Reflections on Bob Williamson’s Ministry at First Baptist Church of Decatur
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 Outlook (monthly newsletter).
Call to Ministry
Like many, Bob’s call to ministry was unexpected. While attending First Baptist Church of Athens and nearing the end of his tenure at the University of Georgia (UGA) where he was studying Forestry Resources and Business Administration, Bob felt that “Divine pull” into pastoral ministry.
“I just had this overwhelming sense that I was supposed to be doing something else. Initially, I dismissed it, but eventually I couldn’t put it off any longer,” he said. “I mentioned it to Margie and my mother, and they both said, ‘Yeah, we knew that.’” It was one of those instances where others knew what Bob was ultimately called to do before he did.
Bob’s grandfather and uncle were both pastors, and his mother served as school director on a church staff in addition to attending church nearly every Sunday. So, Bob was no stranger to church or ministry.
Through a family friend’s guidance, Bob adjusted his studies at UGA and then found his way to Southern Theological Baptist Seminary where he graduated in 1976.
After graduation, Bob took a job as the Youth Pastor at Bull Street Baptist in Savannah. A few years later, he took over as the Youth and Activities Director at FBC Chamblee before working in education at FBC Conyers for a short season.
Bob ended up at First Baptist Church of Tucker for roughly nine years as their Minister of Education. While things started well, the pastor eventually left, and they entered into a rough interim season.
“It kind of became a defining characteristic of life in ministry for me,” he said reflecting on interim seasons. “We lost multiple staff members and I ended up kind of being in charge.”
When the new pastor came on and started calling new staff, Bob knew it was time to move on. “The church ended up going in a new direction after that, so I was a little more open to going somewhere else, and somebody floated my resume toward First Baptist Decatur.”
Coming to FBCD
Bob started at First Baptist Church of Decatur as the Minister of Education and Outreach in the early 1990s. The church was rapidly growing at the time. “At one point, we had four new Sunday School classes start over a six-week period because there were so many people coming.” Bob also told of how the church would weekly bring in young adults from Gwinnett County at the time because so many wanted to attend FBC Decatur.
“And even though there were larger numbers then than there are now, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s less commitment today,” Bob notes. “The DNA of the church is the same: we’re still mission-minded, moderate, open, accepting, caring, and a leader in changes happening in the denomination.”
Changes Along the Way
Reflective of Bob’s prior experience, ministry challenges eventually found their way to FBCD as senior leadership left, budgets became tighter from a collapsing national economy, and tensions arose from within the denomination.
Bob recalls that there was a stability lost along the way when some of the internal structure at FBCD began shifting. As more people left, he took on more responsibilities. “It became a ministry of crisis versus the ministry of priority at that point,” he said.
Eventually, the church began to find its grounding again. “We always had great preachers, even during the interim,” Bob said, indicating that a strong pulpit always helped maintain a hopeful morale. “In some ways, we’re more prominent and recognized in the [Decatur] community now than other places that have had similar struggles. We were still able to become the ‘front lawn’ of Decatur where so many in the community find connection.”
When asked how he became so involved with the senior adult’s ministry, Bob responded, “[the senior adults] requested it, really, but part of that began because I just knew them. Interims are a little bit stressful, but if you get through it together, it does something for the group.”
There have been other changes and challenges along the way. Bob cites technological improvements and growth as one of those. While technology has changed the way churches can positively communicate with non-church-goers, “we’re still trying to regain a little bit of personal connection outside of it,” he says.
Despite the changes, the church has stayed fairly healthy during Bob’s tenure. “Staff members come and go, but the congregation’s identity has stayed the same. In some ways we may be a little stronger in our [Baptist] identity because of the challenges along the way.”
The people at First Baptist Decatur and the shared memories are what have made Bob’s ministry experience so valuable. When asked for some of his favorite memories at FBCD, he is quick to jump to community-wide experiences.
“The 150th anniversary celebration was cool.” He led the celebration planning and remembers the church being so full that almost no one else could get into the building.
“We had 650 people packed in the gym for the anniversary luncheon after the service, and I had to turn people away at the door,” he remarked. “I heard about it for weeks! It was such a great experience though.”
In addition to the anniversary celebration, some of Bob’s other highlights include Young at Heart trips to Alaska and Greece, staff retreats, hearing Walter Brueggemann speak, and the evolution of a more recent program, Christmas on Clairemont.
“Our music ministry is at a newer level than it’s probably ever been,” he said. “I’m really proud of our church and its people. We’ve come a long way and have done a lot of good things.”
Now, after 28 years of serving the community at First Baptist Decatur, Bob is looking forward to retirement. When asked what his plans are he replied, “My last day is a Wednesday, so on Thursday I plan to be in the woods.”
An avid outdoorsman and lover of nature, Bob is eager to get back into green spaces. In addition to planting seedlings on their tree farm, he hopes to revamp his involvement with the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club and spend more intentional time on hiking trails.
“I plan on spending a lot of time with my kids and grandkids, too,” he said. “I have a lot of reading to catch up on and I’m even thinking of picking back up the guitar!” There are also numerous volunteer opportunities in Decatur that have interested Bob over the years, and he hopes to invest some of his energies in making even more of an impact in the local community.
Hope for the Future
When asked about the future of FBCD, Bob remains infectiously hopeful. “There is a sense of stability in the church now, and historically, stability has indicated growth for this church. We have a great opportunity to continue that with the staff we have here.”
And with that growth, Bob hopes the church can draw more people in. “I hope [First Baptist] becomes a center of spirituality for people, a place of support, encouragement, connection – and a place where they can find belonging.”
It has been that place for Bob for almost three decades now, a sanctuary where his faith has not only been tested but refined. “There’s a different kind of depth there now,” he said reflecting on his relationship with God. “It’s easier to see where things are headed now and why. But it’s like any relationship though; it has to be an intentional pursuit.”
Bob’s last day on staff at FBCD will be Wednesday, October 31, 2018. Like several staff members before him, Bob and Margie will take a few months off from the church before returning. “This is our church home and we don’t ever see that changing.”
Bob’s pastoral leadership and warm compassion has transformed more lives than one could count. His presence and contributions to our ministry staff will be greatly missed.
We love you, Bob! There are not enough words to express our gratitude for your ministry in our community. From the bottom of our hearts: thank you!
There will be a retirement celebration in Carreker Hall for Bob on Sunday, October 28th following the 11:15am service. The church is currently collecting a love offering to give to Bob. If you would like to contribute, please contact Dilshad Premji at the church finance office at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 404-373-1653.