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Sunday Interview with the Rev. Jimmy Elder: 'I'm only a doorkeeper'

The title of Jimmy Elder's sermon today at First Baptist Church is "It's about me," the second in a Lenten series on the Sabbath.

That's ironic because it's rarely about Elder, nearly 40 years into his calling as a minister. When you talk to Elder, it is about community, sometimes as narrow as an individual church and sometimes as large as a city.

Recently, Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams sat down for an interview with Elder in his downtown Columbus office.

Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.

What has 38 years as an ordained pastor taught you?

Every year I learn -- I don't want it to sound cliche -- that I love the Lord and I love the people more, because the more you get into it and the more experience you have, the more you see the grace of having people in your life and the joy of the relationships. Through the time, it's become less important the trappings of it, and more important the relationships of it.

And you are talking about the relationships with the people in your congregation, the people in your community, who?

Across the board. It's a relationship with the board, relationship with your family. A relationship with your congregation. I have always had wonderful congregations and relationships with the community. And everyone of those has a tier of relationships that are special. They kind of get churned together and they become a part of who you are.

Is that something they teach you in seminary?

No. You can't teach that. You have to experience it. In seminary they give you the tools for what you need to use -- the biblical directions. In the seminaries I went to, you have to understand, were not at that point autocratic kind of things like "you better believe this way" and "do this way." They lead you into reading and understanding and using your mind and developing your faith and understanding how that faith was expressed, because everyone will express their faith in a little bit different way based upon their gifts, their talents, the focus of life, their calling -- all of these things blend together.

So, they don't teach you that in seminary. What they teach you is the tools. Then you have to get out and you have to actually begin the experiential part. I will say this: Experientially, you learn how to relate to people in a seminary environment. I'll give you the best example. Ron King taught me in seminary. He was a Ph.D student and I was a master's student at Southern Seminary. Ron and I developed a relationship, a friendship then -- albeit not a close, close friendship, but we went to the same church.

That's where my wife worked. I preached on the weekend at this other church, but during the week I worked at that church, too, and my wife was the administrative secretary at Crescent Hill. And the Kings went there and we went there, So, we had this working relationship. We had a lot of people we knew in common. And he knew my dad because he pastored in Atlanta and my dad pastored in Conyers.

So, all through the years we would kind of loop in and out, just a touch here and there. When I was in the receiving line here, we shook hands where I had become his pastor and he continued as my friend and someone who has been special in my life that way.

It's funny how life goes full circle.

Isn't that something? But that's where relationships begin. You learn from those kind of relationships where you have someone who teaches you. This is part of education where they teach you beyond just the books. They teach you with the relationship they have within the context of that group.

You're the son of a preacher. Did that prepare you for this?

Yeah. That's where my best training came because my dad was a very fine minister. He was a good man. He did a good job as a minister. And what I learned from him was from tagging along, and I enjoyed doing that. I felt at a very early age that this was what I should do. Not because Dad did it. In fact, Dad didn't encourage it until I finally made a decision, and then he encouraged it because he never wanted me to just follow in his footsteps.

But I watched him as he dealt with people. I knew him at home when he would come home after dealing with somebody and was concerned about their life, or sense the compassion he had for people. So, I really don't know how not to have relationships with people. I don't know how not to do that. People are in and out of our house all of the time -- people within the denomination, other ministers, people in the community, people in the church.

So, in many ways a pastor's house is an extension of his church, right?

Oh yeah. Sure.

Yours is that way, right?

Yeah, it is. It's a fun thing to do because you know in a relationship you want people to be within your orbit, within your universe, and not simply to go in and see somebody and walk out and not to want to include them in who you are. The ancients would always bring people to a meal. In fact, there are all sorts of biblical traditions like if a stranger comes to your house hungry, you bring them to the table and you feed them like family. And there's a sense in which I grew up in that environment. We never knew who was going to be at Christmas; we never knew who was going to be at Thanksgiving. It was not unusual at all to walk in and find somebody whose husband had died and the wife was there and mom would say, "I just felt like I really wanted her to come here and be with us for the first Christmas." This kind of stuff happened around our house.

Did that impress you when you saw your dad doing that? What kind of impression did that make on you?

