Between TTU and Southern Seminary I had taken countless Bible and theology classes and 2.5 years of Greek. Yet, perhaps the most beneficial pastor-prep class of my educational career came on the back of a mower.
My pastor, Dr. Wayne Hamrick left my home church, New Liberty Baptist Church in Ringgold, GA to pastor Atco Baptist Church in Cartersville, GA. He made this move while I was a student in Louisville. While I awaited a response from Lantana Road, Bro. Wayne asked me to serve at Atco as Interim Youth Director. I had served with Bro. Wayne at New Liberty also as Youth Director. Serving my first ministry job at my home church provided me a safe place to begin. There was some degree of difficulty in becoming the official leader over many people I had grown up with, but somehow we all managed to adjust. Honestly, I never realized how volatile a situation the whole arrangement could have been until many years later. I now realize the tremendous amount of grace that my friends, their parents, the church as a whole, and Bro. Wayne extended towards me during that time. It was there that I not only gained many of the administrative skills that I continue to rely on, but I also gained confidence at New Liberty that indeed God had called me to this and that I was capable of continuing for a lifetime.
I served in Cartersville for only 8 or 10 months, but it seemed much longer. For the first couple of months I lived in a hotel on the weekends and travelled back and forth from Ringgold. At the time the church provided a small part time salary and covered the hotel expense. I was hoping that Lantana Road would call soon. Via Uncle Roy I knew that they had my resume’ and that they had yet to hire a pastor. Other than Uncle Roy, I heard nothing. Getting a full time job cleaning up construction sites provided enough money for me to eventually move to Cartersville. By day I swept up nails and disposed of scrap lumber. Almost every other moment was spent serving the church. A few months later a young deacon in the church offered me a job on the maintenance staff at the golf course he superintended. It represented a slight raise in pay and an opportunity to move from the mother-in-law house I occupied 11 miles out of town, to a 2 bedroom rental in town. To this day that rental house represents the most exotic place I have ever lived. Out the back window I could see a small creek. From the kitchen window I could see Mr. Gunn’s Ostriches. If you have never lived near Ostriches you may not know that they are relatively quiet, but they are not friendly. When you visit an Ostrich, keep your distance, trust me. The rental house was also conveniently next door to the golf course where I worked and only a few miles from the church. I took it and as summer approached, still I heard nothing from Lantana Road.
There were many long days on the back of the mower that I complained to God in prayer, “I can translate Greek, but here I am mowing grass. What is the meaning of this?” At the time I did not realize how pompous I was. Oftentimes we do not realize that we are learning while God is teaching, but now I realize how formative these days were. For the last five years I had surrounded myself with the church, its pastors, and professors. Now I was mowing grass with a group of guys who had never seen a Greek translation of the New Testament, but who had a masterful knowledge of alcohol and English vulgarity.
I could tell at first they viewed me with skepticism. I was strange to them. They were strange to me. I was the only dude in the shed, other than the Super. who had experienced a haircut since the mullet went out of style. I did not drink beer. They drank nothing but beer. As hung over as they were most mornings coming in to work, I was always amazed at the perfectly straight lines they could mow. If you know anything about golf course maintenance you know that straight mower lines and the checkerboard patterns they create border on works of art. In golf course language your daily mower pattern is called by clock hands such as 12 to 6, 3 to 9, or 5 to 10. I was sober, but my 12 to 6 pattern looked more like 12 to 20 til 7 (golf course maintenance shed humor there).
About the only commonality we shared was that we were all male and as all good Southern men do, we loved sports. For many weeks sports became our common language. Over time I somehow gained their trust and from time to time they quizzed me on the Bible. It always surprises me how much Scripture alcoholics know. On a few occasions they asked me to pray before we ate lunch. Those moments meant a lot to me because I could sense it meant something to them. I now realize how much of a foreigner I was to them, yet in their own strange measure of grace, they allowed me into their circle, even if it was just for conversation.
My college and seminary professors taught me what Jesus said. The guys I worked with at the golf course taught me what Jesus meant. Working with them helped me realize that shepherding the church was not just about preaching sermons, it was about connecting people to the blood of Christ. Jesus was the master of incarnational ministry. The holy lived with the profane. If I were to be effective in ministry I would have to learn the language of the maintenance shed, minus the profanity, just as fluently as I had attempted to learn Greek. The shed is the world of the sheep. If they were to respond to my voice, I would need an ear that could also respond to theirs. I still count that maintenance shed as one of my favorite theological classrooms. It taught me to talk sheep, not Greek.
Near the end of August, 1996, Bro. Wayne offered me the opportunity to remove “interim” from my title. I love Wayne and Joan Hamrick. I am deeply indebted to them. I really liked living in Cartersville, GA. It is the quintessential picture of Georgia in the Spring when the dogwoods and azaleas bloom. The people of Atco made me feel so much at home, but since the day I read Exodus on the apple crate I knew God was moving me to Crossville, TN. The problem was that the people of Lantana Road were not getting the same message. Though I had not heard a word from them in a year, I told Bro. Wayne that I felt called to be the pastor of Lantana Road Baptist Church in Crossville, TN. A few days after I turned down a great opportunity at Atco, the chair of the pulpit committee from Lantana Road called me for the first time, thus officially ending almost a year of complete silence.
On October 13, 1996 I became the pastor of Lantana Road, but the journey from the first phone call to the official pastoral call would prove to have a few interesting twists and turns. There are some peculiar beasts of Southern culture, many of which have now been exposed on reality television. If any producers are looking for the next big hit, may I suggest, the Baptist pulpit committee . . .