Forty years ago this month, I began my pastoral ministry.
In June 1980 I had just finished college and was on my way to Wales, Tennessee. The ten faithful members of Wales Presbyterian Church (PCUS) invited me to become their regular preacher. In August, I became their student pastor and also assisted one of my mentors, Harry Hassall, at three other rural Presbyterian churches. Everyone was patient with me, and I had a memorable and joyful year.
The pay wasn’t much. A couple in the church, William Campbell and Ruth Morris, offered me room and board in exchange for slopping their hogs and working their tobacco field. They welcomed me into their home and treated me like family – I’ll never forget their kindness. They are now with the Lord.
My routines were simple: I preached, led singing, and visited my small flock. I went door-to-door in the community to talk about the Lord and our congregation. I mowed the grass, cleared brush, sealed windows, and dealt with yellow jacket infestations. On cold Sunday mornings, I loaded the coal and wood into the potbelly stove and lit the fire. I made my first and last church sign; my gifts lay elsewhere.
In late summer 1981, I left Tennessee and headed to Princeton Theological Seminary. Sadly, the Presbytery lost interest in the tiny church. They became a Baptist congregation (Wales Baptist Church) and now thrive under the wonderful leadership of Kevin Wells and his dear wife Chasity. In 2014, Kevin was kind enough to invite me to return to Wales and preach its homecoming service. Three people from my old church came: Frank and Cynthia Ripp, who were great encouragers to me, and Christine Morris, who with her husband Bill sacrificed and labored hard to keep the church open. She died last month at the age of 97.
I am so thankful for these dear saints who were willing to give me my start in ministry; they will always have my heart.