CUMMING — Ernest Kelley pauses from eating his fish and chips during a lunch at Norman’s Landing to reflect for a moment. One of his favorite eateries was about to shut its doors in a matter of weeks and he was enjoying one of its best meals for the last time.
Things change. Institutions like Norman’s Landing open and close, churches grow and decline, careers ebb and flow. Then comes retirement and a chance to reflect back over the decisions made and values maintained.
Kelley is at that stage in his life. He can freely evaluate his service to his God, His Word, and a lifetime of ministry both in the local church and denomination.
He’s at the point of checking off life’s major milestones. He’s 89 and within sneezing distance of the Big 90. Kelley and his wife, Eleanor, observed 63 years of marriage on Aug. 20. Come this New Year’s Eve, he’ll celebrate 70 years in ministry since his 1947 ordination.
On a recent summer afternoon he took time to reflect on those years and offer a unique perspective of what really matters in life and what doesn’t need a second thought. He talked about his call to ministry, to a lifetime of service to Christ and encouraging others on their spiritual pilgrimage. Those experiences eventually culminated in a book titled God-Life, a volume in which he shared his insight on discovering how to live a Christ-like life.
Vast influence among churches
Kelley demurs when talking about his career, but the years have brought a wealth of blessings and life-enriching experiences. The Tracy City, TN native has served as pastor of five churches in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Georgia. Those included Fairview Baptist in Rossville and, in retirement, as interim at Mt. Pisgah in Austell. If you dig deeper, Kelley will acknowledge he actually served as interim at 29 Georgia Baptist churches including three times at Mable White in Macon and four times at Mt. Pisgah.
On the state level he served at the Georgia Baptist Convention (now Georgia Baptist Mission Board) for 13 years from 1965-78. Those roles included time as associate secretary for the Sunday School Department, assistant to the Executive Secretary/Treasurer, and as director of the Evangelism and Missions Division.
Kelley then moved across town to the Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board), where he served for 19 years as regional coordinator working with state conventions, as vice president of the Planning Section, and executive vice president of the Planning and Finance Section until 1997.
Serving in retirement
Kelley then served another two years when, in 1997, he was named interim president of the HMB as it began its consolidation with the Baptist Brotherhood Commission and the Radio-Television Commission into the North American Mission Board. He concluded his career with the new agency while serving as vice president of Business Services and Chief Financial Officer/Treasurer from 1997-98 and as Ambassador at Large for the Office of the President.
But that retirement didn’t mean retiring from ministry. Kelley immediately began service as interim pastor through 2003 at Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church in Austell.
Today he serves as president of Ernest J. Kelley Ministries in Alpharetta. He oversees a Facebook page with help from daughter Susan, who serves as his assistant.
The following observations in his own words are distilled from a summer of reminiscing at Norman’s Landing, fork in hand, on what he has learned and thinks is important to pass along to the next generation.
Discovering life’s direction
When I was in my mid-teens, between age 15 and 16, I experienced three life-changing events that I remember to this day.
First, I became a Christian.
It was not a spontaneous or an emotional experience, it was a sincere and thoughtful conversion. This was the pivoting decision, a commitment that provided a road map for my life.
Secondly, I asked God to reveal His purpose for my life.
With conviction, I believed that God’s call for me was to give my life to Him through full-time service, but in what capacity?
Thirdly, that plan was revealed in answer to the prayer, “Lord, how can I best serve You with my life?”
During a quiet time while studying the Bible when I was a high school senior – while I can’t explain the feeling – it was impressed upon me without a doubt that I was to tell others about what I was reading. The Lord had called me to full-time ministry to share the Good News.
That impression was confirmed when, at age 18 and ‘preaching’ my first sermon, I sensed deeply that this was God’s will for my life. The Lord had called me to preach. That sense of God’s call has never wavered across the years. I have served in many ministry and mission agency positions, but I have always protected Sundays and other opportunities to preach. This is my heart, and my call.
My personal commitment has been to exalt Jesus through everything that I do. I pray for strength, wisdom, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to live each day for Him. While there are life-pages I would rewrite, I have consciously sought to live purposely each day as a testimony and a servant for Christ.
Everyone has needs
While varied and called by many different names, everyone has needs! Early in my ministry I attended a retreat for ministers. One after another they shared personal and spiritual needs. Among those in attendance were ministers widely recognized as spiritual giants, and hearing their prayer requests and testimonies – sometimes tearfully – I understood that everyone has needs. That experience made a profound impression upon me and in my ministry.
When standing before a congregation I see faces of needy and hurting people. A congregation isn’t waiting to hear how much I know, rather they need to hear about a knowing and caring Heavenly Father; a God who will provide relief, strength, and forgiveness – a God who will meet their every need.
The best received sermons are those that scripturally address people’s needs and exalt a loving Heavenly Father who hears and helps.
