Bobby Ross Phillips died in Adel, Georgia on August 31st. I had the privilege of speaking at his memorial service on September 3rd. Chances are pretty good that neither Bobby nor Adel mean anything to you, but they both mean a lot to me. Chances are also pretty good that you’ve had someone like Bobby and someplace like Adel in your life, by which I mean that you’ve probably had somebody and somewhere that gave you a chance and, in giving you a chance, made a huge difference in your life.
It was the summer of 1986. I had just finished my Ph.D. in Old Testament at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky; I had three degrees and no job. Well, I was working for a ministry organization in Louisville, doing some painting and yard work for elderly folks who weren’t able to do it or pay to have it done—it was actually very rewarding work—but I wasn’t working “in my field.”
One evening our telephone rang. The fellow calling identified himself as Bobby Phillips; he said he was the Chairman of the Pastor Search Committee for the First Baptist Church of Adel, Georgia. He went on to say that they had my resume and wondered if I might be interested in talking with them about possibly becoming their pastor. After we chatted a while, I said, “May I ask a question?” He said I could. “Where is Adel?” I asked.
It turns out that Adel is the county seat of Cook County, way down below the gnat line on I-75 about midway between Tifton and Valdosta. That committee, led by Bobby Phillips, took a chance on me and gave me my start in full-time ministry. I will forever be grateful.
There were others before Bobby and Adel, though.
There was Preacher Bill Coleman and the good folks of my home church, the Midway Baptist Church. Preacher Bill let me preach on several Wednesday nights, the first time when I was thirteen years old. Now, Preacher Bill would let anybody speak on Wednesday night who wanted to do so –he liked to brag that he once went three years without preaching on a Wednesday night—but still, how many pastors would let a young kid speak regularly from his pulpit?
There was Mr. Ralph Pharr, who gave me my first job as a sack boy at Burnette’s Thriftown grocery store, which was in the building that now houses the Dollar General Store out on Highway 341. In my three years there, I demonstrated such responsibility that I was eventually put in charge of stocking the dog food aisle. It was the shortest aisle in the store, but it was mine.
There was Rev. William L. Key who, just before I entered Mercer University in 1975, asked me to come see him. As we sat in lawn chairs in his backyard in Milner sipping iced tea, he offered me my first church job. He wanted me to be his Associate Pastor at the Pritchett Memorial Baptist Church, located somewhere out between Barnesville, Thomaston, and Meansville in the Jugtown community. Preacher Key, who had retired from the full-time ministry, had been their Interim Pastor for about five years. He talked them into letting me preach once each Sunday—he and I alternated Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings. How many seventeen year olds got to preach every Sunday? I cringe when I think about what they had to listen to me say. Bless their hearts.
They’re all gone now—Preacher Key, Mr. Ralph, Preacher Bill, and Bobby. I’m still here. And they and the organizations they represented all played a huge role in my being who I am and doing what I do.
I thank God for them all. I thank God that they gave me a chance.
Who gave you a chance? Have you thanked God for them lately? If they’re still around, maybe you should thank them, too …
(This article first appeared in "Ruffin's Renderings" in the Barnesville (GA) Herald Gazette on September 8, 2015)