Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all” (Colossians 3:11-14 NIV).
The story of North Columbia Church reflects my own journey of faith and call to the pastoral ministry. It is the loving support and faithfulness of this church that allowed me to continue serving Christ. I would rather do nothing else than preach the Gospel, win people to the Lord, and minister to my flock. It is my life’s calling and ambition.
When people ask me, “What kind of church are you?” They seem to expect a reply that identifies us with a denomination. Without offending our charter members and those who regularly attend our church, I think that I can categorize us as misfits. We don’t fit in mainstream, program driven churches. We don’t like religious bureaucracies and look incredulously at the religious bureaucrats who run these mammoth institutions. To us, it seems they always have a hand out for more money, build bigger buildings, and have greater programs with all of the bells and whistles. To us, it seems that heavy handed bureaucrats fight for power and crush people who get in their way. The roads are scattered with people who have been hurt by mean-spirited and cruel people who sometimes worm their way into churches.
Another reply that I give to people asking what kind of church we are is that we are a church full of sinners who know we are sinners. We don’t make any pretenses of being anyone else except sinners saved by grace and constantly living in the grace and forgiveness of Christ.
We have no ambitions to become a mega-church. Right now, we don’t even want to build a building. We think of ourselves as a church without walls. We certainly want to and pray to grow in numbers as the Lord chooses to add to our church. And if He chooses to do that, we believe that instead of growing into a big, big church that it would be better to intentionally plant another church. We believe that there is something about bigness that loses people and turns them into just another statistic. The churches in the New Testament for the most part were small house churches. Yet, the Gospel spread like wild fire from house to house, town to town, city to city, and nation to nation crossing oceans, spanning tall mountain ranges, and traveling up and down rivers.
And then, I tell people who inquire as to what kind of church we are that we are a church who loves. We love others who come in a spirit of humility and grace as we love ourselves. Jesus loves us with unconditional acceptance. And, we love the Lord with all of our heart, soul, and mind.
Just as the Lord has no room for the proud and arrogant, the mean-spirited and cruel people, so we too have no room for such people. The fellowship is fragile and precious and we come together with a servant’s heart and not a heart that seeks power and authority to run the church.
Jesus said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28 NIV). Jesus seemed to have a special place for the broken people of the world who found Him to be their Savior and friend.
The Scripture also states, “God gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6 NIV).
These are the marks that distinguish the people who make up our church. We have experienced God’s love by caring for each other, and we want to share that love with you.
But if you must ask what kind of church we are in the traditional sense, I suppose I can say that we are a half cup of Baptist, a fourth cup of Methodist, and a tablespoon of Presbyterian. We are not a pure bred church. I guess you could call us a mutt church - you know, a mixed mutt, a Duke’s mixture like the kind of little homeless dog at the pound that no one wants but yet who make the best pets.
The story of North Columbia Church is quite remarkable - even miraculous. Let us begin with my story which ends with the church’s story.
Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings-- and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers" (Rev 17:14 NIV).
I was called into the Gospel Ministry at Rock Ridge Baptist Assembly near Franklin, Georgia, at summer youth camp at the age of 14 years old. I felt that God was calling me to be a foreign missionary.
I grew up in Tabernacle Baptist Church in Carrollton, Georgia. Tabernacle was a large church where about a thousand people gathered each Sunday for church and Sunday School. I sang in the youth choir, the adult sanctuary choir, and in my high school gospel quartet singing in churches throughout the area. Yes, back then, a public high school sponsored a gospel quartet. Our leader was a teacher who was also a Baptist preacher. Our pianist was a math teacher who was also active in his local church’s music ministry.
I served as a counselor in my teen years to boys in the Royal Ambassador organization, and my pastor arranged for me to preach at times at the church’s mission church in a poor section of my hometown.
My one goal was to prepare myself for the ministry. Several of us made a visit to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and I felt that was where the Lord wanted me to go for my theological education.
