It recently dawned on me that all my church experiences have come in threes: I pastored six churches, three rather small and three rather large, and in between served on the staff of a large church for three years.
As you know, we preachers love our threes. Sermons seem to always have three points.
In doing these church staff articles, it occurred to me that the time I spent on the staff of First Baptist Church of Jackson, Mississippi, was critical to everything that came afterwards. In some ways, I received more from those 3 years than from a similar period in seminary working for a master’s. Of course, the lessons learned and skills received from each were different and invaluable, and are not to be compared.
When Ken Westbrook left FBC Greenville, MS sometime in 1970 (he had been assistant pastor; it was a fairly large church) for a pastorate in Florida, I said, “I wish I’d had the experience you’ve had, to serve on the staff of a large church. There are lessons and experiences not available in smaller churches.”
Little did I know.
A few weeks later, Pastor Joe Walker suggested that FBC of Jackson was looking for a minister of evangelism. He wondered if I’d like my name in the pot. “Not me,” I said all too quickly. “I’m a pastor. I couldn’t be a staff member.”
One week later, Joe Walker and James Richardson–two of my best friends in the ministry–mentioned my name to Larry Rohrman, pastor of FBC Jackson. He called late that night, asking if I could drive down the next day to talk about the position.
I knew before the interview had ended this was of God.
For the three calendar years of 1971, 1972, and 1973–exactly 36 months–I served that wonderful church as their Minister of Evangelism. (Although, student minister Derrell Murphree could never get the title right. Murph kept calling it “minister of vandalism.”) When I departed, it was to become pastor of the equally wonderful FBC of Columbus, Mississippi, where we stayed an even dozen years.
Now, let’s get to the question: What difference did serving on the staff of a large church make in my life and subsequent ministry? Originally, I’d planned to limit the list to five things, but the more I’ve thought it, it could easily be fifty!
And–lest readers get lost in what follows–may I emphasize that the whole point of this is to encourage someone who is thinking of joining the staff of a big church to go for it!
1. Serving on the staff of a large church in the capital city widened my vision.
One week after joining that church, I was out visiting prospects with the vice-president of Mississippi Power and Light, Alex McKeigney, one of the world’s nicest gentlemen. I called my dad on the Alabama farm the next day to tell him. Dad had worked for the Alabama Power Company for years, and I knew he’d be impressed with his little boy. (smiley face goes here!)
A past governor of the state–Ross Barnett–sat on the front row of the church. A deacon soon to be elected as governor, Bill Waller, sat in the balcony. The longtime pastor of the church who was by then executive of Mississippi Baptists, Dr. Doug Hudgins, was frequently in the congregation, as were many members of his leadership team.
The country boy from the mining camp of West Virginia and the Alabama farm was being exposed to leaders in industry, politics, and the denomination. And that all leads me to the next point.
2. Serving on a large church staff taught me people are all the same.
Whether it was the governor or the president of a bank or an elderly widow trying to get by on her social security or an unemployed laborer, that church had them all. And they all had many things in common. After you got past the externals (appearance, clothing, home, car, etc), what you saw was spiritual beings, sinners, people redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, brothers and sisters bound for heaven.
So, when the men’s Sunday School class (Boston Criswell, teacher) invited me to address them at their retreat at the Barnett Reservoir, I shared the same kind of message I’d have given the men at Emmanuel Baptist Church in small-town Greenville, Mississippi, or even smaller town Paradis, Louisiana.
We’re all people loved by God, hampered by sin, living in a fallen world, given a Savior who redeems, and called to live righteously for the Lord here and to take all we can with us to Heaven. Same message for all.
3. There is a surprising benefit to being a staffer over being the lead pastor: at night, your phone doesn’t ring.
In our seminary church and the pastorate that followed, Margaret would tell you that as soon as Joe walked in the house, the phone rang. People were always needing their pastor. So, imagine our surprise when we went to a staff position and made the delightful discovery that our evenings and weekends were our own. Saturdays were free. We took our little boys to the park, to the zoo, to visit friends, and learned to love life.
These days, with the ubiquitous cell phones and iphones, I wonder how staffers and pastors cope with the incessant demands. They’re never away from the phone. Regardless how they deal with it, there is one constant, I’d wager: the pastor’s phone rings twice as often as the staffer’s.
When I began pastoring again, I found out just how good we’d had it!
4. It was fun watching leadership function on a high level when I was responsible for none of it.
My first year at that church, the budget was increased by 25 percent. I had never seen that happen.
I watched in fascination as the church leadership decided to construct a building or initiate some kind of challenging ministry and quickly go out and raise the money to accomplish it. No worrying about how we’re going to be able to do this, no infighting, not even a lot of debate.
