before. I learned to listen to God's direction and understand that God would always be with me. God led me from being a pew sitter to a church leader. God's direction provided me a path from church leader to Sunday school teacher and youth leader. By answering God's call I even became a pastor. It was all because I listened.







Bro. Larry Sappington
Pastor of Iuka North Charge, New Albany District

March 19, 2014

Discipleship at its best is about relationships. I grew up in Amory, Mississippi at First United Methodist Church where people showered me with love and affirmation. There were times when I would be the only person in a Sunday school class, but my teachers gave me their full attention. I would blitz them with questions like, “If God is all powerful, can God create a rock so big that God cannot lift it? What happens to people who live in secluded places and have never heard the gospel when they die? Why are women not allowed to be ordained in some denominations?” My teachers and youth leaders were gentle with me. They welcomed every question and loved me in the spirit of Jesus Christ.

My home church also took every opportunity possible to put children and youth in front of the congregation to read scripture and to narrate and perform Christmas plays, puppet shows, concerts and other church dramas. Some of us were even asked to preach on Student Day Sunday. These offerings promote self-confidence and Christian discipleship in young people.

I celebrate The United Methodist Church, which recognizes that we are all theologians. No matter our age, we have a witness to share. It is so important that our children and youth lead worship and serve in active ways in the life of our congregations.

When my parents took me to the altar on June 6, 1975, to be baptized, they did not know in full what they were doing. What they did know was that they could not nurture me in the faith by themselves. They trusted God and they trusted the congregation to help them. Almost every day I give thanks for my baptism in Jesus Christ, and that my parents entrusted my life into the hands of God and into the hearts of the people called United Methodists. Thanks be to God!







Rev. Claire Dobbs
Associate Ministry
Oxford University United Methodist Church

March 5, 2014

I am a native of the small town of Lexington, Mississippi located in Holmes County. It is the direct central spot between Jackson and Grenada. I grew up in Galilee Treadwell Grove United Methodist Church. My first experience of considering following Christ as a disciple was when we were appointed Rev. Haywood Hannah in 1996. In Methodist language we receive a "new preacher" and what was different about this preacher was the fact that he was an exciting preacher. He was young with a lot the energy and he brought so much enthusiasm. It sparked my curiosity for more knowledge about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

I watched my pastor be a faithful and exciting disciple. After two years of hearing about how and why we are called to be disciples, it then became important to me to become a follower of Christ. I was baptized in 1998 by Rev. Hannah. This was a great start for me to live and become a useful member and disciple. My pastor and church family pushed me to use the gifts inside of me. They sent me to conference events that aided in my Christian development such as district leadership rallies, Convo, MYAC, Dare to Lead, Overflow, Jubilee and many more to shape my leadership and discipleship capability. I was able to use those tools that I learned to help reach and teach youth my age in Bible studies, Sunday school classes and many other spiritual engagements how to be disciples.

In April 2003, I felt the call of God on my life to be a disciple in a new capacity as a minister of the Gospel and was well received by the church, my pastor, Greenwood District superintendent, Rev. Fred Brown and an overflowing host of the others in the Mississippi Conference. In 2006, while still helping other young people find Christ in my school and community, I was appointed to make disciples as clergy. I was appointed as pastor to Barlow and Mt. Zion United Methodist churches where I had great success in shaping disciples. From then, I have exemplified servant leadership with a strong focus on making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.









Rev. Kordell Sims, Sr.
Director/Campus Minister
Jackson State University Wesley Foundation Campus Ministries

February 19, 2014

My story is different. I became a Christian first, then a disciple.

Mom had a ‘nervous breakdown,’ and had a psychiatrist that actually told her,
“You don’t need me, Louise, you need God.” That began our family privilege. Before this when church ‘was done,’ I went with and became active in my aunt and grandma’s church.

When we moved to Bay St. Louis, I continued in the church with Auntie Ann and Mom until a pastor said: “You ask too many questions.” That was the revised version! God had a sense of humor. When I first visited a Methodist church, the pastor actually said: “Honest questions are more religious than easy answers.”

Mrs. Shipp was my Sunday school teacher. It was she who convinced me that I could go to church with patched blue jeans. They were clean—just old. “Man looks on the outward appearance, God looks at the heart,” she quoted. She also picked me up for class.

Later, a girlfriend that wanted to know more about Methodists went with me to a youth camp at Percy Quinn Park. We went from place to place back then since we didn’t have our own camp. Bill McClelland was preaching from Isaiah 6, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for me?” I was among those who answered the altar call that evening. I’d been touched before, but now I became resolved.

After putting the ministry 28 out of 28 profession choices as a high school senior (I put ‘mother,’ ‘sanitation worker,’ ‘astronaut’ before ministry), I said to my friend Penny one afternoon, “I’m going to be a preacher.” “You’re not serious are you?” he asked. I said I was. “Your Mom told me she thought you were dealing with that,” he said. I didn’t know Mom was thinking that way—I wasn’t.

It was then that I begin the continuing process of being a disciple - one who cares about, and learns and wants to learn more about what being a Christian means. I have a whole lot more learning to do, but the ‘course’ is worth the effort.








Rev. Keith Tonkel, Senior Pastor
Wells United Methodist Church, Jackson, Mississippi

February 5, 2014

It’s strange to think of it now, but at the age of 12 I felt certain that God did not exist. I grew up with loving parents who neither attended church nor talked much about faith. An incredibly special caregiver told me stories about Jesus, taught me to pray and sang Christian songs to me. But on those Sundays that I visited her small, charismatic church, I only felt frightened. The church’s constant talk about the “end times” terrified me. Its aversion to science and the leadership of women confused me. I could not believe in a God so far removed from the world I knew.

My teenage conversion began with a worship bulletin in a United Methodist church. I had never seen a church service laid out in advance before. Bookworm that I was, I never imagined a church where people read together in worship! Instead of my childhood confusion, I felt comforted and curious. Most importantly, that mid-sized United Methodist congregation committed itself to paying a full-time youth director. I found community in that youth group long before I fully came to faith.

Worship and community brought me into the church. Mission and spiritual formation brought me, finally, into discipleship. While serving others, I encountered a present, active God who transcended my academic doubts. As I grew, I discovered a catechesis with room for questions through contemplative prayer, thoughtful Bible studies and my college Wesley Foundation. Mentors, especially young women in ministry, taught me to rest trustingly in this holy mystery that is God. I embraced Christian discipleship. And at last, I began to discern the calling to ordained ministry that is my life’s work.

Worship, community, mission and spiritual formation: through these channels of grace, God brought me to discipleship. Through them, I still receive new life. Through discipleship, may you encounter the water of life poured out into your own soul, as well.







Rev. Paige Swaim-Presley
Pastor of Saucier UMC and Director of the Seashore Mission