WILSON – When Pastor Stephen Hay of Wilson’s First Baptist Church peppers his dialogue with the term “five guys,” he’s not talking about the popular hamburger spot. He’s referring to the team of five men – himself included – tending to the needs of the church, which saw attendance jump more than a third last year.
An articulate and personable native of Scotland with a college degree in graphic design – not a theology degree – Hay is quick to credit “God’s grace” for his church’s success.
That wouldn’t surprise Brad Clark, a longtime church member, who said Hay doesn’t seek the limelight and rarely takes credit for anything.
“But Pastor Steve doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk,” said Clark, who also served on the committee to hire Hay as the church’s youth minister nearly five years ago.
Hay perfectly fit that job description. He will turn 26 on June 26.
“As far as bringing the youth into the church, he’s been called the ‘Pied Piper,’ ” added Clark. “It’s amazing how he can relate to both the kids and the adults. They’ve changed the church basement into a youth center, and the kids come just about every night of the week as well as during the day during summer. But he’s also matured into being a good leader for the entire church.”
Hay explained that he shares his pastoral duties with four other men, each with their own specific roles, which often overlap. It’s admittedly a departure from the way his well-respected predecessor, the late Rev. Jeffrey Durham, ran the church, but it appears to be working.
Hay said that when he arrived about five years ago, there were probably 25 to 30 in the congregation.
“We had 33 percent growth last year, which is phenomenal, and we’re still growing,” he said. “I’d say we average about 110 every Sunday. Quite honestly, it’s the work of God’s grace.”
The church is gearing up for its popular community event, the “Amazing Race,” on Friday, which draws participants and spectators of all ages. It’s a race with a twist – teams will travel throughout the village guided by texted clues, competing to reach the finish line first.
Hay recently took a few moments from his busy schedule to speak – in his lilting Scottish brogue – about his calling, his new hometown and the challenges and rewards of being a minister.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you come to be a pastor in Wilson?
I arrived here when I was 21 for my first lengthy visit in the U.S. Growing up in Scotland, we were fortunate, and I grew up going on vacations in the United States. When I turned 19, I worked at a religious summer camp here in the Southern Tier – it was the summer before my last year of college, where I was studying graphic design, because I had graduated from high school early. I worked at the camp for three months and went back home to Scotland and came back to visit friends and such over the next two years.
Then I was offered a position here in Wilson as a youth pastor at the First Baptist Church. And I initially declined. But six months later, I was in Scotland and not really content in the job I thought I’d be doing the rest of my life and I felt the calling to come to this church.
I was in this job for a year and a few months when the pastor retired, and they asked me to assume the position of lead pastor. I initially refused. But two weeks later, I presented myself as a candidate. That was January 2010.
But please explain the hierarchy of your church.
We don’t function as a church with me as a senior pastor. Jesus is our senior pastor. We function in a plurality of leadership. We have five elders, or pastors, here. Our executive elder is Doug Farley; our care pastor is George Waters; our campus pastor is Ken Twist; our community and worship pastor is Tim Bach; and I am the teaching and outreach pastor. Only Tim and I have paid positions.
I don’t want to take credit for this, but when I took over for the pastor when he retired, I was only 22, and I was feeling the pressure. There was no way I could meet all of the demands with the limited amount of wisdom I had at 22. So Tim and I actually began praying about it and studying the Bible, and we saw how it worked this way in the early church.
You said you don’t have a theology degree – were you raised in the Baptist Church?
In Scotland, there are two main religions, Presbyterian and Baptist, but we’re not big on denominations. That was a big culture shock for me when I came to the U.S. And I feel it’s important that we don’t find our identity in being Baptist. We have to find our identity in Jesus. He established this thing he called the church. I’m going to be 26, I’m from Scotland, I don’t have a theology degree – so logically, this church shouldn’t be working, but it is. Because, if you read the Bible, you’ll find it’s filled with stories that don’t make sense if you take God out of the equation. God is clearly at work here.
I have done work through the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and I do attend conferences and seminars to continue my growth. But I believe that based on my personality, I’ve learned a lot more through practical experience than I could in a classroom. These experiences cause you to go and seek out wisdom.
Explain how your church strives to move beyond its boundaries to reach the greater Wilson community.
We really try to achieve selflessness. It’s truly not about growing our church or looking like we have it all together here. We want to break down the walls and barriers and embrace the ideas of community. It’s part of the heart of what we’re doing. Jesus teaches us in the Bible of service to others and selflessness, and we try to adopt that philosophy. We believe that’s part of our responsibility to the community, and that’s why we never charge for our events. We just want people to come and enjoy the experience.
What’s the most difficult thing about being a pastor?
The difficult thing is understanding that there are no mathematical equations to church work, to being family to people. You try to establish systems and have structures in place to meet needs, but those needs are so vast and so varied and so unexpected , that you really just have to try and embrace the work with belief in the gifts God gave you.
And what are the rewards?
We live in a broken world, and to see lives change and understand and believe in the work of Jesus – it’s a privilege to be a part of that. It’s very humbling. To try and make disciples, you have to roll up your sleeves and enter the rawness of life, to get into the mess of life to try and help people.
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