Features

The Half-Century Club

National | Fewer and fewer pastors stay with a single congregation for very long, but these five have more than bucked that trend

Issue: "Every law counts," Dec. 23, 2000

Editor's note: The late 20th-century advent of a service-based American economy, corporate "downsizing," and the digital entrepreneur has turned the 30-year, single-company career into a bygone relic. Today, the average person can expect to change careers between three and five times over a lifetime. It's no different with ministers, it seems. These days, evangelical pastors seldom stay at one church more than seven years; in many denominations, the average tenure is under five. But a few ministers have remained faithful to their first flocks, thereby entering an elite group we've dubbed the Half-Century Club. WORLD assigned several World Journalism Institute students to find and profile such 50-year faithfuls. Here are five pastors who, back before Elvis became a household name, fell in love with their first congregations-and have remained faithful ever since. A Cotton Man Sticks with Wool
Fred Sain knows a thing or two about counting cows. He and his wife run 82 cattle on 400 acres near Prairie Hill, Texas, 20 miles east of Waco. "You have to go see the cows and count them every day," he said. "In summer, the best time to count cows is around noon because they're all under the trees, trying to find shade." On Sunday mornings, Mr. Sain counts sheep when his flock assembles at the 60-member Prairie Hill Baptist Church where he has pastored since 1950. Born in 1929 in a world where cotton was king, Mr. Sain's father and grandfather were ready to make him "a cotton man," but he had other plans: to become a pastor. While just 19 and a Baylor University junior, he mounted the Prairie Hill pulpit as senior pastor. Today, Mr. Sain preaches at least 104 sermons a year, mends cattle fences in boots, and pops over to chat with folks-200 live in the town-interested in joining the church. "I try to keep myself motivated all the time. I spend a good deal of time in prayer and meditation. If you pray for people, you become more concerned for them." Mildred Thomason, 86, joined Prairie Hill when she was 12. "Brother Fred knows all our family history because he's been here for generations," she drawled in Texas twang. "I just hope that Brother Fred will outlive me so he can bury me someday." Prairie Hill Baptist has a cemetery out back. Mr. Sain, 71, says he'll plug away at the pulpit until his age will not permit it. Pastors who hop around like crickets to new congregations every few years "are trying to push things a little too fast," he suggested. "Many preachers see what needs to be done in five or six years, and they try to accomplish it in six months. "I had many opportunities to leave (Prairie Hill) when I was younger. I realized if I went somewhere else, I would have opportunities with more people," he said. "But after all, Jesus only had 12 apostles." Was he ever close to being fired? "I have never had that privilege," he joked. Geneva Hardgrove Russell's farm adjoins Mr. Sain's. She has lived her entire 83 years inside a five-mile radius, taught Prairie Hill Sunday school for 50 years, and has been a faithful member for over seven decades. "I never get up on Sunday thinking about anything else than going to church and hearing Mr. Sain preach the Word," she said. "He doesn't have an enemy here in Prairie Hill. We wouldn't trade him for none." -Leah G. Driggers Still Preaching
At 84, N. B. Weaver sits calmly in his velvet chair, a few yards away from the podium of Good Samaritan Church in Waco, Texas. He grins as the back doors fling open and 40 maroon-robed choir members march down the red carpet aisles, clapping hands, jingling tambourines, and wailing praises. Song fills the sanctuary and the swaying 250-member congregation doubles the volume. In his 20s, Mr. Weaver pounded the Bible on Waco street corners, but in 1947 he took half a dozen followers and founded a Baptist congregation. Fifty-three years later, he rises in his white robe with scarlet trim to address the same church. "Our pastor doesn't stand up as tall, or walk as fast as he used to when he was young, robust and strong," said associate minister Larry D. Weaver II, one of Mr. Weaver's 30 grandchildren. "But on Sunday morning, the Holy Spirit comes over him, he forgets about his illnesses and ailments, recites Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, and preaches the Word." Choir member Lilly Thompson, who has spent 52 of her 73 years at Good Samaritan, said of Mr. Weaver, "He has always taught the young people to put God first, and then be an asset to the community. He has a son and a grandson in the ministry now, and that's three generations." The elder Weaver disagrees with pastors who bounce around to different churches. "Young guys start in a smaller city, but when an opening comes up in Dallas, Houston, or Austin that will pay a little bit more money with a bigger name, they transfer," he said. Mr. Weaver believes it's unhealthy for sheep to have a different shepherd every few years. "If a shepherd is coming in and out, he's not really getting to know the people, and the people don't know him." -Leah G. Driggers Staying on Message
In the spring of 1949, Bob Jones College junior Chauncey Ickes sat through three chapel sermons in which Bob Jones, Sr., urged students to hold revival meetings in their hometowns during the coming summer break. When Mr. Ickes reluctantly agreed, he didn't expect to be preaching to some of the same people 51 years later. That summer, back home in Boswell, Penn., Mr. Ickes rented a Presbyterian church and advertised a series of revival meetings: He planned to preach the gospel and asked his friend Don Airesman to lead the singing. After eight days, 20 people had claimed faith in Christ. Then, during the last planned session, Mr. Airesman called out to the crowd, "How many people would like to see this meeting go on another week? This is too good to stop!" The crowd agreed and the meetings continued for not one, but three more weeks, yielding 50 more proclamations of faith. Singer Airesman told preacher Ickes he ought to "stay out of school and start a church"-and Laurel Hill Gospel Tabernacle was born. Today, 20 of the 40 charter members still attend the church, now located in