I watched Dad do things that I could easily admire because I think it was the compassion part, the part that he let people know they mattered. To me, everybody matters. There's not a person in this community that doesn't matter. There's not a person in this church who does not matter. It's a very beautiful gift to be able to see that because you see that's what God called us to do. God said through Christ -- in a lot of ways -- he said everybody matters. Nobody was turned away.

That's great in theory and sometimes very difficult in practice, isn't it?

It's always difficult. What in life isn't difficult? I struggle with things at times, of course. And you struggle with relationships at times, of course. But what in life that's worthwhile doesn't challenge you at some point? My favorite saying is, "No sailor ever distinguished himself on a calm sea." So, when it's rocky, that's when you really begin to make something out of it.

As a pastor, you get to be with people at some of their highest moments -- weddings, births -- and some of their lowest moments -- death, divorce, any number of things. That is a big responsibility, right?

And that's holy ground. When anyone allows you into the intimacy of their need or their issues, their concerns, their frustrations, their joys; if anyone allows you in there, you take off your shoes because it is a very sacred holy place. And they are allowing you there hopefully for you to help guide them toward what they are supposed to find out from God. That's part of what the goal is to help lead them. I'm only a doorkeeper. I've always said that the role of a pastor in a church is really a doorkeeper. We meet people at the front door and we say, "Welcome to the house of the Lord. Let me set a place for you at the Lord's table next to me." You give them the companionship, but the whole goal is to introduce them to somebody beyond yourself and them who they may build a relationship with.

How does it feel to be the doorkeeper at one of the oldest institutions in the city?

Oh, it's incredible.

This institution has been around since when?

It is 186 years old. We are working on our 200th anniversary stuff now, which is 14 years out. And we are discovering so many wonderful things, so many things about this church that are incredible. It helped found the public school system, so I guess that's why I have a heart for the public school system, and my wife is part of it.

So, you're saying the history of this church is interwoven with the history of this city.

It absolutely is. Our sister church is First African Baptist. We share a founder in First African and First Baptist.

Who is that?

It was a slave named Joseph. That's what our history shows. A slave named Joseph, who was a founder of this church.

Are you getting ready to document the history of this church?

Yes, we're working on it.

Is that important to you?

Yes. The main reason it's important is because I think that the gifts people have given to this church through the years of their time, their talent, their faith, those things need to inspire the current and the future generations. It's now just the matter of preserving tradition. Tradition is good, but tradition is not what it's really about. It is about finding what the journey of faith is about.

And if you read the journey of this church from the beginning, these churches were put into place by the city fathers because this was an outpost. The city was an outpost and they made a conscious decision to grant land to the Baptists, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics and Jews, to build houses of worship to bring education, morality, families and values to this area so it wouldn't be just an outpost like a frontier city.

And because of that, this church accepted, along with the others in this area, the responsibility to be a part of this community and to help advance the community, regardless of whether the people are members of the church or not. That's not the point. It's a force for good and positive and encouragement in this community.

You have lived in a number of communities. How does Columbus stack up in comparison with some of the other places you've lived?

Every place I've lived has had its own unique character. Harbins Community was a farming community. There were a million chickens in Harbins.

Did the chickens go to church?

Sometimes. Especially at a covered dish supper. But the people would come and a lot of times they would come to church having just cleaned out the chicken house and they would come into the church and we would have the evening service on Sunday night. But they would have had to meet the people who were collecting the chickens or getting ready to collect them.

They'd prepare the houses and then come up to the church for worship. So, it was an old-fashioned kind of approach. Moultrie is a lot like Columbus and there were a lot of connections between the two and there was a closeness there. Moultrie is a gracious Southern city that has all sorts of wonderful history and wonderful grace to it. In Trinity, there was a church that had been very much integrated into that community and had been a part of leading it and being a part of that too. And I thoroughly enjoyed that, and interesting enough, one of my deacon chairmen here is from Moultrie.

Who is that?

Bucky Bowles. I knew his parents when I was in Moultrie. They went to First Baptist, not Trinity. Bucky grew up at First Baptist in Moultrie. I was at Trinity, but I always knew of Bucky and when I moved here I have him as my deacon chairman, now. So Moultrie was different that way, too. But it, too, was an engaged community and where the church had a chance to be a part of that.

