I was in the office of one of my mentors, Dr. Chuck Bugg, pouring out my frustrations. Eighteen months earlier, I’d crossed the stage and received a piece of paper that announced to the world I was a Doctor of Philosophy (take two verses of Hebrew and call me in the morning). My peers had gone on to pastor First Baptist Churches in county seat towns across the South, or were professors in colleges. A couple leapfrogged teaching at college and were teaching at the seminary where we had so recently been students. I was still in my church in Louisville. It was a good church with good people in a bad location. God was working, but we were handicapped by having a thousand-seat sanctuary and only thirty parking spaces. Another mentor, my cousin Tiny Durrance, told me Jesus himself couldn’t grow the church without more parking.
When I finished my degree, trusted friends began to send my name to churches throughout the South who were looking for pastors. I had clear picture in my mind of what church God wanted me to serve. It would be a First Baptist Church in a county seat town, a town big enough to have a Chik-Fil-A (essential food for ministry). The church would be red-brick, have white columns, and the tallest steeple in town. I would preach good messages, visit the sick, stay a few years, and move up to a larger church – the typical pastor career path. If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.
I got interviews. And I got rejections. Some Pastor Search Committees were kind. They would write and say you were their second choice. I wonder if they sent that letter to everyone. Some Committees would interview you and never contact you again, leaving you to twist in limbo.
I did get offers. One came from a church in a small town. After interviewing me, the committee agreed to call me, but split on a side issue. I’ll never forget the conversation I had with the chairman: “Half the committee has quit, including myself, but we still want you to be our pastor.” I’m not the most spiritually perceptive person, but even I could read God’s will in that situation. I told them “No.”
I prayed about other offers. I didn’t sense God leading me towards those churches.
After eighteen months, I was frustrated. Depressed. My life was not going according to my plans. I found my way to Dr. Bugg’s office, because unlike many of my professors, he had been a successful pastor. The churches he served grew. A gifted communicator, he also had a caring heart. I told him about the search, the rejections, how they hurt. It seemed to me that the churches I wanted to pastor didn’t want me, and the churches that wanted me, I really didn’t want to serve. It wasn’t a very spiritual response.
After sharing my journey and my pain, I wound up my lament by telling Dr. Bugg, “I just want to pastor a great church.”
I will never forget his words: “Clay, maybe God wants you to pastor a good church and turn it into a great church.”
I was startled. That wasn’t the plan. I wanted great now.
When I walked away from Dr. Bugg’s office that day, I realized how childish I had been. My heart found a new level of surrender, summarized by the words of an old hymn, “Wherever He Leads, I’ll Go.”
A few months later I was contacted by Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter. I’d never heard of Sumter, never heard of the church. The first thing I noticed in the letter was the address; Alice Drive Baptist Church was not on Alice Drive, but on Miller Road. How strange. We set up a time to meet, and the day after Christmas in 1993, I got my first look at Sumter and the church.
The building was not red brick, but a weird brown, gray, and purple. There was a short steeple, but no white columns. The church was doing solid ministry, nothing flashy. The people on the team impressed me: they sensed God had something more in store for them as a church and were looking for a pastor who could lead them in that direction. The meeting went well. I got in my car and started driving back to Gaffney, where my in-laws lived.
Back at my in-laws, I couldn’t sleep. My mind wrestled. This was a good church, no doubt, but it wasn’t a great church. Dr. Bugg’s words came back to me. “Clay, maybe God wants you to take a good church and work to make it a great one.” After an hour or so of wrestling all this through with God, I remember praying, “Okay God. If you want me to go to Sumter to the church with the strange name, I’ll go.”
As things unfolded, the Pastor Committee invited me to come and preach a “trial sermon.” They took a vote and I was elected as the new pastor.
Now its twenty-five years later. Sumter is home. It’s hard to know if God thinks Alice Drive is a “great” church, but there is no denying God has done things with this body of believers that only he can do. People decided to follow Jesus. Families were strengthened. People accepted calls to ministry. We changed locations (but didn’t change the name – long story). We grew – five times our original size. I made lots of dumb mistakes and didn’t get fired – a miracle.
I’ve learned so much about God and about myself here, more lessons than I can count. Maybe one of the best lessons is what Dr. Bugg tried to teach me in a musty Norton Hall office, twenty-six years ago: Whatever God gives you – a church, a career, a gift, a family, a relationship – take what is good and strive to make it great. With God’s help, miracles do happen.