LOUISVILLE — On Sunday, Aug. 28 Bill Smith asked for members of the choir to come forward one more time at First Baptist Church here.
Their hair – those who still had some – reflected different levels of gray. To Smith, though, age didn’t apply this day and whether he’d taught them as children, teenagers, or adults. They were people he’d taught to harmonize and sing, at whatever stage in life. They represented more than 38 years of ministry.
Now as the church’s minister of music and senior adults, Smith’s title reflects the years he’s spent with this congregation. Those who returned on the day to honor Smith reflect the years of influence.
“He’s been a foundation throughout the years,” says Doug Wasden, who grew up at First Louisville, went to college, and upon graduation was invited back by Smith to be associate student minister in the 80s.
Friends and family packed the church’s sanctuary on the 28th, said Wasden, who now serves as headmaster of First Academy, a ministry of First Baptist Douglas. It should be noted Smith’s recognition wasn’t part of a homecoming or revival service. The time focused on Smith’s ministry.
“A large group gathered there because of a common connection,” Wasden said. “Bill established that connection through ministry, friendship, and faithfulness.”
Facing the future
Except for a part-time church position prior to attending Southwestern Seminary, First Louisville is the only congregation Smith has known. He earned his degree from Southwestern in December of 1977, and began at First Baptist on Feb. 1, 1978.
A member of the Sons of Jubal, Smith accompanied the group last year on a trip to Israel. He’d been refusing to confront a prostate cancer diagnosis. While contemplating on the Sea of Galilee, he thought of the challenge issued to Peter. He had to get out of his own metaphorical boat and face his diagnosis.
“As I processed that experience [on the sea] after I came home, I was able to take that and take a step of faith and have treatment for my cancer. There’s a step,” he testified.
Smith sees his current transition as another step of faith. It helps to witness concrete results of one’s ministry spanning nearly four decades.
“Most people don’t get to see that unless they stay in one place for a very long period of time. You don’t know how you’ve influenced people. And, it was very good to see adults, their children, and some even with their grandchildren. It was a real blessing to me.”
He added it was a special time to hear their testimonies.
“That’s usually saved for your funeral,” he said.
Mentor and friend
“Bill’s connection to all of us is unique to each of us,” said Steven Warnock in addressing the crowd.
“My experience with Bill has been one of love, compassion, and acceptance,” added Warnock. He then listed Smith’s responsibilities, both official and implied. “He’s been seen as a youth minister, music minister, children’s minister … trip-planning minister, bus driving minister …
“In truth, Bill has always been one thing – a friend to us all.”
And a friend to those who wouldn’t expect to deserve it. A few weeks earlier, Warnock said, Smith’s house had been broken into. Warnock, who previously had served as youth minister at First Baptist alongside Smith, texted him to see how he was doing. Instead of worrying about his stolen possessions, Smith expressed a hope the perpetrators could somehow turn their lives around after the experience.
His voice cracking throughout, Warnock worked to control his emotions.
“When I’ve succeeded, Bill has cheered me on. When I’ve failed, he picked me up … then he continued to cheer me on.
“Bill may not be perfect, but he’s always been leading me [and others] to be more Christ-like.”
Earlier, Warnock compared the numerous connections Smith made through the years to the descendants of Abraham. Decades of ministry produced generational impact. It was impossible, he asserted, to not have a “Bill story.”
For a time, Georgia legislators discussed Louisville as the possible home for the University of Georgia. Though that distinction went a bit north to Athens, Warnock, Wasden, and others would argue that First Baptist Louisville nevertheless got its own timeless treasure more than 38 years ago.
And, theirs will continue to make an impact for years to come.
“You always remember that laugh. You always remember that smile,” Warnock pointed out.
“Bill, this is your influence. These,” he added, motioning to the crowd, “are your stars in the sky.”