HANNIBAL — How does a supply preacher help a congregation deal with the tragic loss of a longtime pastor? Tom and Rhonda Hufty learned “you just love on ‘em.”
And how does God use that ministry to reshape a couple’s plans? The Huftys admit the Lord “surprised” them with a new direction -- to serve as pastor of First Baptist Church, Maryville, Ill., where the former pastor died in the pulpit.
A gunman shot and killed Fred Winters, pastor of the Maryville church for 22 years, in front of the congregation during Sunday morning worship on March 8, 2009. At the time, Hufty was serving as interim pastor at First Baptist Church, O’Fallon, in addition to his duties as Hannibal-LaGrange University’s vice president for collegiate affairs and assistant to the president.
“I remember having two thoughts [at the time]: I cannot imagine a church sitting through a service after that, and second, I pity whoever it is who goes in there afterwards,” Hufty said.
But in July 2009, God brought the church to the Huftys. Worship minister Mark Jones called, explaining that a series of “influential” Southern Baptist Convention leaders had been filling the pulpit each week since the shooting. While church members were grateful, they were beginning to look for an interim.
Hufty quickly offered to supply preach but added the church should look elsewhere for an interim pastor. After hearing Hufty preach once that August, church leaders again called to ask him to be their interim. Again, Tom responded he could only commit to supply preaching.
“My only motivation was to do anything we could do to help,” he said.
“We didn’t need a title to help them,” added Rhonda, who resigned as HLGU director of public relations on Dec. 20.
And they already had plans for their future -- three or four more years at Hannibal, then a move south to be closer to family. Their son serves on the staff at First Baptist Church in Houston, Texas.
Church leaders persisted; the Huftys agreed, and Tom officially became the interim on Oct. 11, 2009.
The SBC leaders who had preached at the church were the “heavy hitters,” Rhonda said. Even though members enjoyed the preachers, they were almost reliving the events of March 8 each Sunday because most speakers would refer to the shooting. “The people said they felt they needed a consistent voice,” she added.
“The speakers were very empathetic,” Hufty said. “But the people were ready to discover a new normal.”
Finding that “new normal” was difficult for many members because often something in a sermon or in a Sunday School class or just in the building would trigger emotions. “There was hardly a Sunday when someone didn’t say that something reminded them of him [Winters],” Hufty said.
“I just listened to their stories and loved on them.”
And healing began. “The people have been so appreciative of Tom’s coming,” Rhonda explained. “I have heard this phrase over and over: ‘He’s helped us laugh again’…. Pastor Fred was so loved…. People don’t want to laugh because…they feel guilty” for laughing in the face of tragedy.
Since accepting the HLGU post 13 years ago, Hufty has spent nearly every Sunday as a supply preacher or interim pastor. For 13 years prior to moving to Hannibal, he served as associate pastor of student and family ministries at Pleasant Valley Baptist Church, Liberty.
Hufty brings compassion and love to every ministry encounter, whether in a church or with students on campus, Rhonda said. “We come in to bridge the gap…to prepare the church for the new shepherd…just by meeting their needs…whatever the issue,” she explained.
In May, members began asking the committee to talk to the Huftys about making their ministry permanent. But commitment to HLGU and the call of family remained strong.
“I tried to tell the committee that the [congregation’s] reaction was typical. I told them we had our plans,” Hufty said.
But God had other plans. “Generally, God just started turning our hearts to the church in a way that was humbling and surprising,” Rhonda said. “We sensed we were being a help but we still had our plans.”
Tom finally gave the committee his resume in the spring but told them to place it at the bottom of pile. Committee members broached the subject again at the end of the summer. This time, the Huftys gave them four “iron-clad” reasons why Tom could not accept, but promised to pray and to tell the committee by September or October if they would let Tom consider him as a candidate.
Care for their parents was a primary concern. Rhonda’s father, a widower, lives in Hannibal and Tom’s parents reside within 30 miles of town. God began opening possibilities for their parents and stepping in to make the Huftys’ other concerns “manageable,” Tom said.
The Huftys met with the committee informally on Oct. 31, with a formal interview a few Sundays later. The committee’s stack of 180 resumes had been reduced to two and Hufty was members’ unanimous choice.
“That’s when it hit us that, wow, this is serious,” Hufty said. The “overwhelming” response received when the choice was announced Nov. 21 and the 99.9 percent approval on Dec. 5 confirmed the call.
Tom will officially become First Baptist’s full-time pastor on Feb. 1 to allow him time to finish some projects at Hannibal-LaGrange and to help smooth the transition to a new vice president.
But the Huftys will continue to minister at the church each Sunday, and members have already accepted Tom’s leadership.
For the past year, the people have called him Dr. Hufty. Since the day they voted, he has become “Pastor Tom.”