By BECKY ANDREWS
What do you get when you combine a pastor who possesses a remarkable sense of humor with a congregation that relies on the funny to get through the not so funny? Why Don McElroy, of course. Don, along with his wife Ann, began their life together more than 40 years ago and immediately started their family and their career in serving the church and people.
What makes their story so interesting is not the career path they were called to so long ago. Rather, it’s the devotion this couple has given to one church in particular for 30 of the more than 40 years they’ve spent serving the church. It’s also their devotion to each other that makes them a beacon of hope for couples traveling the unknown sea of marriage.
In 1980, Don, Ann and their three children, Cathy, Donna and Ray, moved to Wilson County when Don was selected to fill the position of Minister of Education at First Baptist Church in Lebanon. Since that time, Don, who now serves as Associate Pastor and Minister of Senior Adults, and Ann continue to give their time and attention to the First Baptist congregation.
To understand their story it’s important to start from the beginning. It all started in the early 1960’s when Ann Hines met Don McElroy while they were both attending Belmont University in Nashville. “I worked in the cafeteria, and every morning Don would come through the line, so it wasn’t long before we struck up a friendship,” Ann remembered.
Ann was studying to be a teacher, and Don had his sights set on a career in education as well. Because Ann was raised as the child of preacher also known as ‘the preacher’s kid’, she had no desire to marry someone who wanted to serve the church. Ann recalled, “I knew the life. I knew what sacrifices the family makes because my dad was a Southern Baptist minister. Since Don wanted to be a coach and teacher, I assumed he was perfect for me.”
Just as Ann was daydreaming about how her life would be with her handsome husband, God came calling, and with a heart of solid faith there was no way Don would tell Him that He got the wrong number. When Don told his betrothed of his plans to attend seminary she was with him 100 percent. “I loved him, and I saw my life going where I was supposed to be with this man that I loved. So God called on me too. I knew a life dedicated to the church had challenges, but I also knew the rewards that go along with that life.”
In 1965, Don and Ann married in Acklen Hall (now Belmont Mansion), and soon both began working on their careers and life. Ann took a position with Hillwood High School in Nashville, while Don took a position with a local construction company before he began Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. It was 1968 when Don received his Masters of Religious Education at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Over the years, the couple welcomed three children and three dogs. In 1980, the McElroy’s were living in Oak Ridge, Tennessee where Don was serving as Minister of Education and Youth at Robertsville Baptist Church. As the family was settling into school and church routines, another opportunity presented itself at a church more than three hours away in Lebanon, Tennessee. “I visited First Baptist in Lebanon and really felt a pull to move here. It was a growing church and while I loved the Oak Ridge area, I knew my family was meant to live here,” Don said with a smile.
Don was the first to arrive in Lebanon while Ann stayed with their children, Cathy, Donna and Ray, and waited to finish the school year. When Don began his tenure at First Baptist his father-inlaw, Reverend Marvin E. Hines, Sr., said something that caught Don off guard. He told Don, ‘You will be there for a long time.’ “I was surprised and really didn’t give it much thought because I just assumed this position would be like the others I had taken. I would be here a couple of years and move on to another church. It’s amazing how right he was,” Don admitted.
Over the years, Ann fully embraced her role as a pastor’s wife. She was very active in the church. As a Sunday School teacher, she made certain that the children received a good, biblical education and was active in the Women’s Ministry facilitating weekly Bible studies and Sunday School classes as well. When the children were older, Ann also worked outside the home as a substitute teacher.
The life of a pastor can be challenging. In fact, looking from the outside in, it seems like they never get a break long enough to spend time with their family. There’s middle of the night phone calls requesting visits to the hospital, or a family in crisis needs the listening ear of Pastor Don or Ann. While the couple agrees there can be challenges to this work they were chosen for, they also agree that it’s important to take a ‘time-out’ occasionally for each other to recharge. “It’s important for young preachers to remember to put their family first. And make the congregation aware of your family. Sometimes it’s easier said than done, but it’s essential to balancing out family and work life,” Ann said with a smile.
Brother Don, as the congregants at First Baptist call him, has never met a stranger. He always shares a smile and word of encouragement and will go out of his way to help anyone or play a prank. Most people that come in contact with Don and Ann agree that they are a blessing to all who make their acquaintance.
“They are the two kindest, gentlest people I have ever known. I never heard them say anything negative about anyone. Don is a wonderful mentor in ministry and many other aspects of my life,” First Baptist Church Senior Pastor David Freeman said about his co-worker and good friend.
So how, after 45 years of marriage, children, grandchildren, and all the ups and downs of life has this couple managed to keep that spark? With her blue eyes intently focused on her husband, Ann admitted, “Marriage is a work in progress. Never focus on the bad times rather build on the good times. Where I was weak, he was strong. We are a team, and by keeping the focus of our marriage on God, we always knew the hard times only make us stronger for the next obstacle.”
Their advice to all couples regardless of their chosen career is simple Don said, “Communication is key. Also, keep the faith and the love in your heart for each other.” Ann believes that overthe- top gifts can’t compare to the simple act of paying attention. “When the children are small and the mom has been up all night and all day, bring home dinner without being asked,” she said with a giggle.
Don’t waste your money on self-help books. According to Ann, “You can read all the books you want, but those authors don’t know your real story. Not like God does.