First Methodist welcomes new pastor, dedicates new building
The soon-to-be new senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge was living in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Pocono Mountains, when, he says, he felt the Holy Spirit calling him to the Christian ministry.
“I had decided I was going to be a Buddhist, and it was while trying to be a Buddhist that I realized I loved Jesus,” the Rev. Brady Whitton explained recently.
An earlier “mountaintop” spiritual experience had come for him as a boy while attending a Mountain T.O.P. Ministries summer camp in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee.
“I gave my heart to God and that played itself out as far as a sixth-grade sort of understanding in (a) relationship with God would carry me,” Whitton, 41, said.
“Some people told me when I was growing up, ‘You will be a missionary’ or ‘You will be a pastor,’ but I had many, many, many years of wandering,” Whitton said. “I actually received my clearest call to ministry while living at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Washington Township, N.J.”
When he applied to seminary, his return address was the monastery. “I think I’m probably the only person in my seminary that’s true of.”
Whitton will take the pulpit at Baton Rouge’s First United Methodist Church on July 1, replacing Bishop Robert Fannin, who has served as interim pastor since August 2011.
Fannin was appointed after the departure of the Rev. Chris Andrews, the pastor of First Methodist for 23 years. Andrews suddenly resigned on July 24, 2011, a few days after filing for a divorce, which East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court records show as finalized in February of this year. “Chris Andrews surrendered his credentials as a clergy person in the United Methodist Church in November of 2011,” according to a statement from the Louisiana Annual Conference.
Whitton comes to Baton Rouge from First United Methodist of Amite.
It may seem unusual for a pastor to be transferred from a relatively small church of 200 to Louisiana’s second-largest Methodist church with an average weekly attendance of about 1,400, but Whitton has already served at other large churches, most notably as executive pastor at St. Timothy in Mandeville, Louisiana’s largest church according to the conference, with an average weekly attendance of more than 2,000.
Whitton also served at three churches in New Jersey before coming to Louisiana in 2000.
“I’ve been told Baton Rouge is really just a big small town,” Whitton said.
Whitton and his wife of 14 years, Natasha, have three children, Zoe, 7, Aidan, 4, and Ethan, 1. She is a professor at Southeastern University at Hammond and director of freshman English and will commute three days a week from their Riverbend home.
“We’re looking forward to being here a good long time and raising our kids in Baton Rouge,” Whitton said. “I feel like I need to come and get to know the church and the people, and the (future) plans will come from there.”
The son of a U.S. Army colonel, his earliest days were of moving from base to base until his parents divorced when he was in first grade. His mother, an elementary-school guidance counselor, took him to a Methodist church with plenty of youth programs.
“When I was a junior in high school, I sort of gave up on church and stayed away until I went to seminary, so I had about an eight-year period where I had nothing to do with the church,” Whitton said.
“It was communicated to me at some point in time when I was a teenager that if you have questions about your faith that you’re not really being faithful,” Whitton said. “If the church is not the place to ask questions, then I decided the church was not a place for me, because I had a lot of questions. I basically left the church on a quest.”
After graduating from Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria, Va., in 1989, his quest took him to Stockton College in Pomona, N.J., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religion.
“I studied Buddhism enough that I got sort of intrigued by it and decided to go check out this Buddhist monastery and ended up living there for two years,” he said. “It was an incredible experience, but it brought me back to my home faith — the faith of my childhood. It reawakened all those things for me, and I’ll tell you what, I haven’t looked back.”
His reawakening took him to Drew Theological Seminary in Madison, N.J., where he earned a master’s degree in divinity, and then into the Methodist ministry.
“I had a very long, convoluted path getting here which also gives me tremendous sympathy and tremendous empathy for people who struggle with the church, because I had my own struggles with the church for a long time,” Whitton said.
Whitton said he believes there is more to the Christian life than a one-time salvation experience.
“We all have those moments when we go down the aisle, but I really think those are rehearsals for what every moment is supposed to be like in our lives,” Whitton said. “There are moments where we say, ‘Oh, I get this’ at some level, but I am convinced it is not something that we do once in our lives.”
His calling to a downtown Baton Rouge church also fits with his life experience, he said, because many downtown residents do not attend church.
“I have a particular passion for what I call the ‘de-churched’ — people who maybe grew up in the church, or who are interested in church but there is something that doesn’t quite settle for them or something that doesn’t quite work for them,” Whitton said. “I really feel that is part of my calling.”
Bishop William W. Hutchinson praised Whitton in an emailed statement.
“Brady is an exceptional leader and pastor and will give great leadership into the future for this outstanding congregation,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson noted how the young pastor in seven years at Amite had doubled worship attendance and overseen the building of a new fellowship area and classrooms as well as renovations to other parts of the building.
In First United Methodist Baton Rouge, Whitton comes to a church that has recently completed a major building project.
On Sunday, the congregation will celebrate retiring the debt on the $6.8 million, three-story, 20,000 square-foot Youth Building and Conference Center that opened for use last fall.
“What an outstanding statement for the church,” said George Ragsdale, the longtime director of youth ministries who oversees the activities of more than 250 teens with multiple programs. “We don’t want to be encumbered by that debt, so we can reach out to the community and make an impact on Baton Rouge.”
Prompted by former Pastor Andrews’ vision, the church decided in 2009 to build the new addition just before the economy slid into a recession, said Shelly Dick, The Future is Now Campaign chairperson.
Getting the structure finished and paid for is “a miracle,” she said, comparing that to the church’s completion of the main sanctuary during the depths of the Great Depression.
“When it began, it looked like it would be $8 million,” Dick said. “Then the economy softened, the price of materials and services began to decline, so we pulled back, waited a few months, then sent the plans back out to bid and they came back $5.5 million to $5.8 million (not counting another $1 million for landscaping, furnishings, a sound system and expenses.) With a new lower price, we decided to go forward on faith and received commitments from the congregation.”
The building was finished, but the church was still a million dollars short in commitments, Dick said, “then Chris Andrews got a phone call from an anonymous donor.”
“To be very frank, we were blessed with amazing leadership with Chris Andrews and I thank the commitments we received,” Dick said. “The dedication is taking place under Bishop Fannin and will take place under the incoming minister, but what got us here was the congregational trust and their loyalty to Rev. Andrews.”
Fannin, 76, who will be returning to his previous position as bishop in residence at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Fla., said he was pleased with his service in Baton Rouge and the warm fellowship he and his wife, Faye, enjoyed.
“This is a transition time for the congregation, but we’re very pleased we haven’t suffered any loss of membership,” Fannin said. “The church is healthy and continues its mission outreach. … This is a wonderful, committed congregation with a great staff — professional in every way.”
Hutchinson also thanked Fannin, whose last services will be on June 24.
“He has done an admirable and very effective service among us,” Hutchinson said. “I also express a grateful thanks to Rev. Katie McKay Simpson, Rev. Susie Thomas, Rev. Brad Franklin and Rev. Ann Trousdale for their superb leadership over the past year, and to all of the staff of First United Methodist Church for keeping every area of the church’s life strong and growing.”