After my freshman year at West Georgia College, I met my first wife, a daughter of a Baptist preacher, at Ridgecrest Baptist Assembly near Asheville, North Carolina. She was from the panhandle area of Florida. We transferred to William Carey College, a Baptist College in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and were married after my sophomore year.
I was called to my first pastorate by Clear Creek Baptist Church in Jachin, Alabama, a small crossroads rural church in West Central Alabama, one hundred miles from campus. We drove up on weekends to serve the church.
Clear Creek ordained me to the gospel ministry when I was nineteen in April 1971, one month prior to my twentieth birthday. My son, Kevin was born in June of that year. We moved to the little single wide trailer that the church provided for a parsonage, and I commuted two-hundred miles round trip to campus to finish my senior year of college. I developed Type 1 diabetes during my senior year and became insulin dependent which required me giving myself injections every day. My diabetic condition ended my hopes of being appointed as a foreign missionary. God’s call was upon my life, and so I prayed and sought God’s will for me in the expression of that call.
I majored in Biblical Studies against the advice of my dad who wanted me to major in something that I could get a job in just in case I could not get work as a full time pastor.
In the fall of 1973, I enrolled in New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and graduated in December 1976 with a Master of Divinity degree. During my time in seminary, I sometimes preached at the Rescue Mission on Camp Street and served West Marrero Baptist Church on the West Bank of New Orleans. West Marrero was a small church in a tough neighborhood with sleazy bars on both ends of the street where the church was located. We lived in the parsonage. It was not unusual to hear sirens at night and sometimes wake up to police cars in the neighbors’ drive way and yards because of disturbances.
After graduation, I was called to Calvary Baptist Church in Milton, Florida, where I served for three and one-half wonderful years. The church provided a new four bedroom parsonage for us. Denise was born in 1978.
In January of 1980, I read about the need for seminary trained Southern Baptist pastors to go to Pennsylvania and “burn their bridges behind them.” Southern Baptist work was relatively new in Pennsylvania. The Home Mission Board (now the North American Mission Board) along with the Florida Baptist Convention was making a concentrated effort to start new churches in areas where evangelical churches were few in number.
I had a strong urging from the Lord to investigate this opportunity and felt that He wanted me to fulfill my call through home missions since I was not medically qualified to work as a missionary in a third world country.
I was called to Dallas Baptist Church in Northeast Pennsylvania near Wilkes-Barre, and we moved in June 1980 to begin service there.
We moved into a rental house that left a lot to be desired. The little congregation of about twenty people met in a rented run-down former Free Methodist Church building. Even with financial assistance for my salary from the Home Mission Board, my family and I made a financial and housing sacrifice to answer God’s call for me to move to Pennsylvania. The church exploded in growth, and on Labor Day in 1981, we moved into a new 8,000 square foot building that was built in three months with the help of many churches sending building teams from the South to build our beautiful new church.
I started new mission churches in Kingston and Falls. I supervised three other mission churches in Wilkes-Barre, Towanda, and Tunkhannock in addition to my work at Dallas Baptist Church.
In the 1981-1982, I baptized 50 new converts to Christianity into my church as members. Only one other church that year in the Pennsylvania/South Jersey Southern Baptist State Convention baptized more than that.
God was working through me and the good people of my church and missions to reach that area for Christ. It was exciting and everything that I felt God had prepared me for and called me for. Dallas soon averaged 150 in worship attendance, and the church was able to move off “life support” from the Home Mission Board and support me full time financially,
Personal tragedy struck in the summer of 1984. My marriage fell apart, and my wife and I divorced. I moved back in with my mother in North Augusta completely broke and having lost my family, job, and career.
I found out very quickly, that there is no secular job market for Biblical Studies majors with a seminary degree or full-time pastorates for Southern Baptist pastors who are divorced. I went to work selling cars and made a visit to the Associational Director for the Augusta Baptist Association, Rev. Hilton Garrett.
