Fifty years after preaching his first sermon, Ron Edwards jokes that he knows the secret to ministry.
Change churches every three years.
Actually, Edwards — who is retiring from full-time preaching — spent the past 37 years serving the Roosevelt Drive Church of Christ in this military community about 120 miles southeast of Raleigh.
Given the transitory nature of Marines and Navy sailors, it just seemed like his home church kept changing.
“I’m the only guy that the congregation moves, and I stay,” Edwards, who will turn 81 in October, said with a laugh.
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Within a few years of moving to Jacksonville in 1985, Edwards said he came to recognize — and embrace — Roosevelt Drive’s role as a “training congregation.”
The mission does not.
“I saw that if we did a good job here training these 18- to 25-year-old people who were used to Mommy and Daddy doing everything … and if we prepared them for Uncle Sam to send them somewhere, they’d be an asset when they got there,” Edwards told media. “So that’s what kept me here.”
‘This became our family’
On a recent weekend, a contingent of those former members — now older and serving as leaders in churches across the nation — returned to Roosevelt Drive.
They came back — to the place they developed talents in teaching, preaching, singing, giving and making potluck dishes — to celebrate the congregation’s 70th anniversary and honor Edwards.
“When we moved down here, we didn’t have our family,” said Jennie Hull, who was just 18 when she and her husband, Allen, then a 21-year-old Marine, lived in Jacksonville for four years in the late 1980s. “This became our family.”
Fellow Christians welcomed the young couple into their home for Thanksgiving.
Edwards took Allen Hull fishing.
“We were in a Bible study with Ron and his wife, Anne, and they became our second parents,” Jennie Hull said. “The church here just has a special place in our heart. Our first baby was born here.”
Now members of a Church of Christ in Chillicothe, Ohio, the Hulls drove 550 miles to attend the homecoming event.
“There’s a lot of faces here that we don’t know,” Jennie Hull said. “But there’s a lot of older people here that were so influential.”
Mark and Dianne Howe, members of the Salem Church of Christ in Illinois, traveled even farther — 900 miles — for the anniversary celebration.
Like the Hulls, they did so because of what Roosevelt Drive meant to them when Mark Howe was stationed at Camp Lejeune in the 1980s.
“When we came here, we were automatically made a part of the family,” Mark Howe said. “We were put to work. There wasn’t any, ‘Well, we’ll see how you do.’”
The future church elder remembers Ron Edwards coming to him and telling him the congregation needed a song leader the next week.
“I’m like, ‘I’ve never led singing before in my life,’” Mark Howe said.
But Dianne Howe’s father had taught songleading for years, he said.
“So in a week’s time, she taught me how to lead singing,” Mark Howe said. “And I started leading singing here.”
Anne Edwards, meanwhile, encouraged Dianne Howe to develop her leadership talents.
“She said, ‘I saw a real shy, timid girl, but I knew there could be more than that,’” Dianne Howe recalled. “It gave me a lot of confidence to be able to talk to people and use my talents. Before I left here, she had me speaking at ladies’ days and things like that.”
50 years of preaching in military community
Marines and sailors from Newport, N.C., started the Roosevelt Drive church in 1952.
Seven decades later, the 150-member congregation is split about 60-40 between the military and civilians.
All six of the church’s elders, including Ron Edwards, spent at least a brief time in the service.
“It helps in a military congregation if you’ve got somebody who understands a little bit about the military,” Edwards said.
A native of eastern North Carolina, Edwards — baptized at age 12 — grew up working in tobacco fields.
He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1962. That same year, he married Anne, his high school sweetheart. In the military, he served four years as an air traffic controller.
From 1966 to 1972, he worked for Western Auto in Florida. But then a pastor in Jacksonville, Fla., persuaded Edwards to attend Sunset International Bible Institute in Lubbock, Texas, and study to become a minister. At age 30, Edwards preached his first sermon on June 11, 1972.
In the decade after finishing Sunset’s two-year curriculum in 1974, he worked with a domestic mission team in Pennsylvania, preached for the Kinston Church of Christ in North Carolina and served as a missionary to Trinidad and Tobago, a dual-island Caribbean nation near Venezuela.
The Roosevelt Drive church — which had supported Edwards’ work in Trinidad — hired him as its preacher in 1985.