I've always felt that the mistake would be for a preacher to go and just stay in a pulpit and cloister himself in just his role as a pastor. If you're going to speak to a community and be a part of a community, that it is important that you absolutely believe in and love the community.

Thomson was a small town county seat kind of situation, and it, too, had its character that way. And our church was involved in that. ...

And then we came here and this has been one of the most extraordinary gifts to our lives. It has been the most wonderful experience because of the receptivity of the people, the hospitality, and just the acceptance we received when we came to town. And the grace they have allowed us during our time here.

What have you grown to love about Columbus?

I love Columbus and I love Uptown. I'm so glad First Baptist, along with St. Luke, First Presbyterian and all, they were wise enough during the lean years of Uptown not to move, and to keep the presence and to kind of keep the light burning here, because now we have a neighborhood for the first time in, what, 80 years? And we have a chance to be a part of Columbus's development and its resurgence into being a voice here just like we were in the very beginning -- a voice for hope, and good, and positive values. We had a chance to do that here.

You've been here now more than 10 years. How have you seen downtown Columbus grow?

I've seen it grow in its hospitality. It is a place to go now. It's a place to be. Roxann and I love going down there on a Friday night when they're having a concert or we have dinner down there. It is just absolutely wonderful. It's like a little town. People call you by name and they wave at you from across the street. They pull out a lawn chair and they're listening to somebody playing a guitar. It's incredible. It is an idyllic kind of place to be.

And that seems to have caught on in a lot of different ways, right?

It has and that's what I have seen change through the years. When our kids were small and we lived in Moultrie, we would bring them up to Callaway and do things like that. And we would stay at what was at that point I think the Hilton, which is now the Marriott downtown. So, we were in the middle of it. You'd be going and they would basically say, "Don't go out after such and such a time." They were pretty careful about that.

And I've watched it be reborn, and I think what the magic of it is that so many people have offered so much selflessly to bring this rebirth to be. I think it has been done in a healthy way. It's not like a company coming into town and creating something. It's a very entrepreneurial area. It's just like I preach: You find your gift, you use your gift to the fullest, and then you let that gift bump up against somebody else's and you make a whole. Uptown Columbus is truly that kind of place. It's a place where everyone's gift bumps up against everyone else's, and when everyone is holding hands together and it cuts across every line, you make a community.

So, communities can be reborn just like people?

Oh yeah! Absolutely. And just like people being reborn, even the spiritual part, it always happens in your heart. It doesn't happen in your politic, it doesn't happen in your affiliation, it doesn't happen in your career, it doesn't happen in your profession, it happens in your heart. You have to want to have a relationship and want to be a part of that.

When I first came here, I knew there was something special about this church. When I walked out on Sunday morning and I saw the president of CB&T sharing a hymnal with a homeless man, I knew at that point there was something particularly wonderful and barrierless about so much of this community. I knew that had to be.

But we still face our social issues, don't we?

Of course we do. Every place does, but if you put ours in comparison to other communities, ours are nowhere near the other communities. The reason they continue to be a challenge is it's the same kind of challenge you have when you go to school and you take your entry level course and then the longer you're at college you take upper level courses to 400-level courses.

So, a lot of our social interaction and some of the things that we count as challenges are merely upper level courses in this. We're not at the basic level, but I can show you places in Georgia and all through the country that are still at basic level courses. We have advanced and had such good leadership in people like Bill Turner and Johnny Flakes who gave such vision through the years to bringing races together. Or Tom Black helping to lead with some of the wisdom and economics. Frank Brown with some of the things that he developed. These things helped to create a community that moved us out of the basic level courses. We're at the 400, 500, 600 level.

So, our problems are better problems than some others. They're more solvable problems?

I think they are more engaged. It's sort of like watching your own children grow up. The grandparents see how the grandkids grow better than the parents do because the parents are with them every day. We live in this community and we have no idea the quantum leaps that are being made because we see it every day incrementally.

A person who hasn't been in this community for 10 years and used to live here comes back here now, they stand there with their mouths wide open and their eyes bug-eyed saying, "I can't believe this. Is this the same place?"

I see exactly what you're saying.