God blesses the proclamation of His word
Almighty God is Author of the sacred and divinely inspired Scriptures. The Bible is both authoritative and trustworthy. In His life on earth Jesus quoted and used the Word of God in His ministry. He had every confidence in the Holy Spirit’s inspired and inerrant account of God’s Word. If Jesus used God’s Word in ministry, shouldn’t we?
The Bible has a unity of purpose, it is the grand theme of God’s redeeming grace. This is the gospel, the Good News for mankind.
I understood very early that God will bless what He says, not what I say. He will richly bless His Word spoken through me. God did not call me to be an orator or to deliver lectures; He called me to proclaim His holy Word. I am to be led of the Holy Spirit to reveal God’s truth from the Word of God; that is what God blesses!
There are no “big” or “small” churches
God has taught me that all churches are His, and that the “wisdom of God might be made known by the church” (Ephesians 3:10).
While in seminary I pastored a “small” rural country church. In conversation with the pastor of a “large” church I told him that I was pastoring a “small” church. He quickly corrected me, “Don’t ever call God’s church small because all churches are in the life-saving business.”
I have never forgotten what God’s messenger told me; it was a life-changing lesson. In the following years I have never taken into consideration the size of a church when invited to speak.
The offering plate
When a college sophomore I pastored my first church. It was a rural church in the Cedars of Lebanon in middle Tennessee. After my first service I was called aside by three men. They took 15 dollars out of the offering plate, handed it to me and said, “Here is your salary for this week.”
This was a life-impacting event: my salary came directly from the offering plate. My innermost reaction was, “But wait! Money in the offering plate is sacred, and now it is being given to me?”
That experience molded my understanding of stewardship. To this day, I humbly acknowledge that all that I have – house, car, food, clothes – is from an offering plate. It was given for God’s work, and as a blessed recipient I have stewardship responsibility.
This important lesson and tenet has been foundational when managing budgets and expenditures up to millions of dollars while in leadership at the Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board). I often reminded staff that every dollar spent was sacred and sacrificial money. It was an accountability that I fought to protect when budgeting offering plate dollars.
I frequently challenged those making budget requests with “would you take money from the offering plate for that request?”
In a finance planning meeting at the agency a blackboard was filled with budget figures representing proposed expenditure of thousands of dollars. While the group was not looking, I made faces in all of the zeroes on that board.
Then I called the group’s attention and asked, “These faces represent people, people who gave this money in an offering plate. Are we being responsible spending it?” The atmosphere shifted, and the new budget proposal was more carefully considered and planned with sacred stewardship foremost in mind.
God is faithful to provide
A grand truth I learned early and I love to proclaim is that God is faithful to provide! College was both an academic and spiritual learning experience. These experiences prepared me for seven decades of ministry.
Our family resources were very limited, so college expenses were a financial challenge. During college years Jehovah-Jireh, “The God who Provides,” became a known and trusted friend. In Hebrew Jehovah means the “eternal, self-existing One, the I AM.” Jireh translates “to see” or “pro-vision.” God is faithful with provisions, and He sees ahead of time and provides.
In many different ways God faithfully provided my collegiate needs. Examples are numerous. Unable to pay a delinquent semester’s room and board, the business manager questioned how I expected to attend the next semester. With no intention of rudeness or disrespect I answered, “Philippians 4:19! God shall supply all your needs according to His riches!” And Jehovah-Jireh did just that.
One afternoon a man came to campus and said that he and his wife had been impressed to invite me to live with them for as long as needed. God was faithful to provide!
When a sophomore I was called to pastor a rural church and I accepted without any means of transportation. God was faithful to provide a car!
One spring the Dean of Men told me I could continue living in the dorm for the summer at no cost. When I thanked him he said he was impressed to make that offer. God is so faithful!
That verse that “really worked”
And the Lord provided so much more – books, clothes, and mentors. Graduation came and all college bills were paid in full. The business manager pulled me aside and said, “That Bible verse really worked for you!” Amen!
In the years following college God has proven Himself in ever so many ways to be faithful beyond financial needs. Doors of opportunity have been opened, insights and understandings revealed, and provisions beyond my needs have been provided.
God has proven Himself again and again to be faithful. I proclaim that God is more than sufficient! (Psalm 89:1, Isaiah 25:1, Lamentations 3:23).
Following God in rough times
The sea of life is not always a placid lake. At times life’s sea is foreboding, churning, challenging, and filled with unexpected storms. God is the Master of the sea of life, and I have experienced that when you follow Him, He will always guide you to safety and to His destiny for you.
Early I learned that God is The Almighty, a God of action, a God of verbs. When my life is filled with worry, anxiety, or depression and I lose my way, it is in those rough seas that I allow God to be my compass. To His glory alone, God has guided me through difficult times and continues to do so to this very day.
