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.