Like many Southern Baptist ministers, the Rev. Billie Lawson has spent his career serving those in need. Unlike other ministers, he’s spent it at the head of only one congregation.
For 30 years, Lawson has dug potatoes, preached, visited hospitals, held funerals and performed marriages for members of Wilson’s Mills Baptist Church in Johnston County. The church will celebrate his 30th anniversary this month, marking a milestone that most Southern Baptist preachers don’t reach.
Nationwide, the average tenure of Southern Baptist ministers is three to five years, according to Kelton Hinton, director of the Johnston Baptist Association.
For churches that are members of the Southern Baptist Convention, local congregations handle the hiring and firing of ministers, and there tends to be a lot of turnover.
Lawson, 59, who quickly gained a reputation as a “minister with mercy,” wasn’t interested in changing churches throughout his career.
“I came prepared to stay,” he said. “I don’t think there was a conscious decision other than that: to bloom where I was planted, and I think that’s what I’ve done.”
Lawson doesn’t much resemble the dark-haired young man who first came to Wilson’s Mills, a small town between Clayton and Selma. In August 1987, Lawson was green from his school days at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, where he’d graduated months earlier.
When he arrived in town with his wife, Lorraine, and a new baby in tow, the farming community had a population of just over 500, and his congregation consisted of about 80 churchgoers.
Now, Lawson’s hair is bright white. The town’s population has quintupled to 2,500, and Lawson’s flock has grown to more than 500 people. Families from Johnston, Wake, and Nash counties come each Sunday to hear him preach. Some drive an hour each way to services.
Such a long, successful ministry seemed impossible to the congregation three decades ago. In the 1980s, Wilson’s Mills Baptist released two pastors successively before hiring Lawson.
Members worried Lawson’s inexperience would keep him from being up to the task of leading a struggling church.
“I thought, ‘My goodness he’s young,’ ” said Jackie Jones, a longtime church member. “We’d had a couple of rough pastorates. We were kind of fractured. If he hadn’t loved us so much, we probably wouldn’t have kept him as a preacher.”
Every church member seems to have a story of Lawson going out of his way to help: He arranged some alone time for a busy father in crisis. Brought makeup to a grandmother in the hospital to help her feel more like herself. Helped move a refrigerator from one part of the state to another without spilling a drop of the lemonade inside.
When women in the congregation wanted to learn how to make Christmas ornaments, Lawson taught himself so he could teach them. When they started a quilting bee, he learned to quilt.
“He would do anything,” church member Bentley Powell said. Lawson has ministered to five generations of Powell’s family. “If I had a turmoil at three in the morning, he would come and sit with me and talk with me. He will do anything.”
That’s just the way Lawson is, according to his wife.
“It happens all the time,” Lorraine Lawson said. “He’s always seeking out a way to be there for someone.”
Johnston County has changed considerably during Lawson’s ministry, and it’s caused growing pains within the church.
When farmland began to give way to housing developments in the late 1990s, there wasn’t room to hold all the new churchgoers. The church went from one service to two. In 2008, a new chapel was built.
The area continues to grow, and crews are now building a subdivision on former farmland down the street from the church.
Change hasn’t always been easy. New members sometimes clash with the old. Some want traditional music; others want something fresh. Cultural differences between old Southern families and newcomers from other parts of the country cause misunderstandings.
The stressors of the job have made Lawson sometimes want to quit.
“There have been times when I thought, ‘It’s time to end this thing,’ ” Lawson said. “And then God would say, ‘You can’t quit. I’ve called you to do this for the long haul.’ That’s how you stay. If I did this on my own power, I’d have thought, ‘OK, let’s go.’ ”
Lawson’s long tenure is unusual for a Southern Baptist minister nationally and statewide, but not locally. He is one of three pastors in Johnston County who’ve served a single congregation for more than 30 years.
“It’s been fun,” Lawson said. “I’ve been able to eat with them, minister to them, and love on them. I was able to become a part of the family.”
Wilson’s Mills Baptist church will honor Billie and Lorraine Lawson at an anniversary celebration at 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 20 at 4 p.m. at at 652 Swift Creek Road in Smithfield.
Autumn Linford writes stories about Johnston County for The News & Observer. Email story ideas to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.