Rev. Garrett accepted me and arranged for me to preach at Ways Baptist Church in the tiny hamlet of Stellaville in Jefferson County. This small rural congregation of fifteen to twenty people called me as pastor in the winter of 1984.
These good people were vital to my healing from tragedy, and their call to serve kept me in the ministry. I served them for nine years.
I married Joyce on July 20, 1984, who had a six year old daughter, Kelly. I adopted her as my own.
In the meantime, I went back to school at Augusta College (now Augusta State University) to take the required courses to earn teacher certification from the State of Georgia.
For the next thirteen years, I taught school and preached. I taught 8th grade social studies and language arts at Riverside Middle and Lakeside Middle and coached baseball and fast-pitch softball for the schools. I also coached fast-pitch softball in the Martinez-Evans Little League where my daughter, Kelly, played. My first teaching position was with Augusta Christian High School, and I also taught one year at Curtis Baptist High School. My career in education ended after serving two years as the 21st Century grant coordinator for Warren County Schools.
From 1993-1999, I served as pastor of Red Oak Grove Baptist Church near Modoc, SC, in Edgefield County. The church grew to the point that they could pay for me to become full time, and they needed a full time pastor. But, it was not meant to be.
My heart and my call was to always go back into the full time pastoral ministry. I accepted the part time position of Director of Christian Education with Wesley United Methodist Church in May of 1999 thinking that the job might become full time one day.
I was given the responsibility to get three Sunday Schools in the growing church up and running by September along with planning and coordinating all of the Wednesday night programs and activities. I was only supposed to work twenty hours a week but had to work 50-60 hours per week in order to get these programs up and running.
In middle August, I told the pastor, Rev. Glen Etheridge, that I could not continue at this pace, teach school, and coach ball. I could either go full time with the church or resign my position to focus on my teaching and coaching responsibilities. He replied that the church did not have the financial resources to offer me a full time salary.
Pastor Etheridge wanted and encouraged me to stay in the United Methodist Church. He said that they did not have the problem with divorced and remarried pastors that Southern Baptists did. He explained the long process involved to become ordained as a full time elder (pastor) in the denomination and arranged for me to preach at St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Lincoln County on the 2nd and 3rd Sundays of each month. I preached there for a year and also supplied at other small rural Baptist Churches.
Rev. Etheridge contacted me in late spring of 2000 and said that a church needed a part time pastor in Columbia County. He told me that I needed to contact the Augusta Superintendent and arrange for an interview.
I had a wonderful interview with Rev. Jane Brooks who told me that she had the authority to appoint a Baptist pastor to a Methodist congregation as a “pastor from another denomination.” She appointed me to Shiloh Methodist Church in the Appling area, a part time pastorate. She said that the North Georgia Conference had discussed closing this church because the congregation had dwindled to only a very few in regular attendance and support. She said that the church needed some Baptist fire and evangelism to get back on its feet. They had had a series of pastors who were dismissed because of ineptness and immorality.
I began my ministry at Shiloh in July 2000. After the church began to grow, Rev. Brooks told me that she hoped that I could and would stay at Shiloh a long time. With that, Joyce and I sold our home in Evans and moved to Appling in May 2003 to be on the church field. We moved at our own expense and took on a mortgage after having our home in Evans paid off. It was quite a sacrifice for us.
In August of 2002, I accepted the position of grant coordinator for the federal educational program called the 21st Century with the Warren County School System. The million dollar grant only had two years left on it, but I was confident that we could get it renewed. This was my favorite job in education. I developed an after school program, summer program, and collaborative partnerships with other agencies including Georgia College in Milledgeville which greatly benefited the children in the county. I also wrote a grant that provided $20,000 from the tobacco settlement that the state won from the tobacco companies.
However, our grant proposal to continue the 21st Century program was turned down by the state, and I was out of a job.