Given Edwards’ commitment to global evangelism, the church’s leaders agreed he could take two weeks a year for short-term mission trips. He returned to Trinidad nearly every year — a practice he believes helped focus Roosevelt Drive members on the Great Commission.
Closer to home, Edwards helped make Vacation Bible School a weeklong event and spearheaded the church’s involvement in Lads to Leaders. He encouraged donations for Bibles for China and support of Agape of North Carolina, a ministry focused on foster care, adoptions and counseling services. He coordinated disaster relief efforts after a half-dozen hurricanes.
But much of his influence can be seen in individual Christians.
Marge Tredwell, 90, is one of the congregation’s longtime civilian members.
“You taught me how to be a Bible class teacher,” Tredwell told Edwards as family, friends and fellow Christians paid tribute to him. “I’m still teaching. I’m not going to give it up until they tell me, ‘Mrs. Marge, go home.’
“But please don’t tell me to go home,” she added as the audience laughed. “Please let me continue to spread God’s word.”
‘I can’t preach forever’
Over the years, Edwards said he frequently told the church’s leaders, “Listen, I don’t want to be here one day longer than you want.”
About two years ago, his fellow elders asked about his plans for the future.
“Well, I know I can’t preach forever,” he replied. “But I would like to preach into my 80s, as long as I can do the job.”
Not long after that, the elders shared their desire for his retirement to coincide with the 70th anniversary event.
“So in one sense I’ve carried that burden of knowing that I have a ‘stop date’ out there,” he said. “But the other thing is, who gets a two-year warning? Most of the time, (the preacher is let go) Sunday evening after he said the wrong thing Sunday morning.”
Edwards will remain an elder of the congregation, and he will keep teaching a Sunday Bible class. He plans to continue doing short-term missions, as his health allows.
He might consider assignments as an interim minister at other Churches of Christ.
“I wouldn’t mind filling in … between a long-term man and hiring the next one,” Edwards said of that potential role. “Sometimes, that next guy coming in after a favorite son — it’s hard for him to measure up.”
But he doesn’t expect that to be the case at Roosevelt Drive.
The congregation’s new full-time preacher will be familiar: Jim Bender and Edwards have given the sermons on alternating Sundays the past four years.
Bender is a former Marine helicopter pilot who first attended Roosevelt Drive while stationed at Camp Lejeune from 1983 to 1991. Back then, he and his wife, Becky, served as the church’s unpaid youth group coordinators.
During that time, Jim Bender said he learned how to evangelize by going on Bible studies with Edwards.
Bender’s role was to serve as a “silent partner” while Edwards shared the Good News.
“I had kid patrol, pet patrol,” Bender said. “Anything that was distracting to the study, I kept to a minimum, so Ron could do his work and stay in the Scriptures and keep them on track.”
They ‘lived the Gospel’
After leaving the military, Bender — like a number of Marines influenced by Edwards — enrolled at Sunset and became a minister himself.
According to church leaders, he is one of at least 25 former Roosevelt Drive members now serving in full- or part-time ministry.
Bender spent 12 years as a church planter in San Diego before Edwards called and asked him to return to Roosevelt Drive as the involvement minister in 2006.
Joining Bender on the ministry staff as Edwards retires will be Robin Vick, a former missionary to Scotland. Vick and his wife, Chrissy, who grew up at Roosevelt Drive, are both graduates of Sunset and Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas.
An emotional Bender served as the emcee for the ceremony honoring his longtime mentor.
Bender prayed that the occasion would be worthy of Ron and Anne Edwards’ 37 years of service to the congregation.
To recognize the couple, the church plans to construct an outreach center named after them.
“They went well above and beyond,” Bender said. “They decorated classrooms and bulletin boards. They set up ladies’ days and men’s retreats.
“Ron and Anne Edwards taught many of us the Gospel and lived the Gospel,” he added. “They trained us to share and teach the Gospel to others and fulfill our part, individually and collectively, in the Great Commission.”
This story was originally published by The Christian Chronicle.
Bobby Ross Jr. is a columnist for Religion Unplugged and editor-in-chief of The Christian Chronicle. A former religion writer for The Associated Press and The Oklahoman, Ross has reported from all 50 states and 15 nations. He has covered religion since 1999.