God as ally, not disciplinarian: Q+A with The Rev. Robert Goolsby, of St. Thomas Episcopal Church

Goolsby on the church's role in the community.

Robert Goolsby
Robert Goolsby
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One day in the summer of 2020, The Rev. Robert Goolsby was warned to avoid Belle Terre Parkway because there was lots of traffic due to a Black Lives Matter protest.

"Wait a minute," he thought. "I shouldn't be stuck in traffic — I should be in the march.”

So Goolsby, who has been the rector at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, at 5400 Belle Terre Parkway, since 2018, joined the march. He met two other pastors there, as well.

"I have a congregation that’s probably at least 50% people of color," he recalled in a recent interview with the Palm Coast Observer. "So to represent them was something important to me. I think there is inequity and prejudice and racism in our community, and I think the church needs to have a face and voice against those sorts of issues that infect our hearts and minds and our outlook toward others."

Goolsby spoke about the other ways a church can help a community, as well as the ways people can overcome struggles with their own faith. What follows is slightly edited transcript of the interview, which can be found on the Palm Coast Observer's YouTube channel.


If someone comes to you and says he has lost his faith, what do you say?

Usually, after a conversation with someone who’s claimed that, they probably went through some kind of trauma or loss, and they're responding a way that would be normal for all of us. I would encourage them that it’s at those darkest times that God walks with us and dwells with us and actually takes joy in being part of our lives.

In terms of losing faith altogether, I would say, "Tell me about this God you don’t believe in, and I probably don’t believe in that God, either." If they feel punishment, or desertion from this God that they've come to believe in, and there's pain associated with that, it’s usually a belief that isn’t helpful.


What principles guide you when someone asks you for financial help?

I’ve never really given people advice financially. If someone comes to us who is in need, we point them to a social agency. The church is not a social agency.


How can churches connect with teenagers in 2021?

"The church has work to do in inspiring young people, like teenagers, to be in a relationship with God in such a way that God is not another authority figure in their lives, but maybe an ally and a partner."


That is a fantastic question. I have SnapChat, but I don’t look at it too often. I have TikTok, but I don't look at it too often. I don’t connect with teenagers, except for family members, through those platforms. I think that the church really has work to do in inspiring young people, like teenagers, to be in a relationship with God in such a way that God is not another authority figure in their lives, but maybe an ally and a partner in their discerning years, when they’re discovering who they are. God is with them in that walk, rather than another judge or disciplinarian.


Did you feel, when you were a teenager, that you had a relationship with God?

I did. I grew up in the church. I was an acolyte, or an altar boy. I never felt that God was a burden, or watching over every step I made and seeking to take corrective action. Rather, God was something, through the lens of the church, that I found comfort in.


What is the Book of Common Prayer, and what does it mean to you personally?

It’s the book of worship we use in the Episcopal Church and throughout the Anglican Communion.They have a liturgy, or several forms of worship in them, from morning devotions to Holy Communion, baptism, and they have a common thread in them. We have prayers that are identical or similar around the world. The Book of Common Prayer holds us together: We pray in the same way, we come to know God in a similar way, yet we have the personal freedom to come to know God in a personal way.

It’s very formative to me. It’s comforting. There are some prayers that date back to the 1600s, and it speaks to me when we do a community service with our congregation or with a larger group. When we pray together using those words, it brings me home. It brings me comfort and familiarity in my faith.


The Episcopal Church began after the American Revolution, splitting from the Church of England, and most members are in the United States. Does the church feel particularly “American” today?

It does, but just like our politics nationally, we are now friends with England. We’ve grown closer. We are under the Archbishop of Canterbury. We’re the American part of the Church of England. We were born out of that revolutionary period, so we had to do some things creatively because we didn’t have loyalty to the crown in the 1700s.


Church membership in most denominations is on the decline. Why?

I think people are overprogrammed. They have a lot going on in their personal lives.

Additionally, there used to be this need to be socially connected to the church. And there might have been some guilt that if you didn’t nurture a relationship with God, bad things would happen to you, and people were figuring out that’s not the case. I think mostly, people have so much going on in their lives, that fitting one more thing in is difficult for some people.

Some churches try to be that third place: work, home, then church. But typically, third place now is the local bar or the local restaurants. Could be the soccer field or the games we play, or some other kind of civic activity.

But we are drawn to community. The kind of community we form in the church always needs to be updated and cared for.


How do churches strengthen a community?

What churches need to do is partner with the organizations that help the homeless and help the sheltered, hope those who need food. Not every church can be a shelter or a food pantry, but we do have those organizations here in Palm Coast and Flagler County, but churches need to partner with them.


How does someone “know God”?

"The church is a lens to see the divine."


The church is, by definition, the body of Christ, the community Jesus created. I’ve always described the church as a lens to see the divine. As the body of Christ, as we help the poor, we love one another, we're present with one another, and the Chruch helps us focus on that and become the hands and feet of Christ in the world.



Brian McMillan

Brian McMillan and his wife, Hailey, bought the Observer in 2023. Before taking on his role as publisher, Brian was the editor from 2010 to 2022, winning numerous awards for his column writing, photography and journalism, from the Florida Press Association.

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