A life’s work: Beloved minister built enduring legacy
Dotson, now 55, was just 7 when the young minister came to Centerville, Tenn., to preach at his family’s rural church 55 miles southwest of Nashville.
Who knew that nearly 48 years later, Rogers would still be the congregation’s preacher when Dotson’s son, Matthew, a 6-foot-8 star forward, signed a letter of intent to play at the University of Tennessee?
By that time last November, Rogers was battling heart disease and in the hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, so the Dotsons mailed him a picture of the signing.
He didn’t keep it long, though.
“He wound up sending the picture back to the church to put in the bulletin,” Roger Dotson said. “That’s just the way he was.”
In January, the 70-year-old Rogers — who preached more than 5,000 sermons and witnessed more than 2,000 baptisms at Centerville — finally succumbed to his illness.
Suddenly, many in the congregation lost the only minister they had ever known.
The town of 3,800 lost a community giant known not just for his church work but also his service to the Kiwanis Club, the bankboard and the PTA.
That’s not to mention the countless loaves of homemade bread that Paul and Judy Rogers brought to newcomers and visitors. His wife of 50 years remains a member at Centerville.
“The loss has been felt all over, not just our little church,” said Annis Womack (left), Rogers’ secretary for 34 years.
This “little church” averages Sunday morning attendance of 650, up from 250 when Rogers started. That makes it twice as large as any other church in town — Baptists and Methodists included.
But what will happen now that Rogers – who everyone keeps saying can’t be replaced – is gone?
“The best thing I think that we are striving to do as a congregation is to ‘Lean not upon your own understanding,’” said family life minister Craig Shelton, who temporarily shares preaching duties.
“After the passing of a minister that has led this congregation for almost 50 years, your faith can only turn to God,” Shelton said. “There is no precedence for a decision to replace a man like this except when God chose his replacements for a prominent leader such as a Moses or Samuel.”
INTERIM MINISTRY THE ANSWER?
The last time Centerville hired a pulpit minister, Dwight Eisenhower had just won re-election as president, “Love Me Tender” was a hit for Elvis Presley and the Dodgers still played in Brooklyn.
Nine presidents later, the congregation’s elders say they’re in no hurry to find Rogers’ successor.
“We don’t want to get in a situation where we bring in somebody, and because of the longevity of Paul’s stay and the difficulty that would be to step in … they leave in 12 to 15 months,” elder Bill McDonald said.
Too often, churches rush to hire a new minister too soon after a departure or death, say experts in church leadership.
That, in turn, often puts the newcomer in an impossible situation, said Charles Siburt, vice president for church relations at Abilene Christian University in Texas.
“The tendency is not to take the time to grieve, not to stabilize for the transition … and to get anxious and go for a quick fix,” Siburt said. “And, without intending to, they inevitably set the successor up to be the unintentional interim minister, which is basically the sacrificial lamb.”
In some denominations, the concept of hiring an interim minister – a bridge between the former minister and the next one — has a long history.
For example, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) makes the practice a part of its formal regulations, said Flavil Yeakley, director of the Harding Center for Church Growth Studies.
“Whenever a ‘senior pastor’ dies, retires, is fired or whatever – the congregation cannot call a new senior pastor,” said Yeakley, a member of the College church, Searcy, Ark., who learned about the practice through his work with the American Society for Church Growth.
Instead, Presbyterians first must call an interim pastor who specializes in helping churches through the grief process and conducting an in-depth study of needs, Yeakley said.
“They like that system,” he said. “They say it works for them.”
CONCEPT GAINING ATTENTION AMONG CHURCHES
It’s a relatively new concept in churches of Christ, but one that seems to be gaining increasing attention, Siburt said.
ACU’s ministry resources Web page, for instance, lists a group of interim ministers trained to help churches through the transition period.
“A number of these people have been in the position of following another minister in a church and have learned the hard way that transitions can be hazardous,” Siburt said.
Robert Oglesby, who recently marked 42 years as pulpit minister at the Waterview church, Richardson, Texas, said he sees merit in the idea.
“The concept is that a man who is not a candidate for the job comes in and preaches for six months to a year,” Oglesby said. “Then when they finally decide to get their new man, their regular man, he will come in and he will be different, but they’re already accustomed to something different.”
In Centerville, the elders say church members need time to mourn and adjust to the loss.
McDonald, a lifelong Centerville member who was 4 when Rogers came, said the church will proceed “cautiously and carefully.”
“We are so fortunate that we have so many men in the church who can fill the pulpit and deliver good, quality lessons,” said McDonald, a funeral home owner who offered a grief seminar at the church’s Spring Ladies’ Day.
‘NOT GOING TO BE ANOTHER ONE LIKE HIM’
For many members, it’s hard even to imagine a minister other than Rogers.
“I mean, there’s not going to be another one like him,” Dotson (left) said.
But even as the congregation grieves, church work goes on.
Womack and a team of volunteers still make sure the monthly Wednesday night fellowship meal tastes right, be it burgers, lasagna or fried fish.
And when the Army National Guard’s 779th Maintenance Company recently left for training in Mississippi and possible deployment to Iraq, church leaders organized a party in the soldiers’ honor.
“Our hearts are heavy, but these things have got to be going,” Womack said. “They were not Paul Rogers’ things. They were things that were good for the church.”