Let me say one other thing. That's why the key to that kind of resurgence is always the positive voice. It is always the positive voice of helping people see the advance that has been made and the hope that is there. That's the key to the whole thing is a positive voice.

Does a positive voice drown out a negative voice?

The Scripture talks about the darkness could not overcome the light. If it's true, if it's right, if it's positive, if it's good, the darkness goes away. It just will. It may irritate you, but it will go away. So, there is something about the good of the community, the positive and the hope of the community, that brings that brightness that lightens it up. I'm not going to say it will drown it out, but maybe in a sense it does. What it really does is it just shows it up for what it is.

I saw a message earlier this month you gave to the Georgia House of Representatives. Define leadership in connection with the story you told the House members that day.

Are you talking about the dog story?

The dog story and also the young boy with the lollipop.

That was my favorite one. That little boy, Isaac Pickering, was a remarkable young man. What he did was at the children's message, what I was doing was, I was trying to show them about the responsibility of giving something that's given to you and sharing it openly and generously.

So, I hand him a bag of lollipops and I told a story about when I was in school and one of the kids was asked to hand out something for class and the teacher watched and the kid was going up and saying, "I like you so I'll give you one or maybe two and I'm not going to give this one any. The teacher took the bag back and said, "I told you to give everybody one, not the other way. So, she gave the lollipops out to everybody.

I handed him the lollipops and he took them and handed them out to the kids that were there. I was watching because we had to go on with the service. I was sitting on the front pew and was watching as he was handing them out, and I suddenly realized that he got to the end of the lollipops and there was one more kid who needed one and he had only one left and he gave it to him. I could have bursted into tears at that moment because you saw the example of what took place, what I had been talking about.

So, when the kids left the room and went over to a children's program, I told the congregation "I don't know if you saw what happened, but let me tell you because it's louder than any sermon I'll preach all day today; and I told them what he had done. He gave away the last lollipop; he didn't have one himself. He never complained about it.

He never said "I didn't get one." He never looked pitiful, he just went on. I had another bag in the bag I didn't realize I had so I gave it to his parents and said "He gets a whole bag." The thing that impressed me was his dad, Justin Pickering, is a chaplain at Fort Benning, and their whole mantra there is "Follow Me." You really know a person is worthy of being followed when the people they influence the most are the ones who know what to do.

And so in leadership there has to be a worthiness to be followed; a worthiness in some way or another. I don't mean because you are a great person and people follow you. It's done by example. It's done by spirit. And it's done by influencing the lives that are closest to you.

What I basically told the Legislature was that we are called to be a people who are worthy of being followed in some way or another, and the example that we set equips others to find their best selves and we step back and they go ahead and do what they're supposed to do. In other words, leadership inspires in other people their best selves. That's what it is about.

Let's talk about politics. You were speaking to the General Assembly as chaplain of the day. Are good preachers also good politicians?

Politics has always fascinated me, but what I do believe is if you define politics as doing the best for the people, and leading from the heart, and inspiring others to be who they should be, then that would be something I think a minister needs to do.

Because you see, if you want to know how I picture myself on Sunday morning, I never picture myself in a pulpit. I picture myself on the front row, that we are all pilgrims together in whatever journey we are making. If we're dealing with grief, we all have our grief experiences. When we deal with sin, we all have our sin experiences. If we have joy, we have that. If we have stewardship, if we're dealing with the resources we have, if we're dealing with morality.

Everyone of us has something in our lives that we have to deal with at some point. And so to me the leadership of it is to never see yourself in front of people but always see yourself as one of the flock who is at that point learning too. So, if I preach a sermon, I'm not preaching to you. I'm speaking what's on my heart and learning something myself.

You said politics has always fascinated you. Has it fascinated you enough to have aspirations?

(Laughter) I knew you were going to ask that. As a little kid I always wanted to be governor and there are days that it would be fun. There has not been a draft Jimmy campaign yet.

So, this is not "Jimmy: 2016"?

Not yet. Not at this point. You'll get the exclusive. The reason it has fascinated me is if you look at the nature of it, go back to the leadership thing again: Who can best help somebody then somebody who finds themselves in a position of leadership where they can cut the red tape, they can move the thing along, they can keep people out of the gutter of self interest and move people toward the possibilities of finding that heart that makes the community, that makes the place a better place?

