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Half a century behind one pulpit

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Kenneth Head looks over the pulpit of the Bethlehem Church of Christ from where he has preached close to 4,000 sermons across six decades. He says of his tenure with the congregation, "I have been honored to serve there. It's been a pleasure. I love the people there, and I've given a good bit of time to it. I wish I could have done more."
Seen in this circa 1980 photo, Kenneth and Linda Head have been husband and wife for 50 years. Four months after they swapped wedding vows in June 1966, they began their work with the Bethlehem Church of Christ. For a multitude of Sundays, they made the 74-mile round trip from Nashville to the east side of Wilson County. Submitted
From right, Kenneth and Linda Head stand shoulder to shoulder with Linda and Jim Key at the entrance to the Bethlehem Church of Christ in Tuckers Cross Roads. This month marks Head's 50th anniversary of preaching for the congregation. He and his wife have commuted from their Nashville home since October 1966. Head now preaches the fourth Sunday of the month, as Key began preaching the first three Sundays in 2004. KEN BECK / The Wilson Post
The members of the Bethlehem Church of Christ gathered for a family portrait recently. The congregation started in 1823. Submitted

Kenneth Head notches 50th anniversary at Bethlehem Church of Christ

One Sunday morning in October of 1966, Kenneth and Linda Head hopped in their car and made the 37-mile drive from Green Hills in Nashville to the rural Wilson County community of Tuckers Crossroads.

That day, Head preached his first sermon at the Bethlehem Church of Christ. This month marks his 50th anniversary as a minister to the congregation of 80 kindred souls.

"It was a little smaller than it is today, but about the same size," said Head, 77, who, in 2004, cut back to preaching every fourth Sunday. "Bethlehem is an interesting congregation. It's one of the oldest congregations south of the Ohio River in our history and was started in 1823 when Barton W. Stone came through preaching."

Across six decades, Head has delivered sermons here on Sunday mornings and evenings as well as taught numerous adult and children's Bible classes and pitched in with summer vacation Bible school for many years.

The 74-mile-round trip over 2,000-plus Sundays adds up. He has no idea as to the total mileage he has piled up over the years, but 150,000 miles would be a fair estimate.

Head, who has never considered himself a full-time minister since he taught school and coached for 37 years, described the personality of the Bethlehem church as "warm and friendly."

"It's a typical farm community, where people really get to know each other and love each other. They're a pleasure to be around," he said.

Almost left after 10 years

He confesses that he almost talked himself into vacating the position part way through what became a half-century pilgrimage.

"After I had been there about 10 years, I thought, 'You know, a preacher didn't stay at one congregation too long. They're expected to move along.' Linda and I decided it might be best for us to stop going there. So I talked to the elders, and one of them, Brother Paul Neal, speaking for the other elders and the congregation, I think, wrote us a letter imploring us to stay. That kind of gave us a renewed strength to go on. We did reconsider and so we stayed."

Congreation close to 200 years old

While his 50-year-history with the church continues, the congregation has a rich history of its own. It will hit its 200th birthday in seven years.

The late J.B. Whitefield, an elder of the church, compiled a history of the Bethlehem church in 1958. He wrote that evangelist Stone came through Wilson County in 1823 and spent a night with John and Sarah Sweatt Scoby, who lived near Tuckers Crossroads.

Before they retired to bed, Stone suggested they read the Bible and pray together which led to a religious discussion. Scoby asked Stone to spend another night and invited friends and neighbors to hear him speak. Those lessons led to the beginning of the Bethlehem Church of Christ, which is believed to be the oldest Church of Christ in Wilson County.

Whitefield recorded that the congregation's first building was made of hewn logs. During that era, the members were called Stoneites, but by the 1840s they were known simply as Christians.

New building erected during WWII

A white house built between 1845 and 1850 served as the church meeting place until 1893, when a new church house was erected in front of the white house on Trousdale Ferry Pike. On the night of June 28, 1928, Jennings Fork Creek overflowed, and water poured through church windows.

The experience of that flood resulted in the construction of a new brick veneer building, 36-by-68 feet, with classrooms and a baptistery, which was completed in late July 1930 at the church's present site. A fire on Feb. 9, 1941, about two hours after the Sunday morning worship, destroyed that building, so a second church house was raised by early August.

The congregation continues to meet in that building. Inscribed in a stone set inside the front brick wall are the words and dates: ORGANIZED 1823 ERECTED 1941.

'Last brick laid, last dollar paid'

Of his early days of preaching in the church auditorium, Head recalled, "When we first came there, the baptistery was in a hole under the pulpit. When we had a baptism, you would move the podium and pull up the floor, which was on hinges, and have the baptism. Of course, some of the kids didn't know it was up there, and their eyes were wide open when we did that."

In 1987, the Bethlehem church built a new baptistery and added a fellowship room to the back of the building.

"Athens Clay Pullias [president of David Lipscomb College from 1946-1977] made the remarks when construction was completed on a building at Lipscomb, 'When the last brick is laid, the last dollar will be paid.' We used that as our motto and started raising funds before construction, and when the last brick was laid, the building was paid for," said Head.

