A couple weeks ago, Bill Ricketts announced his retirement from Prince Avenue Baptist Church (PABC) in Athens, GA. You may be wondering, why do you care about this random pastor’s retirement? Because “Brother Bill,” as he’s affectionately known, has had an enduring—though often invisible—impact on The Summit Church. From my last count, at least 27 of our Summit staff or missionaries have sat under the preaching and leadership of Brother Bill. It’s no accident, either: Bill has led PABC to be one of the most significant sending churches within the entire Southern Baptist Convention during his 43 years as pastor. (For those of you doing the math: yes, he’s been in ministry about as long as I’ve been alive.)
I had the chance to catch up with Bill last week, and asked him to share a little about what he’s learned over the years.
J.D.: Brother Bill, tell me about the two great calls in your life, the call to follow Christ and the call to be pastor.
Bill: I was born in Florida, spent most of my years in Kentucky, and moved around a lot but when I was a boy. In Indiana, at the age of 9, my Christian parents always took me to Sunday School. I had a great teacher who had a heart for memorizing Scripture. I began memorizing Scripture because for every verse I did, I got a free pencil. But the Spirit of God used it anyway. One day I was learning Romans 10:13, “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” And God used that verse in my heart to call me to salvation.
As for my call, you have to understand that I was in a little church in Bowling Green, KY that raised up and sent out over 200 pastors and missionaries. This was just what it meant to give your life to Jesus, so I surrendered the call to gospel ministry when I was a senior in high school. The first time I shared my testimony was in a jail (not because I was in there but because my pastor took me with him). By the time I was a sophomore in college, I had my first pastorate. That’s how I got through school—pastoring that small country church.
J.D.: You’ve been at Prince Avenue for 43 years. When you look back on that time, what could you share with younger pastors?
Bill: My early mentors did a lot to model for me how powerful the Word is. They also helped me see that the church doesn’t belong to me, but to Jesus. I am simply the under-shepherd, as 1 Peter 5 tells us. So every time we send young pastors out from our church, I tell them: If God calls you, be willing to be there the rest of your life, love people, and give them the Word.
As for making it 43 years, I came to PABC to plant my life and invest my life. It was simply one day after another, and then one year after another. And now, the next thing I know, God is redirecting our ministry.
J.D.: Tell me about the sending ethos of your ministry.
Bill: I’ve always felt that people who really love Jesus and his Word can’t help but tell others about it. I’ve worked with some great staff and leaders over the years. All of them have emphasized that to follow Jesus is to be raised up and sent out. Our Pastor of College & Singles, for instance, has a great heart for the nations and that affects the whole church. And the senior class at our Christian school takes a mission trip as part of graduating. We want to love people, and the way you do that is by sharing the love of Jesus. That’s it.
J.D.: You seem to have something at PABC that most say is impossible—lots of older folks in your church with lots of younger folks. How have you navigated that?
Bill: There have been times it has been difficult, but overall, our older people here at Prince are excited to see our younger folks raised up and sent out, either to the ministry or the nations. We are now ordaining sons and grandsons of our older members into the gospel ministry. They came to us as volunteers and interns and now they are around the world. Most folks, no matter their age, get excited about that.
J.D.: You serve as a Trustee with the International Mission Board (IMB). What are your thoughts on serving in that role in the future?
Bill: My first meeting as an IMB trustee was the meeting where the search committee introduced David Platt. How about that for your first meeting? I had heard of David Platt before, but after listening to him, talking with him, and hearing his heart, I felt this was God’s timing. I feel very good about the direction of the IMB now. David Platt is leading us well.
I’ve been telling other pastors here in the Georgia Baptist Convention that it is time to raise up a new generation of younger pastors to hear what God is calling them to do. David doesn’t just want to send 5,000 missionaries; he wants to send 10,000 missionaries. That sort of vision inspires me, because that’s what our God does—by multiplying and multiplying—and that’s how we’re going to accomplish the mission. For instance, David just told me a story about how we have six new people sent to a Muslim country, but only one is paid as a full-time IMB missionary. The other five are actually being paid by that government or another business. Still, all of them are there for the gospel!
J.D.: What about the SBC? What excites you about the future of the SBC and what challenges do you feel like the convention faces?
Bill: I was on the Executive Committee during the “battle for the Bible.” That was hard, but I was so thankful God let me be a part of that. I watched that convention change from where we were to being a people of the Book. Now I see a people with a renewed burden for reaching the nations. We need to get younger people to start working together with us in accomplishing that. We need to get older people to understand that change isn’t all bad. (I think sometimes we older pastors can get in a rut and want to fight tooth-and-nail for things that simply don’t matter in the long run.)
But for the mission to be central, we’ve got to stop criticizing one another for minor things. For example, I know some people who have criticized faithful preachers because they’ve stopped wearing a suit and tie. Now, personally, I still wear a tie, but we’ve got to see some of these things as preferences. I may not like all the contemporary music that’s out there, but I’ve been willing to give up some of my music preferences to get our congregation to have a blended service.
We all struggle with change. I struggle with change. But change isn’t bad, as long as we don’t violate God’s Law and we keep the Great Commission going forward. We’ve got to pull together, because there is nothing worse to a watching world than when God’s people are fighting or criticizing one another. And on the flip side, there is nothing more beautiful than when a convention of God’s people are working together. I truly believe the best days are ahead, both for Prince Avenue and for our convention.
J.D.: What would you tell me and other pastors about being faithful with your families during ministry?
Bill: I have the best pastor’s wife in the world. Of course, it took me two years to convince her to marry me, but this year we celebrate 52 years of marriage. Pastors must manage their time wisely. In my early days I spent too much time in the work and not enough on my family but I learned to start taking my wife with me on visits. I took my kids to conventions. I took my family on mission trips. We are all excited and passionate about ministry but we don’t want to wake up one day with a brittle or neglected marriage. If you lose your family, then you’ve lost your ministry.
JD: Over the years, what books have influenced you the most besides the Bible?
Bill: Heralds of God by James Stewart, Counter Culture by David Platt (which every pastor ought to read). And I’m really enjoying biographies lately of the great men of faith. I love Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce, because it showed me that we have to make people understand that where God has you is more important than standing in a pulpit. Wilberforce set thousands free and changed the culture by remaining in parliament.
JD: When is it okay to preach a sermon twice? In 43 years, I know you’ve done it before. (I’m asking for a friend.)
Bill: I guess when you don’t remember the last time you preached something, then most likely your congregation won’t remember either. Of course, there will be one sweet lady who will undoubtedly come up to you and point out the last time you did. My seminary professor told me, “If it is worth preaching once, then it’s worth preaching twice.”
Bill Ricketts’ last Sunday will be November 13th. Brother Bill’s last sermon series will be focused on how to respond and follow their new pastor—who, by the way, will only be the 4th pastor that Prince Avenue Baptist Church has had in the last 60 years. Would you join me in thanking God for his faithfulness in and through Bill Ricketts?