He’s the new pastor at First Baptist Church, but not a new kid in town

Published 8:15 am Monday, August 26, 2013

First Baptist Church of Bogalusa has a long and storied history, from its founding in 1908, two years after the sawmill town was founded by the Goodyear family to house the workers for the Great Southern Lumber Company, to the present day, where it casts a large footprint within the community through its various ministries, which have helped to not only strengthen the community, but to strengthen the church and its congregants as well.

The church’s new pastor, Greg Whaley, began his sojourn at First Baptist in Bogalusa as the minister of music, a position he held for nine years. He talked about how he came to Bogalusa, having been hired by longtime pastor, Bob Adams.

“I submitted a resume to come here and some materials to let them know that I was interested,” he said, and then the process began.

“We prayed together and walked together for a couple of months,” he continued, then finally, he said, he was brought before the congregation to lead as minister of music.

Ultimately, it’s the congregation that has the final say, Whaley said.

“The Baptist church historically has been a completely democratic, autonomous church. No convention tells a Baptist church what to do,” Whaley said with conviction. “Each church listens to the Lord, tries to discern His will and then moves. There’s nobody telling them what they can and can’t do.

“It’s very democratic.”

Whaley, who came to Bogalusa via Illinois and Tennessee, had his first full-time church in Troy, Tenn. He went to Union University in Jackson, Tenn., a Baptist school, to pursue his passion to be involved in music ministry.

His music ministry, said Whaley, was a vehicle, he believes to bring him to where he is now — fully committed to be a minister of God in a church he says, he’ll “stay as long as they let me.”

“I love this church where God has me,” he said with huge grin. “It’s a strong church, and they love me.

“I’ve been in the school of Pastor Bob Adams,” he said, when asked about his seminary education. “I’ve learned more working with him for 10 years than I would have learned in any seminary.”

First Baptist Church has changed much since it was chartered in 1910.

At the time the church was founded, Bogalusa was essentially “the Wild West in a Southern setting,” according to Bogalusa writer and historian Bob Landry. It was time when many rural people were not particularly interested in religion and, according to Landry, members of the early churches in area were forced to listen to their pastor speak above the sounds of men on horseback ride around the building, firing their guns into the air in Wild West fashion.

But it wasn’t long until the town of Bogalusa settled into a more family-oriented community, replete with numbers of Protestant churches being formed throughout the Washington Parish area. There were a couple of churches founded much earlier than First Baptist. The church now known as Union Avenue Baptist was founded on the Pearl River at Poole’s Bluff in 1855, and Lee’s Creek Baptist, an offshoot of Union, was organized in 1871. But in 1908, there was not another church within the corporate limits of Bogalusa save First Baptist.

The first pastor, the Rev. A. Finch, left in 1908, and he was followed by the Rev. J.E. Brakefield, who served until 1919. Years passed, pastors came and went, and the church continued to grow.

By the time the new millennium arrived, First Baptist Church had gone from its humble beginnings in a small wooden building to a campus consisting of an imposing sanctuary, two education buildings, and a large Family Life Center, where the church’s Christian Fine Arts Academy provides art and music lessons for community members.

It was in 2001, that the Rev. Bob Adams became the pastor of First Baptist. Under his leadership, the church has reached out into the community through a number of different ministries, one tailored for local youth, another for people with special needs and a Spanish ministry. Each year the church sponsors Easter sunrise services in Cassidy Park, and just recently it has provided a donated house to be used by the Children’s Advocacy Center to conduct counseling sessions, interview and meetings.

Earlier this year, the members of First Baptist Church said goodbye to their pastor of 12 years, when Adams decided it was time to retire from full-time ministry.

And it was just about the same time that Adams had decided to retire that Whaley, through much soul-searching and reflection, he said, had began to feel God saying to him it was time to take the next step.

“That’s not how a lot of people come to it,” he said. “But because of my stubbornness, I think, God had to kind of unfold that to me rather than just download it immediately,” he said with a laugh. “So for the past 12 months I wrestled with it and about that time Bro. Bob came to me and said, ‘I’m feeling like God’s releasing me from full-time ministry,’ I told him about my recent calling.

After much prayer together with Bro. Adams, Whaley informed the church of his availability and his call.

“We have had the smoothest process of transition that any church could imagine.

It almost feels like this is the way it should be — the church raises up its own leaders.”

Something Whaley feels strongly about is making time to commune with the father, in silence, when the rest of the world is pushed aside.

“We have to make time. You have to push it aside. It won’t happen on its own.”

He said that technology, including cell phones, iPods, etc., does make our lives more efficient, but doesn’t necessarily make our lives better.

“God walks with us and he holds us up,” Whaley said. “And he carries us when we can’t walk ourselves. And there are times that we need to push the world aside and say ‘OK, God, I’m calling on you.’”

But sometimes there are no answers, he said.

“What I’ve come to understand is not that He answers all my questions or all my prayers, but that He walks with me. And I don’t have to know why I feel a certain way or why I think bad things happen to me.

The point that Whaley was making is one that is sometimes lost on people, he said.

“Instead of asking, ‘Why me, God?’ when bad things happen, why not turn it around and say, ‘Why me, God? Why am I so blessed?’

Whaley continued. “It’s not about God — the bad things and the good things. It’s about He’s with us to walk through life. Life is broken. Bad things are going to happen, but He’s not the author of those things. He is with us, fighting against the bad things.”

Concluding, Whaley said, “When you don’t get an answer or you don’t hear from God, just trust that He’s with you, but you’re not ready for it (the answer).

When talking about his family, Whaley’s face completely lights up.

“My wife, Dara, is just the right arm of my whole ministry, always has been,” he said. “She’s the foundation from which I can move. She’s just a tremendous lady,” he said.

“She’s our minister of music right now,” he said.

“We met in Union University, both studying music. She’s very trained, she has a master’s in musicology and she’s a tremendous musician.

“She loves the Lord and is a strong believer. God has blessed me, more than I deserve, with her.”

Whaley has three children, all of them homeschooled. James, 12, likes to play video games, takes piano lessons and is active in the church.

“He just became a youth and he’s real excited about all the youth things they’re going to be doing.”

Natalie is 10 years old, and into ballet, music and painting.

“She’s our artist,” said Whaley, while showing off a painting by Natalie hanging on his wall.

Audrey is the youngest at 7, and according to her proud dad, she is a just a “pistol of energy.

“You never know what’s going to come out of her mouth. She plays hard, she works hard, she sings hard, she loves hard… she just gives everything to everything. That’s how she lives.”

And if it weren’t evident already, Whaley continued, “I couldn’t be more proud of my kids. They are wonderful children.

“We’re blessed to have a strong family.”

And he feels the same way about his First Baptist Church family.

“Our church is a good blend of older and younger folks, and a lot of great families.

“I can’t say enough about First Baptist Church.”