It can be just as much a calling as anything else. I have been on the Board of Trustees at Mercer, I'm not right now. My delight of being on the board of trustees at Mercer is I like going to the meetings, I like being with people there, but do you know what my greatest joy is? Taking a student from here and going over to Mercer and showing them around. And of course doors are open as a trustee, for sure, and they go in and they take care of them. But the joy for me is being able to help them see it on a whole different level.

I asked you early on what 38 years of ministry had taught you. What has nearly 38 years of marriage taught you?

That I really, really lucked up 38 years ago. The fact of the matter is Roxann and I met each other in the sixth grade and we became friends and our families were friends and we did things with the families and we grew up knowing each other, liking each other, becoming best friends, falling in love and marrying and never dated anybody else, either one of us.

What 38 years has taught me is that God took care of that journey for me and gave me the gift from the very beginning, the gift of Roxann. She is by far the best part of my life, and she is by far the most wonderful, spiritual, focused good person I've ever known -- ever. I always tell people that 99 percent of what I do I credit to her, and that I'm taking way too much credit with 1 percent of my own.

You certainly seemed to be blessed in the marriage part of your life. Does that make it easy or more difficult to counsel people going through marriage difficulties?

Oh, it's much easier because the thing about it is it's not my role to tell them how to fix things. It's my role to help them come to an awareness of things that will help lead them to fix it.

A good counselor doesn't sit there and give you a check list of 14 things you've got to do to fix it. What they do is they try to help you come to that self discovery, because in my opinion, essentially everybody knows where they ought to be heading. If a person is doing something wrong, they know it's wrong and they know they should change it. A lot of times they just need some help in how to get past that point.

Looking around this office, there are numerous eagles. What's the symbolism of the eagles?

Back in my early ministry when I was trying to figure out how you do what you do -- because no matter how much you know or have done, there are times in your life that you look at it and say how much do I control and how do I wait on my own prayers to be answered -- here really is that tipping point where you have to understand that all of this stuff you say about trusting God you have to do it yourself, too. A friend of mine in another city was diagnosed with terminal cancer and he was a minister. I called him one day to see how he was doing, and he told me, "I'm doing pretty good."

And I said, "How are things going?" And he said, "Jimmy, let me tell you what I've found. All this faith stuff really works." But so often we don't ever apply it to ourselves. We share it but we don't apply it the same way. So, these eagles represent for me a moment of self awareness. From Isaiah 40:31, where it talks about "those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength, they will mount up with wings as eagles, they will run and not be wear, they will walk and faint not." Now, do I ever run ahead of them? I'm sure I do. Do I ever get impatient at times? Sometimes I do. But the point is, it always brings me back to that reminder that you wait upon the Lord and that's when you get enough lift for you to mount up with the wings as eagles. And eagles always remind me of that. They remind me of the care of God and the strength of God, and they remind me that a lot of times you just have to wait.

Sixty years old. How much longer do you see yourself in the pulpit as the pastor of a large church?

That's a good question. Forever. I can't imagine myself not doing what I'm doing. I guess as long as my health holds and as long as the congregation and the Lord feel like I ought to be here, then I plan to stay until I get to the point where I can't. One of the coolest things in the world would be to be here on the 200th anniversary, but that's 14 years out, so who knows?

Bio

Name: Jimmy Elder

Age: 60

Job: Pastor, First Baptist Church, Columbus; has been a minister for 38 years.

Churches: Marist Baptist Church, Marist, Ky., student pastoring; Ebenezer Baptist Church, Harbins Communtiy, Ga.; Trinity Baptist, Moultrie, Ga., almost 11 years; First Baptist Church, Thomson, Ga., almost 11 years; First Baptist Church, will complete 12 years in August.

Education: Rockdale County High, 1973; Mercer University. 1977, major in Christianity, minor in music, a minor in speech and dramatic arts, and a near concentration in journalism; The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., 1979, master's of divinity. Princeton Theological Seminary, 1990, doctor of ministry.

Family: wife, Roxann, married 37 years; two sons, James Charles III and John Christopher; three grandchildren, Ava, Jackson and Drew.

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