Mack Thompson has the kind of voice that can make your blood pressure drop – a steady baritone delivered at a crawling pace that lets you know he’s choosing his words carefully.
In more than 50 years of preaching at churches across the state, his calm demeanor and unwavering leadership has guided the state’s Baptists through baptisms and funerals, weekly worship and historic change.
Early in his career, he was a pastor in Wake Forest, Warrenton, Laurinburg and Warsaw. As longtime pastor of Ridge Road Baptist Church, he oversaw its gradual split from the Southern Baptist Convention.
He later brought that experience to bear at his alma maters, serving on various boards of Chowan and Campbell universities as they also changed their relationships with the convention that founded them.
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Thompson, who has taken on several interim pastorships since he retired in 2008, remains involved at Chowan as a donor and member of the board of visitors and board of ministers. He’s also active with the board of visitors at Campbell University.
Last month, he was honored with the university’s highest award, the Distinguished Alumni Award, for his professional career and service to the university.
“Mack has that steady hand of leadership and engagement that he has used in his work as a pastor and with the university,” says John Tayloe, vice president of development at Chowan. “He has a calming presence, but he also has great passion for what he believes in.”
Called to the ministry
Thompson grew up in Raleigh, where his father spent decades working in production at The News & Observer.
His family were strong Baptists, and Thompson felt drawn to ministry while he was still a student at Broughton High School. He says his pastor at the time suggested Chowan for its religious affiliation and small size.
Still, he says, it was a big change for him.
“No one in my family had ever been to college,” Thompson says. “It was really a transformative time in my life.”
Thompson earned a two-year degree at Chowan and served as president of a student group that traveled to small towns to preach on weekends. He also met his wife there; they’ve now been married for 51 years.
He finished his bachelor’s degree at Campbell and went on to study at the Southeastern Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, while also serving as a student pastor at Westminster Baptist Church.
His first full pastorship was in Warrenton, where he served for seven years and where his two children were born. He had hoped to stay, he says, because the family had put down roots.
But instead he was called to serve in Warsaw, Laurinburg and, finally, Raleigh, his home town. Even after retiring in 2008, he continued to serve as a pastor at churches that were in the process of filling a vacancy, including Greenwood Forest Baptist Church in Cary and First Baptist Church in Butner.
While each congregation he’s pastored has been unique, he says, Thompson’s approach to each has been much the same.
“First you have to spend some time getting to know the people and figuring out what they need,” he says, “before you make any changes.”
His style has always been on the quiet side. Early on, in smaller towns, he spent a lot of time counseling members of his congregation one on one.
Among his fondest memories was the candlelight Christmas services he held at one church.
In Raleigh, he recalls when Ridge Road housed refugees from Belarus in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, and later from Burma. They helped the refugees with medical care, housing and food.
“They just needed a little help and they became independent,” he says.
He spent 20 years as pastor of Ridge Road Baptist Church. Early in his tenure, the church was struggling with declining enrollment in the wake of controversy over the views of a previous pastor. The church won a national award for its turnaround plan in the early 1990s.
But Thompson steered the church through another difficult time as the mostly moderate congregation began to feel at odds with increasingly conservative stances of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“It was a tumultuous time,” says Thompson.
Over the years Thompson came to be known as a steady advocate for moderate Baptists, helping to align Ridge Road with the alternative Cooperative Baptist Fellowship at a time when the Southern Baptist Convention was becoming known for brash critiques of modern society.
Even more troubling for Thompson and others was the convention’s attempt to impose its doctrine on a church that was founded on the concept of independence.
Ridge Road began sending its representatives to fellowship meetings instead of the convention, and eventually formally severed ties. At the time, the convention had tried to limit the role of pastor to men, among other controversial changes.
Thompson says meeting with other members of the fellowship at the national and state levels helped him feel connected to like-minded Baptists.
“It was a painful episode in some ways, but the fellowship also gave us wonderful opportunities,” he says.
The turmoil in the church extended to the colleges and universities that the convention had founded, including seven in North Carolina. Wake Forest University and Meredith College were the first to sever ties.
For the other five, smaller schools, including Campbell and Chowan, moving forward alone was more difficult. Thompson has offered monetary support over the years, as well as advice and spiritual leadership.
Tayloe said Thompson was a “helping hand” through the transition, and through recent years when the university has experienced unprecedented growth. Enrollment has more than doubled over the past 13 years, and the university recently added its first master’s-level program.
“Many of us resist change,” says Tayloe. “He was able to help us navigate that change, and over the past 15 to 20 years, he’s served through the growth and development and really the renaissance of this institution.”
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Lonnie Mack Thompson
Born: December 1943, Raleigh
Residence: Raleigh and Valle Crucis
Career: Retired pastor
Awards: Distinguished Alumni Award, Chowan University, 2016; Reavis Scholar, Campbell University, 1995; Raleigh Baptist Association Annual Dedication, 2008;
Education: A.A. Chowan University; B.A. Campbell University; master’s of divinity and doctor of ministry, Southeastern Theological Seminary
Family: Wife Carol, children Todd and Clair; four grandchildren; one great-grandchild
Fun fact: In 2008, Dec. 7 was declared “L. Mack Thompson Day” in the City of Raleigh.