c. 2005 Religion News Service
GARDENDALE, Ala. _ With an emotional goodbye, the Rev. Steve Gaines, pastor of Gardendale First Baptist Church, told his congregation that he will be leaving to become pastor of renowned Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn..
“God’s work here will go on,” Gaines told the congregation Sunday night (July 10), choking back tears at times.
Gaines, 47, will succeed the Rev. Adrian Rogers, one of the nation’s best-known Southern Baptist leaders.
Rogers, who had been pastor of the 29,000-member Memphis church since 1972, retired in March to deal with health problems including colon cancer.
Some of the top leaders in the 16.3-million-member Southern Baptist Convention have described Gaines as part of the rising generation of leadership for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. In 2003, Gaines had his first book published, “Morning Manna: 365 Daily Devotional Readings.” In 2004, he gave the keynote sermon at the Southern Baptist Convention and was elected president of the Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference, which he hosted last month in Nashville.
“He (Rogers) and I are good friends,” Gaines said in an interview after preaching at Bellevue, where about 12,000 people attending the two morning services voted unanimously to approve him as the new pastor. “I see it as him handing me the baton and me continuing the race.”
Gaines, pastor at Gardendale since 1991, has known Rogers since Gaines was pastor of West Jackson Baptist Church in Jackson, Tenn. Gaines said he will preach his last sermon at Gardendale on July 31 and take the job in Memphis on Aug. 1, preaching his first sermon at Bellevue on Sept. 11.
Gaines has been a guest preacher at Bellevue once a year the past nine years.
“After eight months of praying, searching, watching, and waiting, we as the Pastor Search Committee are 100 percent united and 100 percent convinced he is God’s man for Bellevue,” said Chuck Taylor, chairman of the search Committee, in a statement posted on the Bellevue Web site.
It will be a return for Gaines and his wife, Donna, to the area where they grew up. Donna grew up in Memphis and her parents are members of Bellevue Baptist Church. Gaines and his wife met while students at Union University in Jackson, about 70 miles east of Memphis, where Gaines grew up.
Gaines had told the Gardendale congregation that he would never leave.
“I really did not want to go anywhere,” Gaines said. “I honestly took my name off the list twice. The Lord had other plans.”
Bellevue’s search committee was persistent, and Gaines said he and his wife prayed about their reluctance to move. “I’ve learned a lesson here,” Gaines said.
He apologized to the congregation for changing his mind, but said, “I really don’t have the right to tell God what I’m going to do.”
Rogers, who was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1979 and two other times, has been considered one of the leaders of the conservative movement in the denomination over the past several decades. “He was a great guy to mentor me,” Gaines said.
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Gardendale First Baptist has average attendance of 3,200 in its three morning worship services and 2,500 in its Sunday school classes. Under Gaines, the annual budget has increased from $2 million to $9 million.
After he preached a sermon at the Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference in Orlando in 2000, Gaines began to experience problems with his health. At one point, he sneezed and his eyes crossed. Doctors feared at first he might have a brain tumor. After the surgery, he had to take more than a month off from preaching and other ministerial duties. Gaines learned he had a muscle disease, myasthenia gravis, that left him struggling to stand up and keep his eyes from drooping shut. After surgery to remove a tumorous thymus gland in 2000, Gaines began taking medication and has gradually regained his strength and health.
Even as he fought through health problems, the church stood behind him and kept growing. First Baptist paid $2 million for land with a mile of frontage facing Interstate 65 between two major exits in Gardendale. It has spent $6 million preparing the land, building two softball fields, a soccer field and a concession stand for church youth leagues. Within a few years, a transitional 3,000-seat sanctuary will be built on the site, at a cost of $15 million to $20 million. Gardendale has plans to build a 4,500-seat sanctuary.
Gaines predicted the next pastor will help continue those plans. “It will be realized,” he said.
MO/JL END RNS
(Greg Garrison writes about religion for the Birmingham (Ala.) News)
Editors: Search the RNS photo Web site at https://religionnews.com for a photo of Gaines to accompany this story. Optional trim at 500 words.