I met Joe Q. for the first time in August of 2006. Growing up in the Church of God I had heard of Bro. Joe Q. Smith many times over. He served years on our State Councils and Evangelism Boards. He was a giant of a man with a soft heart. Joe Q. was probably about 6'4 and from the outset was very intimidating. In our first encounter, I was scared out of my mind. We were ministering in South Florida looking to get back into South GA. I had emailed my resume to him at about 2:30 AM on a Thursday morning. By 10:30 AM that same morning he called me on my cell phone just as I was passing through Perry, the place I now pastor. He had received my resume and wanted to set up an interview. We came the next Thursday and met this man who would change and impact me more than I could have imagined. We went into the council meeting for the interview and I felt it went at least decently well. When Joe Q. asked me to go step outside the door and sit in the foyer while they talked, I had no idea what was going to happen. Either the interview went good to the point they were ready to make a decision or it had went so bad they already knew I wasn't the one. After about 15 mins, a council man came and got my wife and I to go back in Joe Q's office. I sat down and he looked across his desk and asked, "How would you feel about coming and working for me at the Vidalia Church of God." My answer, "I'd love to!"
When we arrived a few weeks later, I started learning all about Joe Q. Office hours were important. You were getting paid with God's money. Don't be late if you can help it. If I was a little late and hadn't called, you could bet my phone would be ringing. Sometimes if he knew I had been at the office late until the evening he would call when I wasn't back on time the next morning and tell me he'd forgive the tardiness if I could find a chicken biscuit at McDonald's for him. I remember working in my office and hearing the conference intercom come on the phone as he would say, "Ryan I need to see you in my office." Then there would be an immediate hang up. I'm proud to say I don't remember ever having to go to his office for anything bad. He wasn't trying to intimidate in those calls. He was just a no nonsense kind of guy, straight to the point, cut and dry. Over time, I found myself spending hours at a time in his office as we talked about the services, the movement of the Holy Spirit, theology, discipline, family, and our experiences with God. He told me stories from his past and I just enjoyed listening. I didn't really have any stories that were worth mentioning after he told his. When he told me something sensitive, he would always preceed the information with this one phrase . . . "If you tell anyone what I'm about to tell you, I'll fire your butt." Over time when we started talking about something private, he'd say, "If you tell anyone . . ." I'd interupt him and say, "You'll fire my butt." We'd both laugh and move on with the conversation.
He taught me computers. I knew a little about them, but he told me the programming aspect of things. I also learned tons about sound systems and equipment. It wasn't that Joe Q. ever went to school or anything for computers or sound equipment. He was the kind of man that if he wanted to know something, he would play with it and figure it out until he knew how it worked inwards and outwards. I learned how to be a professional in ministry. I learned that sometimes you can be completely right in your feelings or your desire to do something, but if your right causes a wrong, then everything was wrong from the beginning. I used to kid Bro. Joe Q. about the ominous phrase "the people." I like to shake things up and as I was preparing one time a 70 page proposal for a huge addition I wanted to add to our youth program, he would always ask me how I thought "the people" would view the change. To me "the people" meant the youth and their parents. To him, he saw every decision that was ever made to have an effect on every person that called themselves part of the Vidalia Church of God. I learned that you can't make decisions for the few. You have to make them, even as unpopular as they may be at times, for the good of the whole body . . . or "the people."
Joe Q. was a friend, a mentor, and a spiritual father figure to me. Altogether I worked for him for almost a year and a half. It was bittersweet leaving. I enjoyed my time at Vidalia, but I can honestly say I enjoyed my time with him. I enjoyed his company, his friendship, his honesty, and commitment to the ministry, his family, and his Lord. He did everything he could not to represent the Lord in any way but good. When that day in October came when I got the call about possibly pastoring, Joe Q. called me in his office. I didn't know he already knew I was going to get the call and after having received it I was not looking forward to talking to him about it. I wasn't scared of what he might say by any means. I wanted to know his opinion. I was scared that he would feel what I was feeling, that is, God was calling me to pastor. As much as I wanted to do that with God's leading, I also knew I'd be leaving him. When that familiar voice came on the intercom and asked me to come to his office, I did with tears beginning to well up in my eyes. I sat down on his couch and he started, "Do you think you're ready to pastor?" I told him I didn't think so. I had so much more to learn but my heart was being pulled in that direction. He leaned over his desk and looked me in the eyes and said, "I know you're ready." He said, "The first time I heard you preach I knew you wouldn't be with me long. God was preparing you to pastor. I didn't think it would come this soon, but I'm proud of you and you're going to be a good pastor."
