Today I preached in the morning and evening services at the First Baptist Church of Tupelo. When I arrived, I learned that they were voting on calling a new pastor in both morning services. As we waited for the 8:30 AM service to start, there seemed to be a noticeable spirit of anticipation that was somewhat different from the usual atmosphere. I suppose you would call it a little bit of a buzz. After a brief announcement by the associate pastor, the chairman of the deacons came forward to announce that it was time to vote. All week long people had voted by absentee ballots. As the ushers passed out paper ballots to all the members present, the chairman said they would announce the results of the voting at the end of the 11 AM service. We paused for a minute or two to pass out and collect the ballots. As I was sitting there (I did not vote since I was the guest minister, not a church member), it occurred to me that this was the first time I have ever actually seen a vote taken to call a pastor. That was a new thought to me. During my growing-up years, we had the same pastor in my home church. He left while I was in college so I didn’t vote on his successor. I never voted on a pastor during my college and seminary years. And in the churches I pastored, I was never present when those votes took place. So until today I had never witnessed a church voting to call a pastor.
That explains the sense of nervous tension in the 8:30 AM service. No decision is bigger than the calling a pastor. No decision has longer and larger ramifications for the life of the church. No decision impacts the future in the same way as the vote to call a pastor. There were earnest prayers to the Lord for his guidance. It was obvious that the folks took it very seriously, as well they should. The choice of a pastor will shape the church’s direction for years to come.
While the feeling itself was different from any other service I’ve attended, I found myself glad to witness this little vignette of participatory democracy. I saw a church choosing its own future, believing that the Lord would direct the outcome. By the time we reached the 11 AM hour, the mood had become a bit lighter, I thought. After the sermon and the closing hymn, the chairman of the deacons said that 88% percent had voted to issue the call (considerably surpassing the 75% required by the constitution). The people cheered when they heard the news.
As the evening service began, the chairman reported that the call was accepted and the church will have a senior pastor starting February 4. This led to a standing ovation.
I have been reflecting all day long on this event, the first such vote I have ever witnessed. Churches are imperfect places because they are filled with (and led by) imperfect people. We can all make lists of things we don’t like about this church or that church or this pastor or that pastor. But it is a good thing when church calls a pastor–good for the church and good for the pastor. There will always be challenges and problems, but I have no doubt that First Baptist Church is in for some exciting days. I’m glad I was there to witness the beginning.