By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
MADISONVILLE — Frank Hicks says it feels like yesterday that he began his pastorship at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Madisonville.
In actuality, it was more than 12,500 yesterdays ago.
Displaying loyalty and longevity, Hicks has served as the senior pastor at Bethlehem Baptist for three and half decades.
Last month, the church held a celebration — which included a surprise video during the worship service and a potluck lunch — to mark his 35th anniversary.
“As a church, we feel that being under someone’s leadership for this many years is just amazing,” said Bethlehem Baptist member Jody Bunch, who coordinates the church’s special services.
“His sermons are never boring. There’s always something new. It’s obvious to us that God is constantly giving him something new to say, and something he can give to us.”
So, what is it that keeps Hicks going — or more accurately, staying — after all this time? He says he is still following a piece of advice he received many years ago when a group from the Tennessee Baptist Convention visited Bethlehem Baptist.
“One of the men in the group came up to me at the close of the service and ask me how long I’d been at this church,” Hicks recalled. “And I told him, ‘I’ve been here 10 years.’ And he said to me, ‘well, why don’t you stay at this church and see what God does?’”
And that is exactly what Hicks has done.
“Every time (there has been potential to leave) or when another church has even looked at me, those same words come up in my heart: why don’t you stay at this church and see what God does,” said Hicks. “Those have been the key words that God has used in my heart through the years.”
Prior to being called to Bethlehem Baptist, Hicks served at two other churches — Bethel Springs (in the Calhoun area) and Clear Springs Baptist Church (located between Riceville and Decatur).
When he arrived in Madisonville, he never envisioned that it would be his home for more than 35 years.
“When the Bible says, ‘life is just a vapor,’ I can relate to that,” said Hicks, “because it seems like I just got here yesterday.”
Bethlehem Baptist, like most any church, has experienced some difficult days over the past few decades. But the church, and Hicks, have always come through it.
“There are no perfect churches,” he said. “You are going to deal with problems anywhere you go. So, I have just hung in there with it and stayed right here.”
During his tenure, Hicks has witnessed all kinds of changes to the country’s culture. When he started serving at Bethlehem, computers were essentially a novelty, social media was not really even a concept, and Ronald Regan was in the second year of his presidency.
Meanwhile, Hicks has also seen changes to his church, both inside and outside, since his tenure started in 1982. The church has built a new sanctuary, which is twice as big as the previous one, and has added a family life center, during his 35 years.
“One of the men who spoke at the celebration said, ‘I am glad our pastor is flexible and able to change,’ ” Hicks said with a laugh.
Evidence of Hicks’ ability to change can be found during Sunday morning worship. “We sing contemporary music now, along with a lot of the old ones, too,” said Hicks. “It’s completely different than when I came 35 years ago, that’s for sure.”
Hicks’ preaching style often includes stories from his childhood, which enables him to connect with church members from many different age groups, Bunch said.
“He grew up in a rural area in Riceville, Tennessee, and he likes to tell stories about that,” said Bunch, “but he will translate that in a way that it relates to current situations. He also takes those stories and makes them interesting for everyone, from youth to senior adults.”
Hicks said he has a method of preparation that continuously helps him approach the Bible from a fresh perspective. And, in turn, the congregation feels renewed, too.
“Through the years, I have preached through books of the Bible, and that has kept me refreshed,” he said.
“And I think it helps keep the people refreshed because they are learning and not just being preached to.”