This Sunday, Georgia Baptists statewide will observe Mission:Dignity Sunday. It’s an important time of the year when congregations pay tribute to retired ministers who sacrificially gave of their time and talents to share the gospel in churches large and small.
Unfortunately, most of those congregations are small … very small, in fact. So, small that they can’t afford a fulltime staff so they operate with a bi-vocational pastor and consider themselves fortunate for that arrangement.
Without bivocational ministers thousands of Southern Baptist churches would close their doors. It takes a special commitment from those called to such a rewarding yet difficult ministry. As one friend jokingly told me years ago, bi-vocational meant fulltime ministry with part-time salary. But they are never in it for the salary and many would tell you they would have it no other way.
However, the difficulty of that sacrificial lifestyle never fully shows up until many of them approach their retirement years. That’s when the bills continue to show up in the mail box … some increasing dramatically due to rising medical costs … while the ability to pay the bills has come to an end.
I and other state missionaries have the pleasure of supporting such ministers through payroll deduction at the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. Many have written letters telling us how our pooled resources have paid medical bills or bough groceries, helped purchase medicine or even buy a Christmas gift for a young grandchild.
I have never heard one of these saints complain about the challenges of living on a fixed income, many with less than a $1,000 Social Security check.
I am doubly blessed by having interviewed and written about many of these Georgians in recent years. And just two months ago was I was saddened when Georgia Baptists lost another of these silent saints through illness.
Bethea Fielding was a soft-spoken soul who loved everyone he met and, after making their acquaintance, inquired about their spiritual condition. He was never confrontational but was always ready to speak about the hope that was within.
Last Fall I wrote a rare three-part story on how First Baptist Church of Woodstock and Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta partnered to renovate the basement of their daughter’s home. In addition, their story was judged so compelling that it received national recognition by the Baptist Communicators Association in Washington, DC in April.
Within a matter of months the dark rooms had been transformed into a well-lit apartment for Bethea and his wife, Sandra. Lay volunteers and professional contractors had worked side by side from when they ended their day job to begin their night job. Many would appear at the home around 6 p.m. and not leave until 11 p.m. Saturdays were also freely given to the project.
The result of their labors was a spacious bedroom and study, along with a nice living room and kitchen area. It gave Bethea and Sandra the dignity of living out their retirement years with dignity.
Bethea passed away suddenly on May 2 of this year after a short illness, just three months short of his 78th birthday. But not before he had been able to enjoy the new sense of dignity which that team of volunteers had given to him and his soulmate.
And now you see where Mission:Dignity gets its name.
On August 25 of last year, a small crowd gathered in the driveway outside their new apartment to honor the couple. In just a few words Bethea summed up his and Sandra’s journey together.
I share his few words here, which I feel confident are the thoughts Bethea would want to be his final testimony.
“We were never without a church throughout our entire ministry. God has taken care of us every step of the way and has opened doors I never imagined possible. Today I am reminded of one of our favorite verses: ‘Call unto me and I will answer and show you great and mighty things.’
“Sandra and I and our girls have leaned on that and other verses throughout our years as a family. Today is another example of His never-ending goodness and graciousness to us.
“To Him be all honor and glory.”
But it wasn’t just Georgia Baptists who provided him and his wife the newfound sense of dignity. They were also the beneficiaries of a monthly stipend, small that it may have been, from others across the SBC who support retired ministers and their wives through the outreach of GuideStone Financial Services.
This Sunday, let me urge you to pause to remember a former pastor – maybe one who served your church or who you came to know through other friendships. Thank God for his and his wife’s contributions and consider a donation to Mission:Dignity, either in the offering plate or online.
There’s no better way to honor those from the past who may be largely forgotten in today’s hectic world.