Lessons from an Older Pastor

Somewhere in northern Georgia, just five miles from the Alabama state line, sits a small church that few people have heard of, New Beginning Bible Church. To get there, you have to intend to. You have to take a few mountain roads, hairpin curves, get lost, turn right, and then you’re there.

You probably have not heard of New Beginning because only thirty people attend there each Sunday. You probably have not heard of the church because you’ve never been lost in the mountains of northern Georgia. And you probably have not heard of the church because their pastor is not famous. But if you ever get the chance to take him out to eat when you’re in town, I highly recommend it. There’s a lot to learn from him.

Michael Dunwoody is sixty years old, so not very old but definitely old enough to be my father. Nearly completely bald with a pure white goatee, he looks distinguished and trustworthy. He has been the pastor of New Beginning Bible Church ever since he planted it on the mountain in 1995, and he has been in ministry for thirty-seven years. I want to learn from this older pastor.

So a few minutes before noon, I walk into Guthrie’s Restaurant. Pastor Michael is already there, waiting. He’s never been to Guthrie’s before, so I explain it is like Zaxby’s except different. We both get chicken finger plates and find a booth in a quiet corner of the restaurant.

I respect Michael for many things, but especially his gentle pastor’s heart and faithful Bible teaching. I don’t know what kind of preaching comes to your mind when you think of a country church in Georgia, but I can tell you that the depth and quality of Bible teaching at New Beginning is second to none.

What does it take for a pastor to faithfully feed his people for thirty-seven years? For Michael, it’s the priority of studying. Studying does not come naturally to him, he tells me. He’d rather be out with the people. And he does plenty of that, but he is convinced of the vital importance of studying so you have something to preach each Sunday.

“Sitting in that 12×13 room is the hardest thing I do as a pastor,” he says, and he means it. It reminds me of John MacArthur’s alleged advice on preaching: “Keep your rear end in the chair till you’ve understood what [the text] means.” Michael puts this into practice, studying late into the evening after he has visited his people throughout the day.

“You can’t study enough,” he insists. Now I can think of some recent seminary grads who might be the exception to that statement, but I understand what Michael means. He understands the importance of studying so he can unleash God’s Word verse by verse, week after week. It’s not his favorite thing to do, but he knows it is important.

As we are finishing up our meal, I make a comment about how he seems to preach without notes. Does he just have a phenomenal memory, or what? Michael tells me that he has preached his whole life without taking notes into the pulpit. He wants to know the sermon so well that it flows out of him. But as he gets older he doesn’t trust his memory—so now he uses a sticky note in his Bible with the main points. I’m impressed. Not only does he prepare well and exposit the passage clearly, but he also internalizes the message so well that he preaches it unencumbered by notes.

Why, I finally blurt out. If some days it’s torture to keep himself strapped to his office chair, if he’d rather be out with his flock 24/7, if this is such hard work, then why? Without hesitating, he replies, “For changed lives.” He is motivated each week by the joy of seeing his people take the Word and apply it to their lives. I think his laser focus on changed lives guards him from becoming too heady or boring. His presentation is vibrant, simple, and occasionally humorous.

It’s almost been two hours, and I feel like we could continue talking all day. Since I want to learn from an older pastor, I ask one more question: What advice would he have for younger pastors. He reminds me a bit of Churchill when he responds, “Never give up.” Too many pastors, he believes, quit too soon, even after six months if they’re not seeing the results they want. After twenty-two years at the same church, Michael says he is just beginning to see the gospel break through in the community. It takes time, and so young pastors must not give up.

I’m inspired by the example of Pastor Michael. I’m reminded of the importance of preaching, and how a pastor may need to lock himself in his office until he has a word from the Lord, and how it will take longer that he expects.

Pastor Michael hops in his truck to drive back up the mountain, and I head back to my family. I’m convinced once again that success in ministry can never be assessed by such cheap measurements as attendance or fame.

So if you’re ever lost somewhere in northern Georgia, I highly recommend you look up Michael Dunwoody. There’s a lot to learn from him.

Who is an older pastor or older person that you have learned from?


I thank God for the friendship of Michael and Sheila Dunwoody. Michael has served as senior pastor of New Beginning Bible Church in Menlo, Georgia, for 22 years. 

 

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