Jennerstown, Penn. Other congregations have offered Mr. Ickes more money to defect, but he never bit. "A couple times you get down low and have problems, and you're ready to go," said Mr. Ickes, adding with a laugh, "and then there's no call [from other churches]." The job seems tough, he said, when people leave the church over doctrine or sin in their lives. "Burying people that you've known for 50 years is hard, too." But there are lighter moments. Assistant Pastor Gary Anderson calls Mr. Ickes "one of the two best pitchers" in the church softball league. Ruby Ickes recalls the time when her husband baptized a repentant drunkard in the river and a whiskey bottle floated past. Charter member Louise Pritts, who made a profession of faith at the original Boswell revival, said Mr. Ickes "has never complained, he's never been impatient, and I've never seen him lose his temper." Everyone in her family became a Christian (except her mother, who already was) through contact with Laurel Hill. Pastor Ickes thinks conservative theology makes it easier to persevere at a single church. Theological liberals, he said, "have no message to preach, really. They have a message, but it's the social gospel and it's not the Bible and the Spirit of God isn't on that message like He is on the Bible message." -Hannah Eagleson 85 and Still Fresh
After 50 years of pastoring in South Central Los Angeles, Rev. James A. Brooks has many stories. But only one stirs the same excitement that he felt one Wednesday morning 76 years ago. He was 9, the son of poor plantation farmers, walking down a dirt path on Giles Hill in Mississippi. "I was praying and asking the Lord to save me," Mr. Brooks recalled, squinting as if the scene were appearing before him. "I was barefooted and I had mud between my toes. The Lord saved me in the midst of all those things, and he washed me whiter than snow. And I like to talk about it, because it's as fresh as if it happened yesterday." Mr. Brooks is 85 now, a great-grandfather and the patriarch of St. John Missionary Baptist Church in L.A. He has married hundreds of couples, buried more than 90 percent of his original congregation, and baptized several generations of converts, including his own son and daughter and seven of his eight grandchildren. Mr. Brooks came to California in 1946 and began attending St. John. A few years later he married fellow choir member Minnie Lee Jones, then answered the congregation's call to be their pastor. For the next couple of years he juggled a factory job and evening classes at Biola Seminary with his ministry. Los Angeles was a paradise then, he said. The city was young, jobs were plentiful, and folks went to church. Today the faithful are fewer and the city is darker. After sunset the echoes of car alarms, barking dogs, and the occasional siren surround the quiet residential street dominated by St. John's stately neoclassical building. The church members understand "urban decay"-it means drugs and gangs and theft and violence. Divorce and births out of wedlock outpace marriages. "People don't fear God anymore," lamented Mr. Brooks. In November, at a celebration honoring James and Minnie Lee Brooks's dedication, guest ministers and members poured out tributes. "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends," one speaker quoted, and many of the 150 lively congregants echoed every sentence, with old friends nodding, clapping, and "amen-ing" their assent. Mr. Brooks intends to retire: "I just gotta plan how to get out of here." But until he finds the right replacement, he won't change his customary routine: preaching, hospital visitation, staying in touch with folks, and other church activities. "You've got to get to know these people, and let them know you love them," he said. "Then you'll get things done." -Maryanne Wardlaw The 50-year Interim Pastor
Jim Wood slid a peppermint across the table. "I keep these in my pocket for little kids," he grinned. "Big kids, too." Stowing candy in his buff-colored suit jacket and wearing cowboy boots, Mr. Wood looks every inch the country lad-turned-pastor-which he is, having spent 53 of his 76 years shepherding two tiny Church of God congregations in the New Mexico desert. Mr. Wood was born in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1924. In the 1930s his family moved to his grandfather's abandoned dairy farm in northeastern Pennsylvania. His family was up at 4 a.m. to milk their 65 cows; they milked them again at 4 p.m. "The dairy was the best thing that ever happened to me," he said of the work ethic and perseverance farm life instilled in him. "No one asked you how you felt; it didn't matter how you felt." Encouraged to attend revival at a local church by his school bus driver, Mr. Wood became a Christian at age 13. "It was always my desire to do something for the Lord, and I had no idea who I'd be," he said. He went to Bob Jones College in 1942, but more than three years into his program began having lung problems. Fearing tuberculosis, he and and his new bride Anna Belle headed west for the dry air. Driving until they hit New Mexico, they came to a fork in the road: One sign pointed to Denver and the other to the West Coast. They headed for Denver, but suffered a flat tire near Hatch, N.M., and never left. Mr. Wood worked odd jobs that first year, 1946, but was occasionally bedridden. In 1947 he started pastoring in nearby Arrey, and also worked as a mechanic. In 1951, Hatch's irrigation lakes dried up and many folks left, including the pastor of the Hatch Church of God, the country's oldest Church of God congregation. Mr. Wood hired on as an interim pastor and, he said, blue eyes twinkling behind his glasses, "I'm still there." He figures he's still the interim pastor since his congregation "never voted me in and never voted me out." Since 1963, he has also cared for the only church in the 25-house town of Caballo, 25 miles away, and once weekly he visits a nursing home in the town of Truth or Consequences. Until his wife died in 1996 he drove 50,000 miles per year; now that he's alone, he still does about 35,000. No longer suffering from lung problems, Mr. Wood says he will continue to minister as long as he is able. The only other reason to quit: "I figure if I ever stop loving the people, then it's time to stop, right then." -Christel Hanson

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