JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – A man must be truly blessed to know what he wanted to be at age 13 and then become that which he most wanted: a preacher of the Gospel.
He felt the call sitting on the back row of his church during Youth Week. He told his pastor that, and, apparently feeling it was appropriate to strike while the iron was hot, the minister handed a book on creating sermons and told him to compose one for the camp.
That was what the Rev. Bill Self said Sunday, Dec. 2, as he called to a close his 60-plus years as a minister and retired as senior pastor to Johns Creek Baptist Church.
“I have no idea today what that sermon was about all those long years ago. I just knew when I had finished I knew what I was going to do,” Self said. “But my life has been truly blessed ever since.”
And so his journey as Baptist minister began.
Twenty-one years ago, at a time when most ministers might be considering retirement or at least a comfortable congregation to settle into, Self instead heard another calling – that of what was to be Johns Creek First Baptist Church.
You could call it a leap of faith or God’s plan all along, but it was with some trepidation nevertheless when the congregation of the Chamblee Baptist Church decided to move lock, stock and baptistery to its present site in Johns Creek to begin a new ministry in a new home.
What gave them confidence was their then interim-minister, Dr. William “Bill” Self, who at 59 was beginning what was to become the task to forge a new church literally from the ground up. The Chamblee church had shrunk to 250 members, many of them middle age or older.
So a 100-year-old church decided to move 16 miles north in the middle of an old farm and not a traffic light in sight.
“The church was dying. When Technology Park offered to gift us the land in Johns Creek to start a new church, we saw it as a chance to keep the church going,” said Phil Brown, a deacon of JCBC. “We had asked Bill to be our interim minister. He was so experienced.”
It became quickly apparent to the congregation that the Self was the ideal leader to not only pastor this new church but lead it on an ambitious building campaign that would eventually become the JCBC campus.
Ultimately, it would lead to the building of a $45 million campus and congregation 2,700 souls strong. The campus was built in four phases with four capital campaigns in the first 16 years. First came the chapel, then the education building. Next came the gymnasium/social hall and lastly the sanctuary.
Through two recessions, Self and the steady leadership of the church have brought JCBC to a sound financial footing for the new minister who starts at the first of the year.
Self said in his farewell sermon that it was time. Surely at 81 and though still vigorous and energetic in the pulpit, he had earned some time to travel with his wife Carolyn and pursue what projects he may now turn to.
“But I’m not going away. Carolyn and I will still be members of this church,” he said. “But I can say it is finished, bringing to a conclusion what God started 21 years ago.”
Then Self began his last sermon – at least as senior pastor – and showed the fire and passion to preach was still bright within him.
He warned of letting one’s head be turned by “fad” theories in religion or become seduced by church as a spectacle. It is not what feeds the soul, he said.
He would say, “Nothing is more sacred than to preach the Word of God to the people of God. That is a sacred bond between us. Never let anybody tell you different. The preaching of the Word is the Word.”
W.A. Whitten and his wife Lucille were two of the original Chamblee congregation who followed Self to begin the Johns Creek church.
“[Self] was preacher. He carried within him a concept of worship that was outstanding,” Whitten said. “He was an outstanding leader who would attract others to his cause.”
Carolyn King, a 20-year member of the church, was amazed at how he seemed to know every member by name.
“He really knew how to relate to people. You just fell in love with this church and Dr. Self. He lives what he preaches,” she said. “He always speaks with humor and with compassion. He makes the people of the Bible come to life.”
Those were sentiments echoed by many in the congregation. He has an innate warmth and a genuine love of all people that instantly puts one at ease.
Richard Eason is the church treasurer and acting administrator as well as being one of the Chamblee originals. He spoke of Self’s ability “to connect with people.” But it was always with a purpose.
“He was a major part of the fundraising. He was not afraid to ask for a donation. He was leader in getting this church built,” Eason said.
That was a daunting task, taking on that burden. The church voted to build the sanctuary after Sept. 11. At the time, it seemed risky, but Eason said it turned out the timing could not have been better.
But the success the church has enjoyed will always bear Self’s mark.
“He brought this church where it is,” Eason said. “He has the ability to connect with people. He has a style of preaching that draws you in.”