An Interview by Patrick Walsh
Bob Money, one of First Baptist’s icons, served as Minister of Counseling and Family Life for 30 years. He and his delightful wife, Sydnor, have selflessly contributed to our church and the wider community. Bob’s life story is fascinating. The following interview provides glimpses into that story, including his journey to the ministry and to First Baptist.
Tell me about your upbringing.
I grew up on a farm. I had chores that a young boy would typically have, such as milking cows and plowing fields. I used to walk behind a mule-drawn plow while tilling a 400-acre farm. I walked alongside Ease, who was our main farmhand. We prepared the earth for our peanut crop as well as for corn, cotton, and soybeans. Being so far down South in Alabama, the summer was long enough that we could grow two crops.
I can easily picture a small boy walking alongside a large farmhand behind a plow with a plume of dust blowing away to the side as the till dug up the earth. That is a strong image that’s easy to paint. Tell me more about Ease.
He was a sharecropper with my dad. When I was eight or nine years old, I began working alongside him. We would walk for hours in the hot sun, and our job was to periodically clear the disks of entangled weeds. We were friends; and while tilling, we would talk about everything. He taught me about farming. Ease was the teacher, and I was the student. I was very close to Ease.
You see, the rules about farming were very different than the rules for school or for going to church or for going to someone’s house. The rules in the field were that you didn’t even think about racial differences. Ease was black, but he was not black in my mind; he was just my good friend, my plowing partner. Off the field, though, when Ease came to our house to eat, he would eat on the back porch while I ate inside at the table. When we broke for lunch, Ease went to his house and ate bread and cheese while I went home to a cooked meal.
There were no such rules about farm work, which was just plain work with everyone helping everyone else get the crops planted and harvested and to market. When we got a tractor, Ease and I still walked along behind it doing the same things we did when it was mule drawn. My brother drove the tractor, and Ease and I were his helpers. Some of the rows were very long, so Ease and I would sometimes sit under a shade tree while my brother ran the tractor.
What became of Ease?
Ease died after I had left the farm. He had a funeral in his home church. Of interest to me is that Ease and my daddy served in WWI in the same part of France.
What was it like off the farm with your friends?
With our black friends, we played together and played mixed team sports together… until the school bus came. I remember as a little boy thinking, “Why do they go there and we go here?” Off the farm, there were rules for church, for school, for town, and for segregated facilities in town. That was just the way it was. In college, I never thought about racial issues. There were no blacks there. My guilt about this discrimination didn’t become prominent in my thinking until I got into the ministry. I always thought discrimination was wrong, but I never saw anything being done about it. My Southern Baptist church said nothing, and this is my pain with the church. The government functioned as the leader in this area, but it should have been the church. Eventually, many years later, the Southern Baptist Convention apologized for supporting segregation.
Did you ever bring Ease food from your table?
Oh yes, all the time. I brought him whatever I wanted to bring him. Outside the house, the unwritten rules were not applicable; and he and I could do those sorts of things. Ease lived on our farm with his family, and one of his children was my best friend. I have a vivid memory of walking to his place. His daughter Queen was our cook.
Did your father do anything besides farming?
My dad was an entrepreneur. He owned a little country store and a fishing bait operation. I never remember being without food or clothes. In fact, we were the first among my peers to have a television. We also had an early refrigerator, which replaced the need for the ice truck to come by to provide ice for the icebox.
What was college like for you?
It was idyllic. I liked to learn, I had the best friends I ever had, and there was no struggle there for me. After graduation, I went on to seminary. While there, Martin Luther King Jr. was invited to speak in chapel and to teach my ethics class. He was a powerful speaker and teacher. Dr. King would remain after class for an open question-and-answer period when we could ask him anything we wanted. Southern Seminary, one of five Baptist seminaries, was progressive. It was open to racial issues and to women in the seminary. There was a range of students from just out of college to those who had left the mission field to further their education; blacks also attended the seminary. Although Howard College had taught me about the scriptures, seminary opened me up to the scriptures from a totally different perspective.