Rough times are opportunities for God to demonstrate His eternal compassion and unfailing care. I’ve found that God is always dependable whether in your personal needs, ministerial, professional, leadership, or other life experiences.
When in the rough times the Apostle Paul is an inspiration. He said, “You however, know all about my teaching, my way of life … the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:10-12).
No one wants or looks forward to stormy times in life, but always remember that God walks with you and before you in your challenges. My prayer in these times is, “Dear Heavenly Father, Please give me the wisdom to know what to do, and the courage to do it.”
God is relevant for the next generation
There is an eternal and comforting truth, “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever!” (Hebrews 13:8) While the world and life around you is ever-changing and what is established today may be gone tomorrow, God is ever the same.
When looking back at past generations, they too faced unique challenges and stresses, and God was their help in times of need. While personal and world needs change, God does not change. He is the forever I AM. God is faithful to Himself, and He is always dependable and reliable.
God merits full confidence. No one can accurately predict what is coming around the corner, much less what future generations may face. But God knows! God is omniscient in all things, and always trustworthy. He is never surprised or caught off-guard. He is as relevant for tomorrow as He is today.
What the next generation needs to know regarding life and God
The gift of life is a sacred trust from God. He created everyone in His own image; thus all life, born and unborn, is precious and to be cherished. God should be honored in all of life, and in every life experience. Everyone has a unique life path, and God should be glorified in every life.
The Apostle Paul expressed his commitment to life in Philippians 1:21, “… for to me, to live is Christ.” As a Christian, you are to “die” to self – your needs, plans, wants – and allow Jesus Christ to live through you. When a Christian fully understands the sacredness and responsibility of their life, God will do great and awesome things through their life. Every generation is to do what God has called them to do – to be the voice, the hands, and the feet of Jesus Christ.
God is the Almighty I AM. He is always present and ever ready to guide you, empower you, and protect you. God will always be more than you will ever need in a world of unexpected challenges.
Intertwine your life with God. Make it not “my life” and God, rather give all of your life, (ambitions, desires, decisions), to God. God is to BE your life; you are called to live a God-life
Importance of a strong witness in life and church
When a generation fails to faithfully give witness to the crucified Christ and the forgiveness of sin that occurs when He is accepted as Savior and LORD, a generation void of Christian principles is created. You show no greater love for a person than when you tell them of a forgiving Savior who by the shedding of His blood He washes away their sin.
When you become a Christian, Jesus declares that you are a witness (Luke 24:48). Being a witness for Christ is not a calling nor a decision you make, simply put, as a professed Christian, you are automatically a witness for Christ. Therefore, purposely choose to live your life as a strong witness of your Savior.
What kind of witness is your life for Him?
Early in my walk with Christ I chose Romans 1:16 as my life verse, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation.” In every sermon or public speaking opportunity I have consciously included the gospel. One example: When asked by an Australian City Council “What brings you to our town?” I responded, “To tell as many people as possible about Jesus Christ the Savior.”
Be bold to share the truth
Your witness, and the witness of your church, should never be affected by the spirit of the contemporary age or political-correctness. Rather, be bold to share the truth of the crucified Christ with clarity and forthrightness.
One challenge to witnessing in today’s world is that while respecting the culture of the individual, you must speak truth compatible with Scripture. The gospel nor its message has changed. The gospel message is important, the critical review is has the grace of God as seen in the crucified Christ been presented?
A remarkable opportunity came when a church in Adelaide, Australia invited me to bring a series of messages. Following the first service the pastor said, “You preached the gospel tonight, what will you preach tomorrow night?”
I answered, “The Gospel! I have nothing else to preach!”
As in one’s personal life, the gospel must always be the message of the church.
With all of the modernized functions of church life, Christianity’s message is still a gospel of the grace of God and of a crucified and risen Christ.
Addendum from Dr. Kelley: What has happened to the church?
It must be acknowledged there are significant changes in “churchanity” today.
There are churches desiring to be seeker-friendly and have adopted worldly-sounding music. Some preachers enter the pulpit dressed in yard-worthy blue jeans with their shirttail hanging out. Some churches avoid preaching on sin, judgment, or hell in order to be culturally tolerable.
While some congregations may offer traditional or contemporary service choices, even then in the traditional service classic and beloved hymns aren’t sung. Often simple choruses, some with borderline theology, are used.
What happened to the sacredness and reverence when entering God’s House?
Theological liberalism and academic suffocation is prevalent in many pulpits. Philosophical dogma is taught instead of theological truth. Some services are little more than counseling or cheerleading sessions.
The message in these churches is not emphasizing becoming a new creation with a personal evangelical experience, or moral redemption with eternal life in Jesus Christ. Instead, such preaching begins with and is absorbed with the world, not the Word. It is intellectualism not with Faith, but with worldly inclusiveness of acceptance, a false narrative, not with the exclusiveness of personal response to the grace of God.
The Word of God has not changed, why has the church?