By now, Shiloh had grown to the point where they were able to raise my salary to $30,000 but provided no benefits. By United Methodist policy, I was still part time. Joyce and I decided to take another step of faith. I would work Shiloh full time for part time pay and benefits while she supported us working as a nurse at Eisenhower Army Hospital at Ft. Gordon. We hoped and believed one day that I could return to full time pastoral pay and work.
In order to become an elder (full time permanent pastor) in the United Methodist denomination, I had to return to seminary and take three courses: Methodist Polity, Doctrine, and History. I enrolled at Erskine Theological Seminary (a Presbyterian seminary with a United Methodist division), and commuted to the seminary to complete these courses at a cost to me of about $5000 without reimbursement. This was one step out of many required by the denomination.
In the summer of 2005, Bishop Lindsey Davis appointed Gary Dean as the new superintendent for the Augusta District. Dean was a totally different manager than Rev. Brooks. He was autocratic, arrogant, and bragged about his work as a pastor in every meeting I was required to attend. He was a far different leader than Rev. Brooks who supported and encouraged me and knew what I had done in leading Shiloh to become a strong church.
In October of 2006, Dean confronted me and told me among other matters that he was requiring me to spend 20 hours a week in the office at Shiloh. I countered by telling him that first, I was part time, and he couldn’t require me to stay in the office for 20 hours a week. He argued with me that I was full time. I distinctly remember him saying, “I’m going to straighten you out on this.” Fortunately, I had studied the Methodist Book of Discipline and brought my copy to this meeting. I turned to the page where a full time pastor was defined by the United Methodist Church and read to him proving that I indeed was only part time and the fact that I worked full time for the church was my choice and my gift to the church to help them grow and provide pastoral ministry for them.
Second, I pointed out that Shiloh did not have a pastor’s office. The old church was built around 1858 and had never had a church office. My office in our home was fully equipped at my expense with a new computer, internet connection, and was nicely furnished where I could counsel and entertain members who needed private conferences with their pastor. Plus, I paid for a cell phone without reimbursement from the church so that my church members could access me 24/7. Of course, I paid to heat and cool my office since it was in my home. The old church building would need to purchase office furniture, a computer, internet service, and heat and cool the entire building at great cost to have me there for 20 hours a week. I felt that to put an office in the church was a waste of God’s money that the people gave to the Lord.
Third, I told him that I had been hired to teach History at Laney High School in Richmond County and would start the next day. He told me that I couldn’t take that job without first getting the approval of Shiloh’s Pastor-Parish Committee. I responded and told him that he was in error again because I was teaching school when I accepted Shiloh and had a right to go back to teaching again.
Dean lost control and began pounding me in the chest and angrily told me, “You’re fired.”.
I was very thankful when I walked into Laney High the next morning with a job. I knew the Lord had taken care of me and Joyce.
People at Shiloh soon found out that their preacher was fired. Several wrote Bishop Davis and asked that I be reinstated. I wrote the Bishop a lengthily letter about the incident complete with witnesses he could contact who saw Dean pound me in the chest. The Bishop didn’t even give us the courtesy of a reply. My hope and dreams of serving full time in the United Methodist Church ended.
Several in the church called me about starting a new non-aligned church. I told them that I simply wanted to teach at Laney and was not interested. I really intended to finish out my working years teaching school and be done with the ministry and church. I was 55 years old and needed seven more years to retire at 62 with teacher’s state retirement.
But, it was not to be. God had other plans. Teaching at an inner city black school was a real culture shock for me. Dr. Hawthorne Welcher, the principal, is a dedicated, Christian man who wants to see the kids in the inner city succeed. When I interviewed for the job, I had two pages of questions for him to answer. At the end of the interview, he said, “Reverend, we really need you here at Laney to help these kids.” That was a real pat on the back for me after suffering what I went through with Gary Dean. I reached across the table, and we shook hands.
