Wendy Peacock interviewed at one church after graduating from seminary.
And when she preached in view of a call at the church, it was the first time she ever preached in front of a congregation.
And now Peacock can claim Fellowship Baptist Church, on the outskirts of Americus, Georgia, as the only congregation she has served as pastor. She will celebrate 25 years with the church in June.
That’s one interview, one sermon delivered in view of a call and one church served for a quarter of a century.
“I just feel very blessed that early on I found a place that was really compatible in terms of their philosophy of ministry,” she said.
There are other blessings. Being in Americus places Peacock and her Cooperative Baptist Fellowship congregation within a few miles of several influential faith-based organizations and movements in the South.
“There is a rich legacy of progressive Baptists doing things in here in Sumter County.”
Among them are Koinonia Farm, an intentional community founded by Clarence Jordan, which often partners with Peacock’s congregation. Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains is the spiritual home of President Jimmy Carter.
The city also hosts the operational headquarters of Habitat for Humanity, itself conceived at Koinonia Farm.
Peacock, a native of Atlanta and Briarcliff Baptist Church, spoke with BNG about serving a rural congregation and the variety of spiritual influences surrounding it.
How large is Fellowship Baptist and its surrounding community?
On a Sunday morning we usually average 30 to 40. When I started it was a dozen. We have not exploded into a megachurch, but we have grown.
Sumter County is largely rural. Americus is the county seat and has about 16,000 to 17,000. The county population is around 30,000.
How does anyone stay anywhere 25 years these days, whether it’s with a church or IBM?
I always thought one of my goals would be to do long-term pastorates. It’s healthier for the church and allows you to put down roots in the community. It’s amazing how many pastors I have seen come in and out of some of the churches in the community.
You mentioned the church’s philosophy of ministry being compatible with you. What is that philosophy?
This church was founded in 1973 by a group of people that, during the Civil Rights era, felt the church needed to be open to receiving persons of all races. They were a split from First Baptist Americus. One of their principles was openness to all persons and they also very early on celebrated the gifts of women in ministry. I think they had women deacons within the first couple years. So, when they called me as pastor in 1995, they were being very true to who they had always been.
How do you manage as the sole clergy on staff?
Volunteers. We have a volunteer choir director. He actually grew up in the church and has been the choir director since he was 16 – he has been doing that almost 40 years, which is astounding. There is very much a culture of whatever needs to be done, volunteers will do it. When we do Bible school, it’s lay led – we have a woman in the church who picks the curriculum and picks the volunteers. Our missions committee is lay led. Deacons take care of practical issues and do spiritual care. The trick, to me, has been trying to figure out what gifts the church has and allow people to use those gifts. I think the temptation is to have an idea of what ministry looks like. We may not have the skills to build a Habitat house, but we can make lunches to take to the work sites. It’s about being flexible.
How and when do you remember feeling a calling to ministry?
My very first Sunday school lesson was abouit Isaiah’s call in Isaiah 6, so that, to me, was the first time that I understood that we are all called to serve and to listen to God’s voice. It was from that early exposure to God’s word.
How did it develop from there?
It took a long time to figure out what that would look like. Briarcliff Baptist Church in Atlanta had women ministers. I had lots of role models of women in ministry. But I wasn’t sure if I would do chaplaincy or be a missionary or something like that. When I graduated from college, the Southern Baptist Convention was in the throes of the split. At that point women students weren’t embraced at Southern Baptist seminaries, at least not in terms of pastoral ministry. I went to Candler at Emory (University). They had a Baptist studies program. It was a wonderful experience not to be caught in the midst of the Baptist turmoil. Early in the experience I reclaimed a love I had for the local church and started moving that way.
How has that area become home to so many progressive causes?
I wonder if it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg thing – which came first? Because the Farm, Habitat, President Carter – I think they attracted like-minded people from other parts of the country and other parts of the world who were able to find community here.
Has it created a kind of synergy?
I would absolutely say that.
What I love about having roots in the community is that I have a lot of connections with people who are not traditionally churched but who are doing wonderful things in the world. There is a local coffee producer, Café Campesino, that does fair trade coffee. A lot of nonprofit ministries have started in Sumter County that may or may not be connected with a church body and who are doing wonderful work for justice.
Do you and your church typically cross paths with President Carter or the folks at Koinonia Farm?
This past year we shared two interns with Koinonia through CBF. They worked on the Farm during the week and on Wednesday nights and Sundays came to our church to serve. President Carter has been a wonderful support to me personally. Not long after I moved to town he asked me to come meet him, and my first wedding was his secretary’s daughter who was getting married. Our church has done a lot with Maranatha (Baptist Church) over the years. I have preached there. He is a huge supporter of women in ministry.