February 2008 Issue
Inspiring Examples of Longevity in Ministry
by David Roach
Nearly every time he goes out in
public Perry Sanders is treated like a local celebrity.
On a recent trip to the mall in Lafayette, Louisiana, he counted
sixty-two people who approached him thanking him for his influence
in the city. Even on duck hunting outings he cannot escape recognition.
In December, a man approached Sanders after he had finished a
morning of hunting to tell him how he had admired Sanders for
So what does Sanders do? Was he an actor, local news anchor,
or athlete? Actually, he arrived at celebrity status in a very
unconventional manner. He was pastor of the First Baptist Church
in Lafayette for forty-seven years before retiring in 2006. He
also had a television program in the area that broadcast Gospel
preaching for more than fifty years.
"It's a wonderful thing to stay a while where you can
see people develop and grow in the Lord and develop and mature,"
Ben Jones of Jacksonville, Florida, and Richard Oldham of Bowling
Green, Kentucky, can tell similar stories of influence in their
communities. Jones pastored West Park Baptist Church for fifty-eight
years, and Oldham is still pastor of Glendale Baptist Church,
where he has been for fifty years.
The average tenure for a Southern Baptist pastor is just over
two years, according to Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian
Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. But these pastors
defy the average and all say long-term pastorates bring powerful
results for God's Kingdom.
Oldham came to Glendale in 1957
after pastoring in Lansing, Michigan. He says he never planned
to stay for half a century, but God continued to give him a passion
for the congregation.
"The Lord just seemed to lead me from one year to the
next," Oldham, who is now 71, said. "Of course, I had
no idea I would spend my whole life here. God just opened door
Among the highlights of Oldham's time in Bowling Green have
been seeing approximately five thousand people baptized under
his ministry and approximately 250 devote themselves to fulltime
Christian service. Glendale also went through five major building
programs under Oldham, including the construction of a Christian
school for grades K-12.
When is he going to retire?
"I'll serve until the Lord makes it clear I should retire,"
he said. "I didn't really plan to stay this long. I've been
called by several other churches, but I felt like the Lord wanted
Jones, who retired in 2006, tells a similar story. He came
to West Park in 1948 at age 24. A railroad worker at the time,
coworkers who were members of the church asked him to fill the
pulpit for a short time. Though he never planned to spend his
entire ministry in Jacksonville, the short-term pulpit supply
gradually turned into half a century.
"When I took the church, they were in debt," Jones,
now 83, said. "They were about to lose it. They were about
to go into foreclosure. So I went and talked with [their creditors],
and I just went to work. They went along with me.
"God bless me, I just went out and went to work. And I
don't mean this bragging, but we just filled the house."
When Jones started, the church averaged eleven in worship.
Today it averages about two hundred.
Jones says his favorite memories from West Park involve ministering
to families with special needs. One night, for example, he was
called to the hospital and told there was a baby who would not
live through the night. But after praying for the baby, it lived,
He can recount many other occasions when he prayed for people
with needs but says the basis for his entire ministry was teaching
the Word of God to the people.
"I just kept my head in the Bible, studying the Bible,
and I gave them the Word," he said. "They knew when
they got there they were going to get the Word from the Bible.
I wasn't telling about myself. I related stories and things, but
I majored on the Bible."*
Sanders said many opportunities
came to leave First Baptist, but he never had a distinct feeling
that God wanted him to move to another ministry. Though he has
preached in every state convention affiliated with the SBC and
has a building named after him at New Orleans Baptist Theological
Seminary, Sanders said his goal was never to become influential
On one occasion, one of the largest churches in the SBC wanted
Sanders to become its pastor. A wealthy member of the search committee
even guaranteed him that his salary would be double the salary
of the highest-paid pastor in the Convention. But Sanders was
not in ministry for money.
"I said, 'Brother, you're beating up the wrong tree. That
doesn't have anything to do with the way I'm going to preach.
I'm going to be where God wants me to be, and the money is not
significant,'" Sanders, who will turn 80 in February, said.
"I never have accepted a church knowing what I was going
to get until I got there."
Among the highlights from Sanders' ministry in Lafayette were
increasing the church budget from $70,000 to $4 million and growing
the congregation in attendance from several hundred to several
thousand. He also worked with the same minister of music for thirty-nine
Sanders tells young pastors that one of the keys to sustaining
a successful ministry over decades is practicing what you preach.
"I don't preach anything that I'm not going to practice
in my personal life," he said.
On one occasion, Sanders was preaching through the book of
Philippians when he encountered a verse that said, "Magnify
Christ in your body." In his study, God convicted Sanders
that he was overweight and not glorifying God in his body. So
he stood before the church the next Sunday, publicly repented
of his obesity, and committed to glorify God with his body more
"When I got to that verse, I stepped aside from the pulpit
it was on TV and everything I opened up my coat,
and I said, 'I want y'all to look at me now. You're never going
to see me this big again,'" he said. "And in fourteen
months I lost sixty-eight pounds."
Another key to a long ministry is having absolute confidence
in everything the Bible says, Sanders added. Oldham agreed with
that advice, noting that there is no way to be a successful minister
without becoming a student of the Bible.
"Don't ever cease studying," Oldham said. "We
need to study and preach the Word of God."
Along with studying the Bible, pastors must be men of prayer
and love the people, Oldham said. One important way a pastor must
demonstrate his love for the people is listening to their criticisms
and taking those criticisms to heart when they are justified,
"Keep in mind that other people have good ideas,"
he said. "Weigh their ideas carefully. Weigh the criticism
carefully. If the criticism is just, then change. If it isn't,
then don't change."
Jones, Oldham, and Sanders all agreed that preachers must never
make their goal to climb the denominational ladder to bigger churches
and more important leadership positions. Instead, ministers must
make it their top priority to serve God faithfully in the places
He leads them, they said.
"When a young preacher comes along, he often says, 'Well,
I'm just going to keep walking up the ladder,'" Sanders said.
"I never had that intention in my heart. I never wanted to
just move up because it was bigger. I just wanted to be where
God wanted me to be, and I was always joyful and happy and satisfied."
Oldham added, "I've never thought that ministry was something
where you should try to jump up the ladder. I felt that the Lord
calls a man and has a plan for his life, and I don't believe that
it's God's will for him to go out and try to find a bigger church
or a bigger salary. Just go where God leads, and find what God's
In an age when the norm for pastors is climbing the ladder,
looking for greener pastures at another church, and being fired,
these men illustrate the beauty of a pastor investing his entire
career in one congregation.
As a young pastor myself, having served a small congregation
for two-and-a-half years, Jones, Oldham, and Sanders serve as
tangible examples of finishing the race of ministry strongly.
The continuity of leadership and teaching has made their churches
strong and their efforts appreciated.
In reference to his book High Expectations, Rainer rightly
noted, "Though new pastors can often implement significant
changes in the 'honeymoon' years of their ministry, some changes
take time. Rarely will a church transition from a low-expectation
church to a high-expectation church in a short period. Such changes
require time, and they require the leadership of a pastor who
is committed to see the church through these changes."
* Unfortunately, there were no current photos
of Rev. Ben Jones available at press time.
David Roach is pastor of Emmanuel Baptist
Church in Shelbyville, Kentucky, and a PhD candidate at The Southern
Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
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