There were a lot of good kids at Laney. If I could have chosen about thirty of the children who were nice, polite, and wanted to change their position in life, I would have taught there until retirement. But, it was a tough assignment. There was chronic absenteeism, and most never brought pen, paper, and their book to class. Many could barely read because they had been socially promoted into the ninth grade, the grade I taught. About half of my students were 16 going on 17, and some were 18 going on 19.
In February 2007, I had a fight break out in my class. An 18 year old thug got out of his seat and started toward another student. I stupidly stood in front of him and told him to be seated. He threw me out of the way like a sake of potatoes. The victim didn’t have a chance and was beaten. Others rushed to his defense. Soon, the whole room was in chaos with desks being thrown and kids fighting all over the place. I ran out into the hall for help. Fortunately, the school’s policeman walked by, and I summoned him for help. He broke up the fight and put the 18 year old on the floor. He took three boys to the office. The 18 year old was sent to the Alternative School.
My nerves were shot. I couldn’t sleep at night and sometimes wept. My depression got worse. I called in sick three consecutive days. I contacted Rev. Roger Bennett, who had counseled my mother for depression. Rev. Bennett is a trained pastoral counselor. He agreed with me that I needed to quit and wrote a letter to the school board to that effect. Dr. Welcher was very gracious and understood and recommended that I be released from my contract due to medical reasons.
I was about as down as a person could be after losing Shiloh and not being able to continue to teach.
Several from Shiloh kept in touch with me. When they found out that I was no longer teaching, they told me that we should start a church. This time, I made it a matter of prayer and agreed to start a new church in the community.
I went to discuss with the Columbia County authorities about renting the Eubank Blanchard Center in Appling for our church services. The charge was only $30 an hour.
Next, I met with Rev. Bennett, who is pastor of Overcomers Outreach Center in Martinez about sponsoring our new church to give the new work legitimacy and counsel. He called his trustees together, and we met again. They approved the arrangement, and North Columbia Church was born as a mission of Overcomers Outreach Center, a Southern Baptist Church. I told the trustees that we were not asking for financial help, but only for their love, prayers, and support.
On Sunday, March 25, 2007, I preached at Rev. Bennett’s church as his guest and to introduce our relationship to his congregation. Several from North Columbia Church were in attendance too. At the end of the service, Rev. Bennett presented me with a check for $3000 from his church I was quite overwhelmed and shed a few tears of joy.
Red Oak Grove presented us with thirty hymnals and George Edwards carved a beautiful Celtic cross that graces our chancel.
With the gracious gift from our sponsoring church, I was able to hire a lawyer and pay the state fees so that we could become a non-profit institution duly incorporated under the laws of the state of Georgia. I purchased an electric keyboard for congregational hymn singing, paid the first month’s rent, along with other start up costs, and was even able to draw a small salary for the first month of our existence. God performed a miracle.
Our first service was held on Easter Sunday, April 8, 2007, with eighteen present. I never dreamed that I would ever serve as pastor again and have the chance to begin a new church. I am blessed beyond words that can describe God’s goodness to me. My prayer is that the Lord will use me and our congregation to bless others, reach others for Christ including those like us who have been disfranchised by denominational churches, and that we will together grow in the faith, grace, and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Serving Christ as pastor of this church is the joy of my life.
And what of my dream and call to be a full time pastor? I am trying to re-enter the teaching profession again. I had several job interviews in the spring and summer of 2008, but nothing panned out for me. I am still seeking outside employment to supplement the $1000 a month that North Columbia is able to pay me at this time. Our God is sovereign. All of us pray for our church to grow and prosper, but only the Lord can add to the church “The Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47).
Another verse that is close to my heart in this new work is Philippians1:4-6. “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that [Christ] who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (NIV). I have received strength from those who like with Paul have partnered with me in the propagation of the gospel. The Apostle was confident, brimming with faith in Christ, that the Lord would complete the work begun in the church at Philippi.
The faith of the great Apostle Paul inspires me to also believe that the work Christ began with the faithful people of North Columbia Church will be carried to fulfillment and completion as well. That is my prayer. That is our church’s prayer.