Word of Dr. King’s seminary visit got back to Alabama; and it was made known to us students that if we had gone to hear him, we would never get a church in Alabama, which was still racially segregated. I then realized I had left the farm, my culture, my family culture. I no longer belonged there in terms of my theology and my perception of the way life ought to be in America. In a sense, I graduated from seminary and graduated from my family. I had become a person who could never go home again in terms of my beliefs.
Describe your early church life.
We were not a church family. Our church only had a monthly service. I don’t ever recall seeing my dad go to church, even when I preached. My mother’s father was a “hymn heister,” who would sound a note in the proper key and who would assist the congregation by swinging his arm in time to the music. We met once a month in the afternoon; a full-time pastor from a local church would cycle among small-town churches that had no permanent pastor. We had no Sunday school, so there was only the monthly service. My brothers and sisters did not go often; yet for some reason, I was more open to going. Every summer we had a revival. That was something to go and see. It was called a protracted revival, meaning if it was originally scheduled for a week, as long as people were walking the aisle, it would be extended. There was singing, praying, preaching, and invitations. When a revival ended, chicken wire was strung taut between two trees at waist height to serve as a table on which was placed every kind of good food you could imagine. The children ate what was left after the adults finished eating.
Every summer, my mother would ask the revival preacher to come eat with us at home. We had a big table. Every time the preacher came, he had a group of people who came with him. Of course, my mother’s best friends would be invited. As usual, the adults ate first while the children played in the yard. Again, when the adults finished, we would eat what was left.
Did you have a Christian awakening, or a “spark,” that made you aware of your desire to work in Christian service?
I did have a spark. It was an instantaneous event rather than a slow realization that I wanted to enter Christian service. The awareness came to me when I was 15. I went with my mother to a revival, and I was sitting there with no intention of doing anything but watching. When the invitation was given, however, I knew right then that I had to walk the aisle. No thought or reasoning was involved; I just knew in the moment. You see, in churches that had Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and weekly services, there was available the slow progressive and ongoing immersion in the teachings of the Bible and Christian service. My church experience did not have those opportunities, so I believe my “spark” came during the revival when I had that experience and I knew it was real. I also felt called to preach when I walked down the revival aisle. My conversion and the call to preach came at the same time. Conversion to me was to be like that man preaching up there. When I went home and told my family about my conversion, my mother was proud that her son was going to be a minister, but my father had little reaction. Neither of them had any idea of what to do about guiding me into the ministry. My dad never brought the subject up again. So, I had to guide myself somehow. I remember lying on the bed one night crying, saying I knew what I wanted to do but no one was telling me how to do it. I was so isolated. At school, they started calling me “Rev.” My peers didn’t know what to do with me either. But since I played sports, I remained connected to them; so, the isolation wasn’t total. You cannot be isolated if you play sports. If I had quit sports in high school, that would have been a tremendous mistake and would have set me up to be perceived as “holier than thou,” something I never wanted. Even while growing up, I never wanted to be better than anyone. Fortunately, my friends didn’t change, and I still walked home with them. Sports normalized me with my peers.
When I was 15, I played sports and was good at it. Everyone expected me to continue and advance through several levels. When I was asked if I was going to continue playing in college, I said that I wasn’t and that I would become a minister. No one in my family had ever been to college. Church and higher education weren’t on the radar screen for me. With the realization I had about the ministry, I knew I had to get educated, but I didn’t know how to go about it.
I originally wanted to be a coach. That meant I probably would have gone to Troy or Alabama in order to become a teacher and a coach. There was a guy who came to all of our ball games and who was a great basketball player at the University of Georgia. He came to a game I was playing in and told my older brother, “That boy has the most talent in the Money family, and I’ll be damned if he isn’t going to be a preacher.”
Were there other “sparks” related to your conversion?
There was another moment of conversion. When I was in high school, we were dismissed from class in order to walk to a nearby Baptist church in the city of Abbeville to attend a revival. At the end of the revival, we were told to bow our heads and close our eyes. The “call” was that if the Lord and the Spirit were working with you and you wanted to make a decision, you were instructed to raise your hand. I raised my hand without a thought. This was before my conversion the following summer when I knew I wanted to be a minister. You might say that this was a nudge in the right direction. Looking back on it now, I realize that nudge was one of the dots I can connect with my subsequent conversion.
