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53-year Pastorate Brings Joys and Success on Different Scale

PRAIRIE HILL, Texas–The gates to the Prairie Hill Cemetery stand on both the east and west sides of Prairie Hill Baptist Church, but for 53 years, Pastor Fred Sain has stood between, serving as doorman at the gate that leads to eternal life.

Sain, a 19-year-old <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />BaylorUniversity student when he preached his first sermon in the church Aug. 14, 1949, didn’t expect to stay at Prairie Hill that long, but this week will mark the 53rd anniversary of his call as pastor.
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The West Texas farm boy received the invitation to preach there because a woman from his hometown of Slaton had a cousin in Prairie Hill who mentioned her church’s need for a preacher.
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The church is located in a farming community about 25 miles east of Waco. That made it easy for Sain to travel from Baylor to preach at the church, where he was called as pastor after two Sundays of pulpit supply.
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Those college years went quickly, as Sain worked both on his academic training and his pastoral role.
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He called a deacons’ meeting upon his graduation, intending to leave the church to attend seminary in Fort Worth. “I was ready to move on to the seminary, of course, so I told the deacons, ‘I’ll be very happy to step down now since I’ll be farther away,'” Sain recalled.
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The deacons had other ideas, though. They increased his salary enough to cover his gas money, and Sain agreed to stay.
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He went to school four days a week and stayed with a widow in the church on weekends. “I stayed in what she called her prophet’s room, and she never charged me a dime,” Sain said. “She’s just one of many people in this community who have been kind to me through the years.”
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Something else changed during Sain’s seminary years–he began dating his wife, Sally. She was a Prairie Hill girl from birth, but while Sain was in seminary, she began going to college in Denton. They soon married.
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Sain also quickly learned he needed her support.
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“Those first 10 years were the hardest,” he recalled. “I just didn’t know near as much then as I do now, and I made some mistakes. Besides, now I’ve outlived most of my opposition.”
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In reality, the 150 or so residents of this community comprise one of the key reasons Sain has enjoyed his more than half a century there.
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“I certainly wouldn’t say that a long pastorate like this is for everybody, but it’s just been a unique experience that may be because of my personality and the personality of the church,” he said.
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“The friendships and fellowship with the people who have been here these many years have been special. This church has become to me a family–as close as I would be to my own family, and in some cases closer. When one of our members passes, it’s like losing a member of the family.”
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George Whiddon, one of the seven members who remain from when Sain was called all those years ago, feels the church has been fortunate to have its pastor for an extended time.
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“He’s a man of God. He carries his religion with him every day; he takes it with him everywhere he goes. I think that’s been his biggest asset as a pastor,” Whiddon said.
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“He practices what he preaches every day, but he’s not forceful with it either. He’s not going to preach you a sermon if he meets you on the street corner.”
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Over the years, Sain has been a schoolteacher, rancher, pig farmer and beekeeper, and in every instance, he has maintained his integrity, Whiddon reported.
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“We love Brother Fred different maybe than most churches love their pastor because he’s always been so close to us, not just as a pastor, but as a friend and as a part of the community,” he said. “He’s just a real good example of what a Christian should be.”
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Quite a few other churches were interested in Sain for many years, but that stopped about 15 years ago, he said. While he is pleased with his ministry in Prairie Hill, there is still a small piece of him that wonders, “What if … ?”
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“I feel like I could have accomplished more for the kingdom quantity-wise if I had been in a larger church and been in a more productive situation,” Sain admitted. “The most difficult thing here has always been raising the numerical growth.”
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That has gotten even more difficult in recent years. An Austin businessman has been buying property in the area and has now accumulated 35,000 acres of farmland. Where once there were homesteads, now there are fields without homes.
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“There used to be families on every 100 acres, but now we have this large ranch. Also, families were larger because large families were financial assets–the more hands you had, the more land you could work,” Sain explained.
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Both those things have led to a slight decline in the population that never was large.
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Even though the church’s prospect list is short, the congregation remains a strong one, with 110 resident members and between 50 and 80 in worship on Sunday mornings.
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The church also has a strong history in missions giving. Sain sounds almost apologetic when explaining the Prairie Hill church gives only 35 percent of its budget to missions. The church once gave 50 percent.
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In this setting, the pastor’s role differs somewhat from what might be the norm in a more urban congregation.
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“You try to develop the people you have into better disciples,” Sain said. “We still have baptisms, but not like in the bigger churches.”
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That’s not to say the baptisms that do come aren’t memorable. Last year, Sain baptized a man who was 89 years old.
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The church also vividly remembers the time a few years back when a former pastor’s son returned to the church. The man was in his mid-70s and made his profession of faith in Christ. Then, he asked to give a word of testimony to the congregation.
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“He turned to them and said, ‘I’m an old man, and I come to Christ, and all I have left to give Christ is ashes. Come forward while you can still give him your life,'” Sain recalled.
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The pace of ministry in a smaller community has allowed Sain time to study in preparation for his sermons.
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“I study as much as a man in a larger church, and probably more because I don’t have the other things taking me away from it that he might,” Sain said. “I have to because if I was preaching from my experience or what I think, I would have run out of material long ago.”
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Through the years, as relatives have died and left him money, Sain has accumulated 500 acres in the area. He considers retiring on that property, but he doesn’t think he will just yet.
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“If I retire while I’m still physically able, I’d still be called back for funerals and weddings and such, and that wouldn’t be fair to the next pastor,” he reasoned. “So, for as long as I’m able and the Lord wants to use me, I guess I’ll be here.”
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On the whole, Sain said he’s glad he stayed in this small rural church. He is content with knowing he has been where God called him, even if the numbers are not impressive to outsiders.
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“I’ve often thought about our Lord,” Sain said. “He only had 12, and if he had wanted more, I’m sure he would have had more. So, I don’t guess it’s all about how many.”
 
George Henson is a staff writer for the Baptist Standard. This feature was reprinted with permission.