Joe Q. wasn't really an emotional person. He had a way of not allowing himself to get emotional or at least over emotional in front of people if he could help it. The next few weeks were tough at the church. I could feel a separation and I knew it was just the way the leaving was being dealt with. He immediately went about looking for my replacement even though I still had a couple of months left before I would leave for Perry. At first it caught me off guard, but looking back, he was all business. The church had to go on. "The people" needed their church to be strong.
I remember my last week in the office before we moved. I was sitting at my computer getting everything together when there was a knock on my door and it was Bro. Joe Q. Instead of calling me to his office, he came and sat in mine. He had that warm smile for me as I'd seen many times before and asked if I was ready to be a pastor. I told him I was ready to give it all I had. We sat there in probably what was 15 seconds of silence but what felt like 15 minutes. I looked up and there were tears in his eyes. He told me I was like another son to him and he loved me and appreciated me more that I knew and that he was definitely going to miss our times together. Then he looked at me and said, "God showed me something about you." When Joe Q. said, "God said," you better take notice. He was very careful not to attribute anything to God that he wasn't 100% sure God had said. He looked at me and said, "God has sent you to Perry because you're a fighter. If you will be faithful to Him even when it's unpopular and hard, He will bless your efforts and the church is going to explode with new people and growth. Souls are going to be saved and Perry is going to take notice." He continued, "The enemy is going to send wolves in sheep's clothing to bombard your mind and your church. You will be fighting more than you ever have. They will come in appearing as if they have come to help or to love you and your family and the church, but their motives are unpure. Don't be afraid though. God will be with you and he will give you victory if you will be faithful. Mark those who cause disension and protect those God gives you." With a gentle hug, he left the office. The next Sunday we'd leave and the words he gave me have proved to be perfectly crafted. Before he left the office that day, I asked him when would my fighting end. He looked at me and said, "Until you've won and I'm praying for you."
We never got around to seeing each other as much as I hoped we would when I left. We talked on the phone on a semi-regular basis. He was going to come preach for me a few times but something would come up at the last minute. By greatest regret is that I didn't get to see him one last time. At the time of this blog, Billie and I had made plans yesterday to be on the road at the time just getting into Vidalia to see this man who meant so much to us both. Joe Q. was Billie's first pastor as a baby girl in Donalsonville. He was her last pastor before becoming a pastor's wife. Sadly, we weren't able to see him before the Lord took him. And while my heart hurts immensely, I know we'll see him again in glory where cancer couldn't follow, pain had to cease, and the anointed man of God has found himself at the feet of his Savior Jesus Christ. It's where he always longed to be.
We will continue to pray and support Sis. Mae and his family through this time. The pain and grief the rest of us feel can't match what they are experiencing. Sometimes time has a way of half way preparing you for these things, but I don't know that anything can prepare you for the finality of a life in a moment.
Joe Q. . . my pastor, friend, and mentor . . . Billie and I love you deeply. We thank you for everything you did for us. I thank you for what you did for my parents in ministry. I didn't always understand everything you did, but as time goes by, it has become clearer and clearer. You only had all of our best interests at heart. You impacted in ways that you'll never know. Anything good in my ministry today has you to thank for it at least in some way. I'm going to miss you and I look forward to seeing you again. I know right now you're "finer than a frog hair split three ways" as you used to always say. I think you've probably also found that God never was a Florida Gator fan. He just liked Tebow. Truth be told, the only One you were a fan of was God and now you're in His presence. Thank you for everything and for the example you set. You may be gone from this life, but you'll never be forgotten.