I doubt that such a school excursion to a nearby church would happen today. What do you think was the goal of that trip?
It was the same thing as a Billy Graham crusade but without the invitation. I left there knowing the experience was real, but it didn’t get activated.
After your conversion, what happened next?
Two weeks after my conversion in the Free Will Baptist Church, I got baptized in my daddy’s pond on the farm. They always wanted baptism to closely follow conversion so that baptism would be an extension of the conversion. Something mystical and mysterious had happened, and baptism is a very visual thing. There were others to be baptized, and they almost called it off since we had to walk far out in order to get deep enough and the bottom was thick mud, but we made it. The mud didn’t bother me since I always swam in the pond, but some of the others didn’t like the muddy bottom.
After this baptism, I got baptized again about a year later. My small home church had little in the way of resources, and I knew I needed more than it could offer. About three miles down the road was a community named Shorterville, which had a church that had weekly services; so, I began going there since I was driving by that time. I left the Free Will Baptist Church and joined the Shorterville Baptist Church. There was a major difference in my experience in the two churches. I was being mainstreamed. The minister there told me that since I was going to be a Southern Baptist minister, it would be good for me to be baptized in a Southern Baptist church. This was a theological issue, so I was baptized again. It didn’t have the same meaning as the pond. My two younger brothers were baptized at the same time. Shorterville church was where I was licensed and later ordained to be a minister after seminary.
When I was 16, we were having problems finding a pastor to preach at our church. One of the members came up to me and said that the church wanted me to preach the next Sunday. I couldn’t say no; so, I agreed.
How could they ask you to preach if you had not been to college or seminary?
I had received my calling to the ministry at the revival, and that was enough for them. I entered what I called my personal “wilderness,” not a wilderness of temptation such as when Jesus was tempted. My wilderness was being asked to preach because I was going to be a preacher not because I was a preacher. Little country churches made such a request all the time. My grandfather, the hymn heister, would tell me that I didn’t have to go to college because if God called me he would tell me what to say, so I just had to be the instrument. My grandfather would say, “God is the music, and you are the instrument. All you have to do is play it.”
I immediately went home where the only literature I had was my mother’s bible. It didn’t even have a concordance. It was difficult that week to write a sermon and be ready to preach. That was my wilderness. I decided that people liked to hear stories, and I used the lost son as the basis for the sermon. My daddy had bought me a baseball glove when, as a high school freshman, I made varsity on the baseball team. One day, I left it on the stands when I caught the school bus. When I went back the next morning, it was gone; and I never saw it again. My Dad said, “Son, you get only one glove, and that’s it.” I used that story in the sermon. I lost a glove, and it was painful. Our God lost a son, and that loss was also painful. I preached for nine minutes. After the service was over, everyone shook my hand. The last man through said, “Son, you did a good job; I look forward to hearing you tonight.”
When Jesus went into the wilderness, he was tempted and he struggled with what kind of messiah he was going to be. A wilderness is not so much temptation; rather, it is an area of life where you struggle with something challenging and unknown, where you have to grow to make it through. You are pushed beyond where you are. If you have no wilderness in your ministry, you do not grow. I had to write the Sunday night sermon in eight hours; even now, I get a knot in my stomach just talking about it because I was the most alone I had ever been. During those hours, I didn’t struggle for creativity; I struggled to survive as a preacher. I thought, “If I don’t have anything to say, what kind of preacher will I be?” My grandfather, the hymn heister, had always told me that God would tell me what to say. I spent those eight hours thinking, but God wasn’t telling me what to say. So, I preached the same sermon and changed the sports story. I had some good stories from sports. I don’t remember that Sunday evening because I have blanked it out. I just remember feeling that when the man told me to preach the evening service it was as if I had been told I was going to be executed!
Did anything happen to you between your conversion and your baptism?
The revival preacher’s son and I became good friends. He introduced me to his friends. Other than that, nothing happened. I went back to my once-a-month church.
How did you arrange for your seminary training?
