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Retiring First Baptist pastor Bill Coates candidly discusses his struggles, hopes and theology
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The Rev. Dr. Bill Coates, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Gainesville, is retiring Aug. 19 after 20 years leading the church. Coates told the congregation, “I’ve allowed myself to become depleted and distracted in focus, so it is good and it is right for you and for me that I begin my retirement.” - photo by Scott Rogers

Don’t be surprised if you someday see the Rev. Bill Coates wearing an apron and selling hammers.

“I’d love to go to work at Lowe’s or Home Depot, have a good normal job and come home at the end of the day and not have to bring stuff home in my mind,” he said with a wide smile.

Coates far from regrets his 47 years in ministry, including 20 as senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Gainesville on Green Street, but it’s a career that can take a toll on mind, body and soul.

Even “in my dreams, I’m trying to resolve how I’m going to handle this or that,” Coates said.

He added, with a laugh, “I’d like not have to do that all the time.”

Coates, 63, announced in a Sunday morning church service Aug. 5 that he would be preaching his last sermon Aug. 19. Citing numerous reasons for the decision, he said he’d struggled for more than a year with the question of his retirement, but that he felt the time was right.

He singled out an ongoing lawsuit against the church had taken “an enormous toll” on him, making him feel on many days like “more of an attorney” than a pastor. The lawsuit stems from allegations of abuse by a former Boy Scout leader in a troop sponsored by the church decades before Coates’ arrival.

Retirement “is a new chapter, but I’m terrified in that I don’t know what I want to do right now,” Coates said in an interview last week in his office. “I know that it’s time for me not to do this anymore.”

“Any pastor carries a lot of heavy burdens. I’m burdened for some of my congregants — what they’re going through and how tough it is for them. But very honestly, I’m burdened by my own failings and shortcomings, my issues that other people would have no reason to know about, but they’re very real to me.”
The Rev. Bill Coates

As a pastor, “you help people, but you also hurt people,” Coates added. “I know that, along the way, I have said or acted in ways that have hurt people. You carry that with you.”

Similar to being called to the ministry, he said, “I’ve begun to feel in the past year that I’m now being called out (of ministry).”

One source of frustration has been “it’s a lot more difficult to get young people in the church,” he said. “I don’t feel I’m the right person now to be able to accomplish that here. I think it’s time to let somebody come in who will be better at that than I am.”

And there’s the toll on the pastor’s family, as well.

“In my years to come, I want to be a much greater blessing to my family than I have been in the past,” Coates said. “Sometimes, it’s hard not to be preoccupied and to be fully present with your own wife and children.”

Reflecting on his career, he also talked about how “some things become controversial.”

“I’ve always been at the forefront of the rights of women to be ordained as deacons and pastors,” Coates said. “It’s not as big an issue as it used to be, but there were times when I was severely attacked for that. In our church, women serve in every capacity. We believe God can call anyone to be leaders in the life of the church.”

The more sensitive issue in church these days is acceptance of lesbians and gays as members.

“I feel very strongly that Christ came for all of us, and I think there has to be a very welcoming place in the church for everyone,” Coates said.

“A hallmark of Baptists, historically, is freedom of conscience ... where we have to answer ultimately to God, and my conscience tells me and my reading of Scripture tells me that there is no difference among us when it comes to race, sexual orientation or anything.

“All of us have a place at God’s table, and all of us should have a place to serve in God’s work.”

And for Coates, his church life started way before he entered the ministry.

“I was probably in the nursery the Sunday after I was born,” said the South Carolina native who professed faith in Christ and was baptized at 8 years old.

“By the time I was 12, I knew for certain that (ministry) call was in my life,” Coates said.

At an early age, while pastoring a small church, he resisted the urge to embark on an Air Force career. He went through a denomination change — from Southern Baptist to Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Cooperative Baptists, of which First Baptist belongs, split from Southern Baptists in 1991 over theological and philosophical differences.

In 1998, he joined First Baptist in Gainesville, a church with some 3,400 members on the roll, “some I haven’t met in 20 years.”

And he quickly found that “in this congregation, because it’s so uniquely a part of the Gainesville community, you feel like you’re that pastor to the community too.”

“In a small town, the senior pastor of a large church has multiple roles,” said the Rev. Stuart Higginbotham, rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville. “That person also has a public role in the community, as a whole.

“You may or may not be a member of First Baptist, but in so many ways, you feel like Bill Coates is a pastor for you. I think that means a lot to people.”

“The thing I most appreciated about Bill was I felt like I had a kindred spirit,” said Terry Walton, former pastor of Gainesville First United Methodist Church and now district superintendent of the denomination’s Atlanta-Marietta District.

“We worked hard to make sure the community clergy stay connected — those who wanted to,” he said. “We don’t have to agree with everything each other does to be able to be used of God as instruments in the world to bring hope, peace and love.”

Longtime member Harris Blackwood, who is Georgia’s Governor’s Office of Highway Safety director, said that Coates “is more than my pastor. He’s my friend. We have laughed and cried together.”

“He’s been there in the joyous times ... and tough times in my life.”

Coates’ shoes will be tough to fill, Blackwood said.

Kent Murphey, First Baptist associate pastor, said the search process could take a year, involving a committee whose members “are affirmed by a vote of the congregation.”

Once formed, that committee “travels to hear and interview candidates, and recommends its choice to the church for their approval,” he said.

But Coates won’t be forgotten.

He “has been a wonderful pastor and friend,” Murphey said. “While we served 20 years at First Baptist together, neither of us has been perfect, but Bill’s always forgiven me and looked for the best in me, and many others. I hope Bill, his wife Claire have wonderful retirement together.”

Coates said he is proud of things he and the church have accomplished.

“Our buildings have grown and our congregation has grown, but those aren’t the real measuring sticks for me. Building buildings — to me, that’s not much of a legacy. The best legacy is have I been able to be genuinely helpful in people trying to follow Christ and learning to love God.”
The Rev. Bill Coates

Coates said he “never wanted to be one of those pastors who overstayed their welcome.

“It’s better to leave when people are sad you’re leaving and ... and not breathing a sigh of relief,” he said. “There’ll be a few who breathe a sigh of relief, but I hope it’s not many.”

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