CHURCH HILL — When Gary Gerhardt came to First Baptist Church here in 1983, fresh out of seminary, he hoped to be there for at least five years.
“If we were here for five years and I left with people who still loved us, I figured we would have been successful,” Gerhardt reflected.
Add the facts that prior to Gerhardt’s arrival, the average tenure of a pastor at FBC was four-and-a-half years and that he followed a pastor who had been terminated, and his goal of lasting five years is understandable.
Thirty-one years later, however, Gerhardt is still pastor and apparently the people still love him.
They have followed his leadership since day one and the church has shown steady growth in all -areas over the past 31 years.
Among them: Cooperative Program giving has increased from $8,087 in 1983 to $52,000 last year; average worship attendance has increased from less than 150 to between 425-450; average Sunday School attendance has doubled from 150 to 300; Lottie Moon Christmas Offering has gone from $1,925 to $26,000; and much more.
What’s more the church has completed eight construction projects, one of which included tearing down the original church building in 1990. “Some would have said that would have been impossible but we did it with a 95 percent vote,” the Jackson native recalled.
Gerhardt noted that when he came to the church he came with an attitude of earning the people’s trust and showing them that he loved them. Building relationships is essential, he stressed.
He helped those members who were there when he arrived get excited about the potential the church had for growth. “They became excited and wanted to invite their friends and family members to church.
“I give them credit. They were willing to reach out to the community.”
The pastor also noted that he let the congregation know that they would be involved in decisions regarding any changes that needed to be made.
“I told them they would have the final say.”
Gerhardt also stressed that he knew it could not be “his way or the highway. If it’s not our way it’s not going to work. They will resent you.”
Gerhardt has tried to lead by example over the years. “I never asked the church to do something I would not do myself,” he stressed.
Gerhardt readily admits that when he arrived at First Baptist the church’s deacons were not held in high regard.
They were seen more as administrators rather than as servant leaders, he said.
He recalled that some of the deacons were concerned with how they were viewed by some of the church’s members.
“I told them they could change that perception by ministering to them.”
Though the church was involved in the Deacon Family Ministry Plan (in which every deacon is assigned a family in the congregation to minister to), it was not very effective because they still adhered to the administrative model of leadership, Gerhardt said.
“On their own, the deacons returned to the biblical concept of ministry and never looked back,” he said.
“Our deacons no longer see themselves as the head men. They are the spiritual leaders of the church,” he continued.
The deacons’ decision to become spiritual and servant leaders “turned our church around,” Gerhardt observed.
“I was just privileged to be their pastor when that happened.”
Lynn Parker was a deacon when Gerhardt arrived in 1983 and he remains a deacon today.
He has worked closely with Gerhardt in their deacon ministry at First Baptist and the two of them have led conferences on the Deacon Family Ministry Plan for the Tennessee Baptist Convention.
Parker is appreciative and supportive of his pastor who he says relates to people “really well.”
He noted that some ministers are either good pastors or good preachers. “Gary provides the whole package,” Parker said.
“He is a unique individual.”
Steve Holt, leader growth group coordinator and East Tennessee strategist for the Tennessee Baptist Convention, has known Gerhardt for almost 30 years.
He cited the work of Gerhardt and Parker in providing leadership training to deacons across the state. “I believe First Baptist Church has one of the most effective deacon family ministries in Tennessee, maybe even the Southern Baptist Convention,” Holt said.
The TBC staff member noted that Gerhardt is “a servant leader in the best sense of the term.
“There are only a few churches in our state that can say that they have experienced 30-plus years of consistent, steady growth, but FBC, Church Hill, can. That church is a great example of what can happen when a pastor and congregation work together in order to fulfill the Great Commission,” Holt observed.
Gerhardt is quick to give God the glory and credit for all that has occurred during his ministry in Church Hill.
“I don’t take credit for anything good that’s happened here. This is the Lord’s church.”