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Smiths Station church surprises pastor with celebration for 25th anniversarycomment (0)

April 17, 2008

By Martine G. Bates


Pastor John Rigby stood before the congregation at Philadelphia Baptist Church, Smiths Station, as he does every Sunday. This Sunday, however, was different. The March 2 service did not seem to be unfolding according to the bulletin he had been given. When he was asked to take a seat on the front pew, Rigby knew something was up.

And something was. The congregation was about to surprise its pastor with a celebration of his 25 years at the Russell Baptist Association church. The plans were kept secret from him, because "he wouldn’t have let us do it if he had known about it," said church administrative assistant Sherri Bramlett.

Associate Pastor Skip Speed sent letters to church members a few weeks before the event, letting them know of the plans and cautioning them to keep the plans in confidence.

The elaborate plan, including a "dummy bulletin" for Rigby, worked. He later professed total surprise, joking about the need to keep a close eye on his sneaky staff and church members.

After Rigby’s wife, Margie, was brought forward to sit beside him, the tribute began with the couple’s grandchildren pinning flowers on them. Led by Speed, the celebration also included an appearance by Jimmy Cook, who led Rigby to Christ and mentored him in the ministry. The Rigbys’ daughter, who is a lobbyist in Washington, read letters of congratulation from President George W. Bush and Alabama’s two U.S. senators.

After the celebration ended, Rigby took back the reins, giving the plan of salvation as he does every Sunday — no matter what.

Rigby’s 25 years at Philadelphia Baptist make up only a part of his 56 years in the ministry. He previously served as pastor in his native Georgia and for several other churches in Alabama, including Concord Baptist, Salem, in Russell Association; West End Baptist, Valley, in East Liberty Baptist Association; and two churches in Salem-Troy Baptist Association. He spent the 10 years immediately prior to his current pastorate as a full-time evangelist.

"I didn’t come out of evangelism to come to the church," Rigby said. "I accepted under the terms that I would give them the rest of my pastoral days."

His call to the ministry came almost immediately after being saved at Northside Baptist Church, Columbus, Ga., at age 18.

"I had only attended church for about three weeks before I was saved," he recalled. "I was called to preach right after I was saved, but it took me a year to yield to the call."

Rigby attended Trinity Bible College (now Trinity College of Florida) in the Tampa Bay area.

As for his future, Rigby still does not know when he will retire, but his vision for Philadelphia Baptist extends well beyond his pastorate. The church is in a high-growth area, and he is working with staff and church members to reach the people who are moving into the community.

"God has moved a [missions] field to our door. Within a radius of five miles, there are 25,000 people," Rigby explained.

About the time the community began to blossom in the early 1990s, the church acquired 52 acres adjoining its property. In the late ’90s, a new sanctuary was built to accommodate growth. Currently there are plans for a sanctuary to seat 2,500 to 3,000; a day-care ministry; an educational building that will house 4,000; and a lighted ball field.

Additions to the church’s roll, either by letter or baptism, seem to be the norm lately, according to Rigby. "God is giving us additions almost every Sunday," he noted.

In fact, there were two additions the day of his anniversary celebration.

According to him, the secret to Philadelphia Baptist’s growth is in the attitudes of the staff and congregation.

"We have learned to accept people and love them as they are," Rigby said.

And the real story of his long tenure at the church is not even about him, he said. "The real story is the people and how they work together," Rigby said. "The people allow me to lead them."

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