Kentucky church splits after church organist fired

Attendance at Lexington’s First United Methodist Church is reportedly down by about 200 per week since the firing of organist Albin Whitworth, the Herald-Leader reports.
(Click here to read it all.) I wrote about Mr. Whitworth when I worked in Lexington and was amazed by his musical talents. He conducted the choir and played the organ and kept a “rear-view mirror” next to him, so that he could observe the audience while he played. If you showed up late for services, he knew it. Choir members adored him, and the church was always standing room only on Fifth Sundays, because they were devoted entirely to music. I don’t know everything that went on behind the scenes, but I know this much: Firing Albin Whitworth [for reasons great or small] was a recipe for schism. The uproar here was entirely predictable and forseeable.

Updated: November 7, 2008 — 9:39 am

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  1. I grew up in First UMC Lexington, and as a teenager played my violin with the orchestra on many of the Fifth Sunday musicals. Albin is a brilliant musician, and for me he was a joy to work with. However, as talented as he is, I am not particularly sad to see him go.

    No staff member should be bigger than the church, and for many, many years Albin has been. He has used his popularity as leverage against the church, thwarting attempts to supplement his music ministry with efforts to appeal to younger people.

    As a teenager I remember vividly when we had a Youth Sunday, and my brother played guitar in the sanctuary. Albin, incensed, declared “No guitar will ever be played in my sanctuary!”

    That sense of ownership over the sanctuary was I suspect less idolatrous (that is, I’m not saying that he meant his claim as a claim to ownership over and against God’s ownership of the sanctuary, though as an overly pious youth that’s how I took it at the time) and more a political claiming of territory. But, in any event, you can image how someone who would make such a blanket declaration could become difficult to work with.

    There were rumors coming out of First Church that Albin led a faction of the church to try to have the pastor removed. I don’t know whether or not that happened – though friends and family still connected to that church swear it did – but I do know that from the moment people began telling me that story, his firing seemed inevitable.

    He is a brilliant man, and a complicated man, who became too big for his own good, and many people in and around the church saw this coming from a mile away. My response is a conflicted one. I really did like Albin. He was always extremely kind to me, and I enjoyed playing for him growing up. But at the same time he always struck me as a megalomaniac, accumulating and then wielding power in the congregation disproportionate to his official position.

  2. It’s funny, I don’t know any of these people and have never set foot in this church, but thought exactly the same things that Sandalstrap wrote when I read Frank’s account of it. For years the Methodist Church in general tried to play down cults of personality by moving pastors very frequently, generally every two years. They’ve gotten away from that in recent years, but things like this show that while secrecy and an entrenched bureaucracy may be the evils of Catholicism, personality cults are the pitfall of Protestantism.

  3. I worked and worshipped with Dr. Whitworth for nearly 10 years. I also remember “Sandalstrap” and how kind Albin was to him despite his obvious lack of ability. But that is Albin–KIND, encouraging, accepting, and always lifting up the love and presence of God. Sandalstrap’s backhanded suggestion that Albin had an ego problem is laughable for anyone who’s actually LISTENED to what the man says. Compliment him: he will thank you but immediately respond by drawing attention to the Spirit of God that was present–or the talents and participation of others (especially the choir) in the event. In all the years I have known him, I have never heard him utter anything that could be considered self-aggrandizing. Oddly, the only people I’ve ever heard accuse Albin of getting “too big” are people who’s own bloated ego causes them to project their problems outwardly–like perhaps the sport-is-my-religion preacher at the center of this mess…and maybe a couple of musicians (including Sandalstrap and a certain flute player) who just don’t measure up on their own and, in spite of the fact that they can’t wait to take their place in the orchestra, have spent years trying to convince other’s that Albin is what they are…insecure egotists. This new pictures on the FUMC web site tell the sad story. Albin’s doing fine–ministering all over–his last gig was at th Whitehouse. But there are hundreds of people who no longer have a church home–whose church family is scattered–whose pastor (at the last charge conference) called them “weeds”. Sad. Very, very sad.

  4. Albin does have an ego problem. Albin is a very kind man, but once you get to know the real person, the ego comes out.

  5. You know what is interesting. Tollhouse Cookie said on January 1st that hundreds of people no longer have a church home, but a group of people who left First Church because of the issues going on, have been able to start a new church which is flourishing. The average attendance in the short time that it has existed averages 138 people. Last week we had 140. The last 5th Sunday musicale had over 600 people at 2 evening services. And even more interesting is that FUMC members attended the service. As Albin once told us, many churches have a falling out between a pastor and the music director. The churches flourish, which is my prayer for FUMC everyday. People leave and start new churches… if they didn’t what would happen to one church when it had too many people that it could no longer accommodate them all. Most of the Methodist churches in Lexington and KY has branched off FUMC and most of them seem to be flourishing. I grew up in FUMC and have actually seen some major issues more recently (why would 5 staff members leave for no reason?). The great children’s program that used to be there has disappeared, as well as a youth group that used to be strong in the church. But at least over 100 people who did leave FUMC due to issues with the Preacher, District Superintendent and Bishop do once again have a church home where they can have traditional worship, where Albin and the choir are able to spread God’s word to other people and a family that at one point felt torn are worshiping together once again. I don’t know how many churches these days have a congregation who gets there about an hour early just to visit and some of which are there an hour after the service visiting and greeting. Just a reminder to us all, where two or three are gathered, there God is as well. As we sing each week, “God be with us till we meet again.”

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