North Phenix Baptist Church's new pastor feels like he's come home again

John Hatcher knows about loss.

In the span of a couple of years, his wife, Mary Ann, died, his house was foreclosed, his car was repossessed, and he no longer was the pastor of the church he had founded and led for more than 17 years.

"I never lost my faith. I always believed God would get me through the difficult times and I was right," he said.

This week, the 67-year-old Hatcher became the pastor at North Phenix Baptist Church on 4th Avenue in Phenix City.

Most recently, he was pastor at Mount Lebanon Baptist Church in Cottonton, Ala.

"It just wasn't a good fit there," Hatcher said.

He explained that he needed to be somewhere that he could do a lot more than just preach, and North Phenix, founded in 1925, is such a place.

"This church has the energy and vision to replant itself. We have to reach the immediate community. We are not here to judge people but to redeem them, help get them on their feet. We will work with people no matter how they dress, no matter their lifestyle. We are committed to helping them in the way they feel they need to be helped," he said.

He said he has had highs and lows in his career.

The bad times for Hatcher began in 2007. His wife of 33 years, a dental hygienist, went into the hospital for what he called a routine abdominal procedure but died from septic shock. He said the sudden loss sent him into a nosedive, a deep depression.

"She was a wonderful partner," he said.

Around the same time, the economy soured and he ran into financial difficulties.

The River's Edge Community Church in Fayetteville, Ga., that, he said, was noted for bridging racial, ethnic and economic divides, a church integrated racially and economically, was sold.

He did not pastor another church from December 2008 until he came to Mount Lebanon in July 2011.

While looking to regain his enthusiasm, he continued to make trips to Uganda where he had established a relationship with churches there. Hatcher lived there for about two months and conducted ministry training and marriage seminars.

Hatcher, who was raised in Columbus, was glad to return to the area he has always known as home.

He attended Baker High School before his family moved and he transferred to Jordan Vocational High School. The move pleased him as there were more opportunities in speech and drama. He was the lead in the senior class play, "Annie Get Your Gun," and was chosen out of 656 seniors to give the commencement address at his graduation ceremony.

He attended what was then Columbus College and was elected vice-president of the student body. He then went to the University of Georgia from which he graduated with a degree in political science. He said he was the first student to represent the UGA student body on the Athens City Council.

To help pay college expenses, he worked as a credit counselor for Sears and continued to work with the company as a credit manager trainee after graduation, but when his father died he returned here to care for his mother. He was hired for a writing position with the Columbus Enquirer, which published in the morning. He covered politics.

He was drafted and served 18 months in the Army, most of which was spent as an information specialist at Fort Benning.

Following that, he worked as an education writer for the Columbus Ledger, which published in the afternoon.

He said he had long fought a calling to go into the ministry but finally capitulated.

He went to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., on the G.I. Bill where he earned a master's in divinity while working as a student pastor at a local church, then he received a doctorate in ministry.

He was ordained at First Baptist Church in Columbus.

Through the years he has served as senior pastor of several Southern Baptist Convention Churches, including stops in West Palm Beach, Fla.; Miramar, Fla.; San Juan Capistrano, Calif.; and Raleigh, N.C.

From the spring of 1977 to the spring of 1980, he served as pastor at Lakewood Baptist Church where, in 1978, he implemented Phenix City's first live television ministry.

He said that this is the first time he will be pastor at what he calls an "innercity church."

"This new job scares me and excites me," he said.

He wants to revive the church, which currently has about 60 people attend Sunday services. To do that, he wants to initiate programs such as one just for couples, married and unmarried.

"We want to think a little outside of the box," he said.

Most of all, he wants North Phenix to be a source of help for people. He said he knows what it is like to lose material things. "It helped me realize that what is really important are our relationship with God and with each other. We have got to look at people with compassion no matter who they are."