I didn’t know what a seminary was at that time. I didn’t even know that there were Baptist colleges to attend before seminary. The thinking then was that you could get into trouble at a big school, so you went to a little school and then on to seminary. My English teacher, Ms. Gregory, took an interest in my further education. She ordered a college catalog from Howard College (now Samford University), and she helped me apply. At Howard College, I majored in religion. All my professors had been to Southern Seminary, which was the best seminary out there. Howard College was a Baptist school supported by the Baptist Convention; the tuition rates were lowered through scholarships for students who were going to attend seminary. I blossomed at Howard in terms of getting the background and nurturing I needed to be a minister. It was a wonderful school. Since my professors were always talking about Southern Seminary, I decided to train there. All that I did not have I found at Howard College. I began to stabilize at Howard as a young man going into the ministry. By the time I finished college, I had been at youth revivals, I had preached, and I had become familiar with these and other related activities.
After seminary, what was your first church assignment?
I became a pastor of a small church while in seminary. I had been licensed in Shorterville but not ordained. I could still pastor a church before my ordination. A little church, Rockbridge Baptist Church, requested my ordination and Shorterville Baptist Church ordained me. I would preach at Rockbridge on Sundays, and they would feed me; then I would drive 60 miles back to seminary. I did this for two years, my second and third years in seminary.
How did you learn about First Baptist Knoxville?
My first position after seminary was as minister of Youth and Recreation at First Baptist, Florence, SC. I met Sydnor there and we were married in August, 1966. Next, I served as Associate Pastor at First Baptist Church, Mobile, AL. Then I became Pastor of First Baptist Church, Darlington, SC. I love downtown churches, which is interesting since I was a country boy coming from a farm and a little Baptist country church. I have always been at a First Baptist church. When we left Darlington there were racial issues, so I decided I didn’t want to be a pastor anywhere. I discovered that I liked the one-on-one exchange between people and their families. I was doing some of that in my role as pastor. However, pastors need to be aware of their limitations in these situations. Many pastors don’t understand these limitations. As a pastor, you find people in deep clinical depression who may or may not come to church, or you get a call from parents who say their child will not come out of his room. If you don’t know where your limitations are, you may treat such a case as if it’s not what it really is. When pastors get the call first and know what they are doing, they refer the family to a counselor.
I liked sitting down with people and dialoguing with them instead of preaching to them. When we left Darlington, I entered the clinical program at North Carolina Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem and spent four years training. Then I received a counseling license at the same time I obtained a Master’s degree at Wake Forrest, which was another “wilderness” for me. I was going to school, was on-call at the hospital as a chaplain, had two children, and spent two nights a week on duty sleeping at the hospital. Thus, Sydnor assumed even more of the parenting role at home. At this point, I knew I didn’t want to be a chaplain in a hospital, but I wanted to be a pastoral counselor. During my last two years in Wake Forrest, I spent most of my time counseling under supervision at the counseling center next to the hospital.
My primary mentor at the hospital, Dr. Swan Haworth, had grown up in First Baptist, Knoxville, where his mother and grandmother were teachers in the children’s department. The CEO of the hospital where I was working left; and Mahan Siler, who had also grown up in First Baptist, took that position. When I finished my program, Mahan knew that Jess Fletcher, the pastor at First Baptist, Knoxville, was looking to hire an associate pastor to serve in the area of hospital visitation and that sort of thing. At the time, the church was booming under Dr. Fletcher, who was gregarious. The church was on television then, and Jess offered counseling to anyone in the community. The church was inundated with calls. Mahan called him and asked if he had thought about hiring a counseling minister and told him about me. Jess climbed in his plane and flew over to North Carolina to meet me. Later, Sydnor and I traveled to Knoxville for an interview with the personnel committee, who recommended me to be hired as the Minister of Counseling and Family Life. And that is how I came to Knoxville. Sydnor’s paternal grandfather called these sorts of connections between people “the kind hand of Providence.”
So, you came from being a young man and raising your hand at a revival during a high school excursion, to where you are now - retired after a long and successful career doing what you knew you wanted to do. Thank you for sharing your Christian travels.
You are very welcome.