During their first few years, when he and his wife made the drive from Nashville, the couple would return home and make a second trip back to Tuckers Crossroads in the late afternoon.

"By the time we got home and got a bite to eat and sat down, it was almost time to go back. So we got to where we stayed up there, which provided the opportunity to do a lot of things that the congregation appreciated. We had a service at Quality Care [nursing home] once a month. We visited in hospitals and nursing homes and then might come back to church and lie down on the bench and rest until the evening service," he said.

Head likened to Barnabas

Head's start with the Bethlehem Church of Christ came via his association with leaders of David Lipscomb College (today's Lipscomb University), his alma mater. Several men at Lipscomb, including Pullias, had been filling the pulpit but none of them could do so on a consistent basis. The school's business manager, Edsel Holman, had been the most recent minister.

Said Head, "He needed some relief and asked me to go up and fill in a few times. Then the elders asked me if I could come every Sunday. I've been there 50 years but had a lot of help over periods that I missed because of my mother's illness and my health. Carson Spivey, Bud Chumley, Bob Goff and Bob Spann filled in a great deal for me, especially Spivey and Chumley."

Beginning in 2004, Jim Key began been preaching for the church on the first three Sundays of the month, and Head now delivers a sermon each fourth Sunday.

Key, who lives in Lebanon, described what Head has meant to the Bethlehem congregation over the years, saying, "As I think about him, I see him more as a coach. He brings those coaching skills in as a preacher. He knows how to build esprit decor and pull a spiritual family together as a team. He recognizes the potential in others.

"You might call him a Barnabas so to speak. He takes a great deal of pleasure in seeing others mature as a Christian. He has been a great deal of encouragement to me."

'Tell people they need to be saved'

Head, who was baptized at the age of 15, recollected that he preached his first sermon a year or two later.

"I remember going and practicing that Sunday afternoon, going through my lesson in the pulpit and speaking to an empty audience and then I spoke that night," he said.

Asked to describe his preaching style, Head said, "I would call myself a very conservative person. I think we've gone to a watered-down type of sermon, and we don't take a stand on the important issues. I feel like we need to be telling people at every opportunity what they need to do to be saved, and I don't hear that in sermons a lot anymore.

"There are great speeches and storytelling, but I feel like Paul when he taught Timothy to 'reprove, rebuke and exhort with all long suffering,' realizing all people make mistakes. My philosophy would be just to preach the word and tell people what needs to be done in order to be saved. It's all right to tell stories and talk about God's love, but we need to teach it all. The goodness and severity of God are all on the same page.

"I do like preaching that shows an interest in other people, not just a formula, but showing in your lesson that you understand the mistakes that we all make and showing love and compassion."

Years as an educator

Born the youngest of three sons to a sharecropper in Cooperstown in Robertson County, Head worked in the fields as a youth raising corn, wheat and tobacco and baling hay. After high school, he went to David Lipscomb College, where he earned a degree in physical education and a minor in speech in 1961.
He and his wife-to-be, Linda Felts, grew up a half mile from one another and went to church together and were good friends but never dated. While both were attending Lipscomb, they would ride home together on weekends, but it was not until after graduating that he asked her for that first date. After a long courtship, they swapped wedding vows 50 years ago last June.

Head said that he had been so close to her parents and grandparents as a young person that when they married "it was like family reunion."

Fresh out of college, Head taught physical education and Bible at Lipscomb Elementary and Junior High for 15 years and coached the high school basketball team for nine years, winning more than 100 games and taking the team to the state tournament two consecutive years.

Earning an education specialist degree at Peabody College, he left Lipscomb in 1978 to teach wellness, speech and driver education for 22 years at TPS (Tennessee Preparatory School), a school for dependent, neglected children, which has since been transformed into a Nashville magnet art school.

Sports and aviation hobbies

As for his leisure-time pursuits, Head said that he has always enjoyed sports.

"I played high school basketball and ran cross country at Lipscomb and roomed one year with Ken Dugan [the late legendary Lipscomb baseball coach], who became a close friend. I had always wanted to fly, so later on I got my pilot license and flew private, small aircraft and did some aerobatic flying.

"I got to know a guy from Sewanee, Bill Kershner, who flew a Cessna 152 Aerobat, who taught me some of the finer points about small planes. He did aerobatics and trained NASA pilots in spin training. He did so many spins in that plane that it is now in the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum Collection."

As for how much longer he and Linda will make the fourth Sunday drive to Tuckers Crossroads, he said, "We don't know what's ahead of us. God has blessed us with reasonable health.

"I've had to make a lot of adjustments. It's got to where I write my sermons out in bigger letters where I can pick it up easier, and I have to wear glasses. I had surgery for a detached retina in 2001 and have limited vision in my left eye. The future depends on my health as to how much longer we can go there."

Summing up his 50-year tenure with the Bethlehem congregation, Head said, "From a spiritual standpoint, I think we have some very dedicated people that have stood strong through the years. We appreciate those families, of course. There is a lot of turnover as kids grow up and move away, but we have gained new children and new members.

"I have been honored to serve there. It's been a pleasure. I love the people there, and I've given a good bit of time to it. I wish I could have done more," said the faithful minister who continues to run the good race.

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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