It's in the planning every year at Bethlehem Baptist Church. The congregation wants the pastor to know that he's appreciated. This year, the Rev. Derek A. Arnold I is celebrating his 20th year as pastor of Bethlehem. There might be some irony in the fact that Bethlehem honors its preacher by asking others to stand in his pulpit, but the church members are not saying they don't want to hear Pastor Arnold. “I haven't received those kinds of messages in my 20 years thus far, knock on wood,” Pastor Arnold said.
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The planners in the almost 300-member congregation lined up guest preachers for services the next three Sundays at 4 p.m. The Rev. Talmadge J. Thomas I of City of Zion, the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Toledo leads off this Sunday. On March 23 the Rev. T. Scott Swan I of Mt. Zion Baptist Church—Woodlawn (a Cincinnati suburb) has the honors, and on March 30 the Rev. Floyd Smith Jr. of Toledo's Calvary Baptist Church has his turn.
On April 4—Rev. Arnold's actual pastoral anniversary date—from 7 to 11 p.m., an evening gala will take place at the church's New Life Center, next door to the sanctuary building. A $40 admission includes dinner and musical entertainment; contact the church office at 419-241- 9360 for tickets and other information. Then at Bethlehem's regular 9 a.m. worship service April 6, the Rev. Greggory R. Maddox of Faith Baptist Church in Baltimore will preach.
When the appreciations are being planned, Pastor Arnold said, “I kind of take a backseat and see what the people want to do, and if I think it's too much, I'll say something. I kind of just let the people be led in terms of how they want to show their appreciation. There was one year in my 20 years that I canceled my appreciation, and it didn't sit well with a lot of people, but I did it because we were in need of some funds to complete the kitchen.... When you have two different financial projects, one for the church and one for the pastor, the preacher's the one going to lose out on that. So I decided that it was more important that we forge ahead to complete the project on the kitchen.”
A kitchen is important to this church. During Pastor Arnold's time here, community outreach came into focus with House of Bread Ministries and the construction of the New Life Center, dedicated in 2002 on Pastor Arnold's eighth anniversary at Bethlehem.
“Bethlehem means house of bread in Greek and Hebrew,” Pastor Arnold said, “so what we try to do is meet the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the community, giving bread. They have a community dinner on the third Sundays in the afternoon where they invite the community to come in, and we've done clothing giveaways, we've done healthcare, legal; currently we're doing GED [education and assistance].” (Plans for the future are to replace the existing sanctuary building with a new, accessible one, and use the New Life Center's gym as the worship space during that time.)
Preaching also gets great attention. Pastor Arnold enrolled in Chicago Theological School for a doctor of ministry program before the New Life Center broke ground and he completed his degree in preaching soon after its dedication. “Preaching was part of the vision for this church,” he said. “My thesis was that preaching the Gospel has the ability and the power to inform a people about their faith and about their mission and about their vision to a point where they will rise up and fulfill that reality.”
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Even though he's a well-credentialed preacher, all who cross Bethlehem's threshold are not informed and fulfilling the reality he proclaims. “The downside is that I have witnessed that at least 800 people have come through this church, but they all went through the back door, the proverbial back door,” Pastor Arnold said. “I think that's where discipleship comes in. When you understand what it means to be a disciple of Christ and you have the knowledge and the desire to follow, then you make that connection. So I'm still working on closing the back door.... That back door is still open, so some have returned.”
On the upside, pastor Arnold said, “I really love teaching and doing the Bible studies because people have the opportunity to ask questions, and those questions keep me sharp and keep me on my toes and digging. I love Bible study; I get excited, I'm passionate about that, and I love preaching.”
Pastor Arnold didn't envision a 20-year ministry at Bethlehem when he came here after serving as a youth pastor at a church in his hometown of Pontiac, Mich. Other opportunities didn't arise, but he also got some family advice. “I had an aunt who lived here, my mother's sister, for a number of years. Fifty-plus years. She told me when I first came, not long after I was here, she said, 'Derek, those people need you,' she said, 'so don't you start looking to go elsewhere. They need you,' she said, 'because I know them. I was a member of that church when they were on the east side, and you have brought them a long way.' So I guess it was God's will that I be here,” Pastor Arnold said, “but it was never my intent to be here as long.”
Teaching might lure him away, but it's not lack of appreciation by the members of his congregation. That is Bethlehem's annual tradition.