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Pastor retires after more than 30 years at Dothanís Memphis Churchcomment (0)

May 1, 2008

By Susan C. Goggins

Ernest O’Neal jokes that the only reason he lasted more than 30 years as pastor of Memphis Baptist Church, Dothan, is because "people were too good to run me off, and nobody else would have me."

But members of the congregation disagree.

On March 16, they shared testimonies of appreciation for their pastor, honoring him for his long tenure and wishing him well on his March 23 retirement.

O’Neal said it was a very special day for him as many former members and old friends returned for the celebration. "The church has always been very generous to me, recognizing me every year on my anniversary."

Over the past three decades, O’Neal has traveled on missions trips to Nigeria, Guatemala, Brazil, Honduras and many other sites around the world.

"He was always looking for new ways to involve the church in missions," said Vicki Turner, a member of Memphis Baptist and O’Neal’s secretary. "He always supported all of our ministries."

And according to O’Neal, his wife, Irena, had a tremendous ministry at the Columbia Baptist Association church as well, teaching adult women in Sunday School, leading children’s choir and directing Vacation Bible School and the Woman’s Missionary Union.

"Many people told me her teaching was better than mine," he said.

Irena O’Neal quickly laughed off her husband’s comment, but she did acknowledge her love for teaching, saying the greatest joy she had was teaching the Bible.

Both O’Neals were born in Mississippi but have spent most of their 53 years of marriage living in Alabama.

Ernest O’Neal attended the Baptist College of Florida in Graceville and the University of Mobile and holds a bachelor’s of divinity.

He served churches in Phenix City and Mobile before accepting the call to Memphis Baptist in the summer of 1977.

"The Lord was in it," he said. "Yet I had no idea at all this would last 30 years."

During his time there, the church built a new sanctuary and family life center as it grew from 450 members to 1,300 members.

The biggest joy of his tenure was seeing a great number of people come to the Lord, he said.

The people of Memphis Baptist stand out in Irena O’Neal’s mind, too.

"I was just so grateful to God for the privilege He gave us to stay there so long and for the love the people gave us," she said.

Ernest O’Neal said he announced his retirement earlier this year due to health considerations and because he believed this was the time that "God was directing a change in our path."

He plans to do pulpit supply and interim work and stay based in the Dothan area. To contact O’Neal, call 334-714-5068.

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