At the close of 2020, there were an estimated 2,132 Southern Baptist churches in Mississippi, not counting a few that were in the process of splitting up over quarreling piano players, construction projects, or antics of the pastor’s children. During the past two years, I have spoken in 51 of these churches. At this rate, I will cover them all by 2083, which will add me to the list of characters who lived far longer than their three score and ten years prescribed in the Bible.
You see, in my semi-retirement, I am a “saddlebag preacher,” a “circuit rider,” carrying on the century’s old tradition of itinerant ministers, predominantly Methodist, riding on horseback between distant churches. The father of John Wesley Hardin, the famous Texas outlaw, was a Methodist circuit rider, and named his son after the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. It reminds me of that old TV series, “Have Gun, Will Travel,” except in my case I’ve traded my six gun for a Bible and my horse for a Mini Cooper. I’m available to speak on short notice in any SBC church that needs a last-minute Sunday fill-in when their pastor is ill or on vacation or, more likely, when the church is without a pastor and a search committee is working to fill the position. Think of me as a temporary substitute; in fact, one of my opening “lines” is often “I’m proud to be your substitute this morning. You do know what a substitute is? An imperfect copy of the real thing.”
For the past two Sundays, for example, I’ve spoken at a church in rural Lawrence County whose 84-year-old pastor recently died of the COVID-19 virus. Ironically, I filled in for him back in July of last year when he took a few days off to go home to Alabama to get married. Three weeks ago, I filled in for a pastor in Hazlehurst, a retired missionary, who took a Sunday off to go and visit his married daughter and grandchildren in Birmingham. I try to limit my trips to a 100-mile radius of Hattiesburg, but I have gone as far as Yazoo City when the need was great. If I have spoken in your church, there’s probably a picture of the building on my website.
I wouldn’t exactly say it’s a crisis situation, but I’m in a position to know that many SBC churches are currently without pastors. Many of these churches fit the same profile: at least 100 years old, rural, declining numbers in the congregation, little or no programs for youth, and aged membership. Many have more members residing in the adjacent cemetery than on the active church roll. Sometimes, one family dominates the leadership positions, but this is normally because they are the most faithful attendees and supporters. Often, there’s no one to play the piano and the songs (always from the hymn book) are acapella. Some are really not able to support a full-time pastor and his family, even though they often own a pastor’s home or manse and have turned to the utilization of part-time or “bi-vocational” ministers.
Of the approximately 45,000 churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, across America, around 35,000 of them have bi-vocational pastors. Bi-vocational ministry is when a pastor or staff member serving a church holds a full-time job while also serving a church. Different names have been applied to this practice – like “tent-making” ministry, taken from Paul, Aquila and Priscilla’s work as leather crafters while planting churches and doing the work of ministry (Acts 18:3). Others like to refer to this type of service as “marketplace ministry” because the minister works in the marketplace. Such individuals are obviously the “salvation” of the church for, without them, many SBC pulpits would be empty on Sunday.
I was certainly no choir boy in the Navy, but I didn’t drink, smoke, or gamble and these habits, or rather the lack of them, earned me the sobriquet of “Rev” on at least one ship. I just did my job; saved my money; studied to learn my rate; and this got me promoted and paved my way to Officer Candidate School and my commission in the regular Navy. However, when you got right down to it, my life was empty, pretty much three chords and a lie. I remember one night when I had the watch on a destroyer about halfway across the Atlantic, heading east, and I knew I had to maintain a certain speed against the prevailing wind to keep up with our projected track. It was quiet, with no one awake except those of us on watch; the only lights on the bridge were the red-filtered lights of the communication equipment and the pale green sweeps of the surface search radar. Standing there, I began to think: what difference does it make, in the great scheme of things, whether this ship gets from point A to point B on time? Who will know? Who will care? There must be more to life than this. That’s when it became clear to me to become a Navy chaplain, live up to my early nickname of “Rev,” and try and make a difference.
There are at least two legends concerning the origin of the word, “chaplain,” and as a Francophile, I prefer the one that started in France. It seems that “chaplain” is derived from the Latin, “capellanus” (from capella or chapel) via the Old French “chapelain.” It is thought to refer to the temporary structure that the kings of France built to house the cape of St. Martin of Tours, patron saint of chaplains. He, as a young Roman soldier, came across a beggar freezing in the snow. Martin drew his sword, cut his uniform cloak in two, and wrapped half around the beggar. That night, he had a vision of Christ, who appeared to him, wearing the half cape. This vision compelled him to leave the military and seek baptism and the religious life. His holiness obvious, he was later named Bishop of Tours. His cape, which he had kept after his meeting with Christ, was carried on military campaigns and honored as a sacred relic. The priests who accompanied the relic (and armies) were the Capellanus, or “keepers of the cape.”
