After 45 years of ministry, Reginald and Claudia Pressley retired much the way they began – serving small churches in the Southeast. They were there for births, baptisms, weddings and funerals as they marked the milestones and the passage of time in the lives of their members.
And they wouldn’t trade anything for the memories.
The couple met in their teens at Toccoa Falls Institute (now Toccoa Falls College), a faith-based school in the mountains of north Georgia. He was attending on the advice of a pastor where he lived in Talladega, Ala., after surrendering to the ministry; she was the daughter of an instructor.
His memory is that it was “love at first sight” for Claudia.
Her story differs. “He chased me all over the place,” she said.
Regardless, they struck up an acquaintance before he returned to Alabama for his senior year of high school. Then he was drafted by Uncle Sam; entering the Marines, he shipped off for the Korean Peninsula.
Photo by Joe Westbury
Reginald and Claudia Pressley, over 45 years of ministry, “never had much money to put away for retirement,” as he described it, “though the churches helped where they could.” The Pressleys are among 1,800 individuals aided by Mission:Dignity, the retiree benevolence ministry of GuideStone Financial Resources.
The relationship continued halfway around the world, and when he returned home he went to Toccoa to visit Claudia. Soon they were married and, after his discharge, settled back in Toccoa. He took Bible classes at the school and then moved the family to Florida where he studied at the Baptist Bible Institute (now the Baptist College of Florida).
“Times were tough being newly married, having a son and wife, and trying to support them; money was scarce,” Reginald said.
His first pastorate, at Bellwood Baptist Church in Geneva, Ala., taught him and Claudia a lot about human nature, such as the squabble that was just being solved when they moved to town.
“The church had a very heated question over whether to add air conditioning,” Claudia recounted. “Most folks didn’t have it back then, and couldn’t afford it, so they could not see taking on the expense of higher electric bills just for an hour or two on Sunday morning.
“Well, the church was split on the vote, so they went ahead and air conditioned the sanctuary, and that created a very unique worship experience,” Claudia said. “The half in favor of air conditioning sat on one side with the cool air blowing, and those who opposed it sat on the other side with the windows open.”
That was just the first of a lifetime of experiences that Reginald and Claudia look back on with amusement.
‘A real blessing’
Throughout the next several decades, the couple moved around the Southeast, always serving small churches and living in parsonages.
Reginald’s favorite part of ministry was preaching.
“The Lord just seemed to speak through me and give me what the people needed to hear at the time,” he reflected.
Reginald also credits his ministry with good discipleship and a strong missions education program through Woman’s Missionary Union and the Brotherhood, which he described as the backbone of the church that kept it focused on missions.
Idell Austin, seen here putting canned goods in her cabinets at home, is a North Carolina recipient of Mission:Dignity help. Her husband, Wayne, pastored small churches for nearly 40 years, sometimes getting paid $10 a week or with a chicken or produce. When he died there was no burial insurance; the hospital bills from his cancer fight piled up. She kept working at the local textile mill until she was 73 so she could pay her bills. When she retired, all she had was Social Security to pay everything. “When you draw $700 a month, you pay your light bill, telephone, taxes on your car, gas and medicine. There’s nothing left. I went hungry sometimes. You can’t go all day without eating something.” A local pastor soon heard of Idell’s situation and suggested she ask about some help from GuideStone’s Mission:Dignity ministry. She applied and was approved for an extra $200 a month to help her buy food and other necessities. In 2008, her amount doubled to $400 a month. “I never dreamed they would send me anything. I was no preacher,” Idell said.
Now retired, the Pressleys are not far from where they first met. They live in Toccoa and are members of Old Liberty Baptist Church, just 15 miles across the state line in Westminster, S.C. It was the last church he served and where he retired at age 70 in 2001. Claudia plays the organ each Sunday.
One of the blessings Reginald and Claudia have in retirement is Mission:Dignity, the benevolence ministry of GuideStone Financial Resources by which Southern Baptists’ gifts supplement the couple’s limited income to help them make ends meet.
“We never had much money to put away for retirement, though the churches helped where they could,” Reginald said. “I think many of them put about $35 a month away toward our retirement, which is what the Annuity Board [now GuideStone] recommended as a minimum.
“Of course we didn’t have anything to contribute because I rarely made more than $300 a month in my early days, and not much more than that later.”
Claudia seconded that thought.
“I sometimes wonder how in the world we got by in those days without health insurance, but we couldn’t afford it,” she said.
“Thank goodness the Annuity Board eventually offered a program and it was a real lifesaver. The Annuity Board was a real blessing when we needed it.
“It was hard to raise four children on a country pastor’s salary, but the Lord always met our needs.”
Mission:Dignity assists more than 1,800 recipients each month, providing a measure of security and dignity in their retirement years.
The neediest couples with at least 25 years of paid Southern Baptist ministerial service can receive $600 each month from Mission:Dignity.
Thanks to an endowment that pays for administrative costs, 100 percent of money given to Mission:Dignity benefits a retired pastor, worker or his widow in need.
For some recipients, it means being able to stay in the familiar surroundings of their own home.
For others, it covers the cost of groceries, utilities, prescriptions and other necessities. But for each of them, it’s an expression of the love and care from their Southern Baptist family.
“As you get old the medical bills come a lot more frequently and seem to never end,” Claudia said.
“Mission:Dignity is helping us to meet those bills while still having funds available to cover other day-to-day expenses.
“We don’t know what we would do without the check we receive from Baptists all over the nation who contribute to folks like us.”
N.C. Baptist support
Last year, North Carolina Baptists gave nearly $360,000 to Mission:Dignity. Those funds benefit many people in the state, since 158 of the program’s recipients live in N.C.
“We have a good partnership with North Carolina,” said John Ambra, director of development. “It’s been wonderful across the years.”
Ambra shared a story that illustrates the commitment of N.C. Baptists to the ministry.
He said an elderly lady from Roanoke Rapids who received assistance from Mission:Dignity felt compassion for widows like herself, so she decided to give back $5 each month.
“If a little widow lady living on the edge can come up with $5 a month, there’s no reason anyone in our state conventions and across the Southern Baptist Convention can’t do that,” Ambra said.
Of the 148 churches, Sunday School classes and other church-related organizations that gave to the ministry last year, the top two were Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Boone and Snyder Memorial Baptist Church in Fayetteville.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Joe Westbury is managing editor of The Christian Index and wrote this story on assignment for Mission:Dignity. Seth Brown, BR content editor, contributed to this story.)