It was hard to sit down with the Rev. Bill Self after he gave his last (official) sermon as senior pastor at Johns Creek Baptist Church. I don’t think his feet touched the ground in the flurry of goodbyes and godspeeds before he and wife Carolyn left for their cabin in the mountains.
But we arranged for me to call him after a few days so I could talk about how he looked back on his career. I felt like I had come full circle with JCBC. I first met Bill in 1993 after someone told me I ought to see what they are building over at Johns Creek Baptist Church.
I was connected to that friendly voice at the appointed hour, and I immediately felt good. To know him is to have a friend right off the bat. I had heard that from others. He just connects with other people in a way that puts you instantly at ease.
I first asked him what it was like to wake up after 60 years with nothing to do?
“Well, you know how those astronauts feel when they’re in a capsule in outer space? Weightless? That’s kind of how I feel. I’ve had an institution hung around me all my life and now I don’t. It feels really strange,” he said.
“I don’t mean anything negative, but it kind of surprised me when it happened.”
Next, I wanted to ask about leading the 20-year campaign to build his church from scratch. That was the reporter in me. But I found he had a lot more to say about preaching and being a preacher too. It was illuminating.
Yes, Bill can tell it all, because he has seen it all. He has known pastoring as a young man, a man of middle age and as pastor-as-elder-statesman. And he is sanguine enough and has seen enough to talk frankly about church politics. And as everyone knows, church politics are the nastiest.
It was a magnificent accomplishment, that church, built by a congregation that set the bar high and saw it through. But riding herd on it was Bill Self. I asked him why he took on such a task (ultimately a $45 million project done in four phases) and how did it feel.
“I took an assignment that was given to me, and tried to the best I could with it without losing my integrity – hopefully,” he said. “It feels good. It feels complete. And out of it came a very solid, mature congregation.
“The preacher in me says that it’s an affirmation of the fact that our ministries are not dead when we get bald and gray. We’re just learning how to do it,” he said.
He had initially suggested the congregation get a younger man but they said they didn’t want a younger man, because they wanted someone who wouldn’t be pushed around.
Bill understood the wisdom of that. Looking back, he says now a younger man would have been pushed by the culture and the “swirling theologies” that would have left the church quite different.
Also having been through 14 building programs, he knew how to steer all of the pitfalls those can bring.
Anyone who thinks pastoring a church of any size is easy doesn’t know what is like to work for 2,700 bosses. I asked him first what he meant by “swirling theologies.”
He laughed and said there are new theologies proposed by a “television evangelist with a new book” that someone thinks ought to be preached. A minister has to face those challenges all the time, he said.
“I’ve tried to put some substance in that church and not just cotton candy.”
A minister’s life can be a lonely one. Perhaps that is why the best ones always seem to have a strong woman behind them.
He has written six books, and the last one was directed at ministers and the special problems they have to cope with, usually with no one to turn to themselves.
The current “fad” today seems to focus on the music rather than the message.
I told him one of the things I like best was the way they still sang the traditional hymns at his church. The contemporary music you hear a lot just does not move me.
“Well, the first murder in the Bible was over how to worship with Cain and Abel. And people in churches have been killing each other about what to sing ever since,” he said.
“In fact there are only two issues in churches. What shall we sing, and who’s in charge. And after that, everything else is secondary. Every church battle comes down to those two things.”
Bill also knows how to head off battles that don’t need to be fought. For instance, he also declared the church a “politics-free zone.” He declared he wanted to see bumper stickers of every persuasion in the parking lot on Sundays.
“I had strong support for that on both sides with people telling me they didn’t want to be told how to vote.”
There has been a tremendous amount of building along the entire spectrum of the entire religious community. What were his thoughts on that?
He said it is a “deep, profound hunger for community.”
“What people really want is that connection – someone who will know my name and someone to go to my funeral.”
Bill said he will be 81 in January but “feels like 50” and still has something to contribute. So he plans to keep preaching as invited (but not pastor another church), and perhaps counsel other ministers.
“I have been through every hell a pastor can have. I don’t think there is anything out there that will surprise me. And pastors are the loneliest of the lonely. We’re supposed to be supermen with big S’s on our chest and able to leap tall buildings. But we know we’re not.”
He said he could help them cope with the special trials that ministers go through.
“I don’t intend to sit on the shelf and fossilize. I’m just waiting to see what doors open.”