Today, in order to be a military chaplain, you have to be endorsed by a recognized denomination, be a graduate of an accredited religious seminary, and have three years pastoral experience. Consequently, I left active duty and stayed in the Naval Reserve so I wouldn’t have broken service and entered seminary. I was raised in the Missionary Baptist Church, but they had no accredited seminary at the time, so I enrolled at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The seminary is located on Chef Menteur Highway in New Orleans, and some jokester was always removing the “O” from “Theological” on the school sign so that it read “The-Logical Seminary.” I guess that was true. In any event, I became a student and was soon called to pastor a church.
I almost didn’t survive that first pastorate, a church in rural Pearl River County. You might say my first was almost my last. Two problematic events stand out in my mind. One Sunday afternoon, my wife and I were visiting an elderly lady who had some doubts about my qualifications to be her pastor, to put it mildly. Toward the end of the visit, which I thought had gone very well, she turned to me and said, “Pastor, would you have prayer?” Now that’s a perfectly obvious thing to ask of your pastor, but I don’t know if my brain was addled from too much fried chicken at a church members house before I visited her, or if it was just bad luck, but what I heard her say was, “Pastor, would you have some pears?” I smiled and replied, “No thank you, I just ate.” That woman never did like me.
The other event that almost ended my career before it really got started involved the construction of a new church building. The current building, dating from the late 1890s, had two pot-bellied stoves for heat, no AC, no Sunday School rooms, the roof leaked, the lights flickered, and the floor tilted toward the right. Other than that, it wasn’t bad; in fact, the acoustics were fantastic, especially in the winter when the windows were down.
The congregation’s dream was to build a new building, so I ran the numbers; marshalled support among the members; everyone prayed; we procured a bank loan; hired Bobby Walters, today’s well-known Hattiesburg artist, as our architect and contractor, and we were in business. The conflict arose over the cost. Naturally, there were some carpenters in the congregation who were quick to criticize and loathe to help; so, one day the chairman of the deacons called an emergency meeting. I listened to what they had to say, and their main objection was that the project was coming in at an astronomical 10 dollars per square foot! Now I don’t know how much that is in 1968 dollars, but I knew that Bobby was trying to help us and not making any money on the deal, so I kept my mouth shut and opposition finally subsided. Bobby even painted the Jordan River flowing through the baptistry for free. You couldn’t build a bird house for 10 dollars a square foot today, and that building is still standing strong.
I later moved on to a church in Lamar County where I completed the requirement for three years as a pastor and graduated from the seminary at about the same time. My first tour as a chaplain was on a destroyer squadron in Newport, Rhode Island, where I was the pastor of eight different ships, including one I had once served on as an enlisted man about 12 years before. This was really “circuit riding” duty as I moved from ship to ship, depending on their operating schedule, and usually flew on the “holy helo” on Sunday, providing church services to the ships I wasn’t based on. Sometimes that was a very harrowing experience, especially in bad weather. Those small boys (small ships) usually didn’t have room for the helicopter to land, so they would lower me on a cable, swinging in the wind, clutching my mass kit, on to the ship’s tossing deck where someone would grab me. If they didn’t do it just right, I would get a good jolt of static electricity which helped to clear my mind for the coming sermon. Those were the good old days!
If someone were to ask me about the “condition” of the local SBC church, based on what I’ve seen in my travels over the past two years, I would offer these opinions. While some would say there are too many of them, especially in rural areas, I would say that is very short-sighted. They have two important functions, secular and sacred. If these small churches were lost in many communities, you would have to redraw the map of Mississippi as the communities themselves would eventually disappear. They are the “keepers of the flame,” a link to the past in an era of rapidly changing demographics. These small churches are the center of community life, often where there are no other public spaces. From the religious perspective, they hold families together for generations, families that would not think of worshiping at any other place. They provide stability, an anchor, if you please, in a world of uncertainty, and – finally, they reach people that no one else could. So, let’s saddle up and ride!
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby, a resident of Oak Grove, is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit bennyhornsby.com or write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.