After serving as pastor of the same church for 48 years, Ronnie Owen baptized two adults and one child before preaching his closing sermon at Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Asheville on Jan. 28.
Owen and his wife, Nancy, came to the church in 1969 after serving two smaller churches in North Carolina.
While he may be retiring from Mount Carmel Baptist Church, Pastor Ronnie Owen, seen here with his wife, Nancy, plans to continue teaching at Fruitland Baptist Bible College.
The church launched a kindergarten ministry the next year that expanded to become the Child Enrichment Center in 1972. Today the impressive Family Ministries Center dominates the landscape across the street from the church’s main worship and education facilities. During the week, families bring 65 children to the center for day care, and after school care is provided for children through grade 5.
Children’s Bible study classes use the building on Sunday morning.
The church has a flourishing Upwards Sports ministry. “On a typical Saturday, we probably have 600 folks through here,” Owen told the Biblical Recorder. “We have 150-plus kids who are doing cheerleading or playing basketball.”
Mount Carmel has experienced growth and seen progress in many areas of ministry. But with transparency, Owen said it has been challenging to reach millennials.
“The church has been successful in reaching some people of a different demographic but not on a large scale,” he said. “With the changing demographic – and we are not a church that has kept up with reaching millennials – it is a challenge for us.
“How do we adapt to getting millennials engaged? I’ve tried to stay abreast of it through my reading and attending conferences on change, but it’s been a huge challenge. Hopefully, the church will see more of that demographic reached in the future. We’ve got the tools for making that happen, and I’m praying for the new pastor.”
Owen has some admonitions from his long tenured experience. It can be difficult to keep one’s inner spiritual life refreshed, he said.
“The demands of counseling, sermon preparation, hospital visitation, etc., have a way of pulling one away from the priority of the ‘quiet time.’ A balance must be found between the devotional and the duties aspects of ministry. We pastors preach that, but I think it’s vital if we are to have fresh experience with our Lord daily. We must spend time with Him. That’s our lifeline.”
In a second word of counsel, Owen said he has felt the responsibility to bring “the unchanging truth of the gospel to an ever-changing culture.” It is a challenge for pastors to stay on top of the changing demographics of their community and “… prayerfully seeking ways to bridge the communication gaps.”
Appealing to his fellow pastors, Owen adds, “Find a way to get close to somebody who has been in the ministry longer than you. For pastors who face a tough time, make sure you’ve got a friend who you trust completely, let them pray with you, let them listen to you and you listen to them. We all need a mentor.
“I have been the beneficiary of having a great mentor. When I was a 16-year-old kid called into ministry, my pastor gave me a push when I needed it. Later, when I set foot in Buncombe County, some of the older pastors took some of us younger guys under their wing, took us out to lunch and just spent some ‘pressure relief’ time to encourage us.”
Owen was quick to offer a lengthy list of “joys” from his extended ministry at the same church.
“The experience of visiting with mothers and babies at the hospital; enjoying his or her childhood; being there when they embrace Christ as Savior; when they earn their diplomas (and, frequently, their college degrees); enter their vocational careers; excel as spouses and parents; and seeing them become disciples and serving in ministries of the church is an incomparable joy,” said Owen. “Also, serving alongside capable and complementary staff members has provided mutual benefits.”
He said the role of his family in ministry has been profound. “One of the greatest blessings a pastor or any other human can experience is knowing that one’s family is a forever family,” said Owen.
His two daughters, their husbands and children are engaged in the life of this church. Both men have served as deacons in the past, but currently rotated off. “All six of our grandkids know the Lord and are active in the church,” he said.
Originally from Pisgah Forest, N.C., Owen’s faith was nurtured at Turkey Creek Baptist Church where he responded to the call to ministry at age 16. He holds degrees from Mars Hill University and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as a doctor of ministry degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Owen is the longest serving pastor of a single church in the Buncombe Baptist Association, and has rarely missed a worship service in his 48 years of service. The church recently conferred on Owen the title of “Pastor Emeritus.” In retirement he plans to continue serving as a professor of Old Testament studies at Fruitland Baptist Bible College, mentoring new believers and enjoying more time with his family.
“I’ve never doubted that this is where I should be serving,” he confidently added. “With all my heart, I feel like the best days for this church are ahead.”