Don Hadley is walking away from his pulpit on Sept. 7, the 45th anniversary of his pastorate at First Baptist Church, but if you like his sermons, don’t worry. He’s turning around and walking right back.
Though he's officially retiring and pulling back from his duties, Hadley said he has no intention of quitting preaching — in fact, he has accepted his church’s request that he continue as interim pastor while a new pastor is sought.
“Actually, I like to hang out down here,” he said. “It’s nice to have to be here.”
The minister, known locally in part for the wicked 2-on-2 basketball games he plays with his son, Dane, is Hoosier born.
“I graduated high school in Evansville, Indiana,” he said. “I got my bachelor's from Evansville College (now the University of Evansville), my MA from Oregon State and four years of seminary at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest.”
After graduating Wake Forest, Hadley and his wife Sara were considering an associate pastoral role at a church in the Washington, D.C., area when he was contacted by George Griffin, Havelock’s first mayor.
“He set up a visit for us to come down,” Hadley said. “That visit or the next I had a trial sermon at Newport Baptist. That went well and that resulted in me being called here.”
As Havelock was a relatively new town, First Baptist was a fairly new church. The congregation was formed in 1949 when there was only one other church — a United Methodist — in town. Before Hadley’s arrival, the church was on its fourth home. The first services were in city hall, then the now-demolished Cherry Theater.
The congregation bought property on Hollywood Boulevard and then purchased an unused church building from Harlowe for a dollar and moved it to the two-acre property. In 1954, the congregation began work on the current sanctuary, contracting out for block work but doing the rest of the labor themselves.
Hadley proudly leafs through a photo album showing that building as a work in progress. “For $25,000 back in ’54 to ’56,” he said — about $231,600 in 2018 funds. On his first day of work, he said, the old Harlowe church was still on the grounds, though it was a torn-down heap that was supposed to have been burnt the day before.
“They had failed to obtain a fire permit,” he said, so the burning took place on Hadley’s first Sunday. “That was my introduction to Havelock,” he laughed.
As an evangelical preacher, his education shows. Hadley is not your stereotypical Bible-waving preacher, marching the stage and shouting “Jee-sus” as if only the first syllable matters.
In his studies, he said, “I learned that smart people can be Christians.” He was a close follower of such Christian apologists as C.S. Lewis, a former atheist whose books such as “Mere Christianity” and “Surprised by Joy” gave intellectual and logical defenses of Christian faith.
He worries that some traditionally conservative Christian battles such as demanding businesses say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” “makes us look like cranks. Jesus was no crank,” he added. “He was cool. He was charismatic. He grew people. He challenged their indifference.”
Indifference is a key concern of his. When asked if he believes there is a war on Christianity, he concedes with a caveat, “There’s some hostility. But hostility is not the main enemy. Indifference is the main enemy.”
He sees indifference and a lack of discipleship — a committed engagement to deepen one’s faith — as the modern church’s greatest battle.
“We are falling away from discipleship,” he said. The church has entered an age where people will attend a dinner or fundraiser — particularly one that includes food — but they will shy away from worship and Bible study.
“When the values shift, the behavior patterns shift,” he said. “Good habits are lost and, since we’re creatures of habit so much of the time … ” he trailed off a moment, then explained his thoughts with an illustration. “There’s a number of people who tell me, ‘We got up meaning to come to church, but we got into a movie and lost track of time, when we noticed it was 11:30, so we didn’t come.’
“People are not nearly as motivated to come out for a meeting of any kind,” he added. “They have sports, they have hobbies, they have busy schedules and calendars. When they have some time of their own, unstructured time, personal time, they want to stay in and chill at home in their own private little bubble.”
Christians still love to gather, he said, but they tend to celebrate a more casual Christianity, “Fellowship over worship.”
During his nearly half-century behind the pulpit, he said he has learned a lot.
“I have learned the difference between church work and the work of the church,” he said. “I’ve learned the difference between an emphasis on programming and an emphasis on mission.”
He said Southern Baptists of the past were too focused on programs to the point where they lost sight of the church’s mission.
That mission will not surprise you.
“Every human being is made by God to know God and enjoy God in time and eternity. So many (people) missed out of their purpose. It’s our mission to reconnect people with God through Jesus and his Gospel,” he said.
That doesn’t mean engagement always requires a sermon, a Bible or a tract. “Preach Jesus,” legend claims Francis of Assisi once said, “and if necessary use words.”
Hadley has engaged the community in numerous ways, serving on committees and boards during his 45 years here.
But the outreach he’s best known for? While waiting for Hadley to appear for his interview, one parishioner leaned toward this reporter and said, “Make sure you ask him about basketball!”
He’s a Hoosier, so of course he loves hoops.
“I am the only pastor anywhere to have received a letter from the commandant (at MCAS) allowing me to play basketball at the air base,” he boasted. “For years I played ball over there. Until 9/11. Then my letter didn’t work anymore.”
He said that his 2-on-2 teammate, his son Dane, was a varsity player for Havelock Middle School. “Dane and I will take on anybody,” he said. “Lots of stories we enjoy but that wouldn’t print well — we beat a lot of people!”
He doesn’t know why he and his son win so often. “I was too old and he was too young but we won a lot of games against a lot of Marines.”
When he was in his prime, he said, he and his son met any comers at the neighboring park every Sunday at 3 p.m. “We would just run all afternoon until it was time for service.”
His last sermon as fulltime preacher will be Sept. 7; his first as interim will be a week later. The congregation will honor Hadley with a social gathering at the Havelock Tourist and Event Center.
But you can bet Hadley will see to it there’s some worship there as well.