By Lonnie Wilkey
BYRDSTOWN — Churches all across Tennessee are honoring their ministers during Pastor Appreciation Month in October and First Baptist Church, Byrdstown, is no exception.
From a message on the church sign that says, “We Appreciate You Pastor Ivan” to a gift to Ivan Raley and his wife, Carole, the Byrdstown congregation took full advantage of the opportunity to thank their pastor and his wife.
But the church’s appreciation for their pastor goes far beyond a message on a sign and a gift once a year.
Church members know that each day Ivan Raley serves as their pastor is a gift from God.
Fourteen months ago, Raley was diagnosed with stage four non-alcoholic related cirrhosis of the liver, a terminal condition with no cure.
Raley’s physician told him he would not live past Christmas 2017. The doctor was wrong.
The 80-year-old Raley is still going strong although he acknowledges some days are better than others. But he refuses to let the disease keep him from what he has been doing since he was 16 years old — preaching the gospel and ministering to others in the name of Christ.
And, the church is fully supportive of him. Instead of encouraging or asking him to retire they told him he is their pastor until he decides he can no longer do so or God calls him home first.
“They told me to plan on preaching every Sunday and if I can’t, find someone who can and they will pay for it,” noted Raley, a former vice president of Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes. “The church has supported me every step of the way.”
Raley still does weddings and funerals. The one area he had to cut back on is visits to hospitals and nursing homes or rehab centers. But, members have stepped to the plate and make those visits, Raley said.
Raley also no longer can baptize new believers because his legs have been weakened from the disease. He still gets in the water with the new believer but someone else actually does the baptism.
Church members and leadership are totally supportive of their pastor.
Butch Smith served on the pastor search committee that called Raley who was serving as interim pastor for a short time. “We didn’t want to let him go. God led him to be our pastor,” Smith affirmed.
He noted that the illness has not affected their love and appreciation for his ministry. “We want to keep him as long as he wants to be our pastor.”
David Rich, another member of the search committee that called Raley, said the illness has not affected him. “If anything, it has made him better. He has been a joy to all of us. He has taught us to be kind and compassionate to all people.”
Ron Steinhour became a Christian under Raley’s ministry at First Baptist and is now fully active in the church. “He has been an inspiration to me,” Steinhour said.
Steve Stearns attended another church in the area for a time but knew Raley. “He was like the Pied Piper. Everyone knew him.”
When his family decided to change churches, “we knew this was the church we wanted to be a part of,” Stearns said. “He (Raley) means so much to everyone. I’ve never seen anyone else like him.”
Linda Davis, who helps lead Woman’s Missionary Union at First Baptist, agreed.
“He’s a uniter, not a divider,” she said of her pastor. “He loves everybody and has such a sweet spirit. We’ve been blessed to have him.”
And, the sentiment is mutual.
Raley is proud of his congregation. Though not large (the church typically averages around 110 in worship), the church gives more than 10 percent of its undesignated receipts through the Cooperative Program and is a generous supporter of the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions, in addition to Southern Baptist Convention offerings such as world hunger, the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering.
“Our church is missions-minded,” he affirmed.
Raley knows the seriousness of his disease and diagnosis. “I’m not ready to die,” he admitted, “but I’m prepared to die.” Through it all, he clings to the hope and promises he finds in Scripture. “God has done a lot for me,” Raley affirmed.
In addition to his church family, his wife Carole and his children and grandchildren have walked with him through his latest journey. “I have had a good life.”
But he has no plans of giving up. He will serve as long as God gives him the strength and ability.
Raley knows his church members (and many others) pray for him daily. “I have to get up and go because God is answering their prayers,” he laughed. B&R