The fun part was sitting in on high-level leadership meetings where important issues were discussed and decisions were made, but where very little if anything depended on me. When I’d been the pastor, it felt like the entire ball game was on my shoulders.
5. I watched and learned from some of the most effective ministers ever.
Larry Black was minister of music at FBC Jackson for over 30 years, having come to that church only 2 months before I arrived. So, I was able to watch his ministry almost from the beginning. Pastors of other churches who know Larry well–people like John Bisagno, Charles Carter, Bobby Welch, and others–will tell you there is no one finer. What struck me about him in those early years is his administrative abilities. He could put on a great program at the city auditorium one night involving 200 young people and musicians–and pack out the place–and the very next evening, do something entirely different at the church with the adult choir and hundreds of participants, and once again, do it to a full house.
How did he do it? Larry is a motivator. He sees strengths in people they did not know he had. I recall how he recruited me as the narrator and a soloist for “Alleluia,” the Ron Huff musical of the early 1970s, and had me doing things I would never in a hundred years thought were possible.
Often, the church would bring in speakers and conference leaders, all of them gifted and high caliber. I did evangelistic visitation with Gray Allison, chauffeured Jack Taylor and another minister (they were in town for a meeting) and listened to their tales of demon possession and exorcism, and got to know Huber Drumwright and Jim Ponder.
6. I was asked to do things far beyond anything I would have expected.
First, I began filling in for the preacher. Keep in mind the worship services were telecast live all over Mississippi, and I’ve already mentioned some of the people sitting in the congregation. It’s enough to intimidate even a veteran preacher, much less a 30 year old.
Soon, a friend with a regular television talk show asked me to substitute for him occasionally. I became comfortable talking to cameras.
The state evangelism director, Roy Collum, asked me to preside at a statewide youth evangelism conference involving thousands of young people, and put me in charge of training them to share their faith.
Perhaps best of all, I was asked to teach the college Sunday School class. Murph, the above-mentioned student director, needed a teacher for that class, then running 25 or so, and asked if I’d be interested. Since I loved young people and was missing preaching, I jumped for it.
By the end of that semester, that class was running 75. The first Sunday of the next school year, we had 131 present. The highest attendance we hit during my 3 years there was 279, and we had to meet in the sanctuary. But the most fascinating thing about the class is not the big numbers, but who was in the class.
Over the years, I have heard from men and women from that college Sunday School class who became missionaries, missionary administrators, seminary professors, pastors, medical professionals, and so forth. Two of the most distinguished professors at our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary–Charles Ray and Paula Stringer–sat in that class. (I take credit for all their accomplishments! )
7. That church has continued blessing me ever since.
The thing about serving a great church for a few years and then moving on in ministry is that the members will always count you as theirs. During the subsequent pastorates of Earl Craig and Frank Pollard, I was occasionally invited back to preach. Members of the congregation–some of whom I had led to the Lord and baptized–treated me like a child of theirs who was coming home for a few days of R and R.
In 1989-1990, when we went for 12 months in between pastorates and wondered where the Lord would send us next, Pastor Frank Pollard invited Margaret and me to travel to Jackson and live in his and Jane’s home for three weeks and fill the pulpit during his vacation. That’s how it happened that on the third Sunday, July 1, 1990, the pastor search committee from FBC Kenner, LA showed up to check us out. I became pastor of this church in September of that year, and we’ve been New Orleanians ever since.
A few weeks ago, after Pastor Stan Buckley left FBC Jackson, they invited me to preach one Sunday. Once again, it was like returning home.
There is no way to adequately describe my debt to that great church. And no way, of course, to begin repaying it.
Had anyone told me in late 1970 when I was considering joining the staff of First Baptist Church, Jackson, Mississippi, the critical role that congregation would play in my life for the rest of my years, I would have had a hard time believing it. Who, me? You must be mistaken. I’m only a farm boy from Alabama.
God is good. And isn’t He a wonderful manager of His people! He truly knows what He is about.
That’s why it’s completely safe to trust Him, not only with one’s eternity, but with the few years of our earthly existence too.
You forgot to mention that your true character came out while teaching one Sunday morning. The morning your “horns” were showing and a red tail hung from beneath your coat.
Those 3 years happened to also match my years of High School. Now we have established how much “Older” Joe is that me let me add that those years were not only significant to Joe’s life and development as a Pastor but also to many of the youth in the Church at the time. Joe, you don’t seem all that much older than me now, funny how that works. And Murph? Don’t get me started as he might have a few stories on me!
That was truly a fine time in the life of a fine Church.