By Jason A. Smith
Ralph Easterwood said a commitment to the Bible has enabled him to be bold in his sermons at a local church for more than four decades.
"I preach hard against sin, but I never preach against the sinner," said Easterwood, senior pastor of Glen Haven Baptist Church in McDonough. "The Lord Jesus died for the sinner. I was a sinner before I was saved. We've got to always remember that people are not our problem. Satan is our problem, and what he's done to this world."
Easterwood was honored Sunday by members of his congregation, who gave him a 2010 Buick LaCrosse. He will retire Aug. 22 from the position he has held for 27 of his 43 years in ministry.
Easterwood was adopted at age 3. He said his adoptive mother took him to Glen Haven Baptist, which was located in Decatur at the time, when he was just 12 years old. "I also met my future wife there," said Easterwood, now 74. "Her dad had brought her there, and she was an 11-year-old girl."
Through the years, Easterwood held a number of offices at Glen Haven Baptist, under the direction of then-Pastor Randy Hardeman. Easterwood served as a deacon and Sunday School teacher, before taking on a more prominent role at the church.
"I knew that the Lord had called me to some sort of special service," he said. "God really blessed me in teaching Sunday School. I was able to reach people with my teaching abilities and my compassion for individuals there. Because of my success as a Sunday School teacher, I felt like the Lord had called me to preach. So, Pastor Hardeman talked to me about coming on staff, full-time, in 1967. I came on staff not only as associate pastor, but also as administrator of the church business."
Hardeman retired in 1983, at which time Easterwood became the senior pastor at Glen Haven. The church, and its 230 members, relocated to their current facility at 345 East Lake Road in McDonough in 2005.
Today, Glen Haven's membership exceeds 1,300 individuals. Easterwood said a key element in the church's growth lies in the friendly nature of its congregation. "We have a personal touch," he said. "People say, when they come here, 'This is like the church that we were raised in.' It's a traditional church ... but what has surprised us [is], the largest age group of people that have joined our church since we've been here, is couples in their 30s. That has really been an asset to us, to realize that with a traditional church and the type of music we have ... that we are reaching couples in their 30s. I think it's because of genuineness and the realness of our people here."
One ministry in which Easterwood has participated as senior pastor, which he plans to continue when he retires, is as a chaplain for the Henry County Police Department. He said he has ridden along with 140 different officers in the agency since 2006, counseling them on the hazards of their jobs.
"That opens up all types of opportunities to minister to them, because we have their confidence," the senior pastor said. "They know that whatever they tell us, or share with us, we're not going to go out and let other people know about it."
Easterwood credits much of his success to his wife of 57 years, Gwen. He said he appreciates her support as a spouse, and as office manager of the church for 40 years. "She is the greatest pastor's wife I could ever have," he said. "She's the greatest blessing that I've had, outside of getting saved."
Gwen Easterwood plans to retire at the same time as her husband. She said his dedication to deliver God's Word faithfully, has benefited members and visitors at Glen Haven Baptist. "When he preaches and the people walk out, he has preached to them something that they can [use to] help them through the week," she said. "His preaching is relevant. It helps you get through the day, get through the week, get through the month."
Pastor Stan Berrong will take over as senior pastor when Easterwood retires. Berrong describes Easterwood as a "tremendous leader" and a "visionary," who has had a significant impact on the lives of Glen Haven members. "He ... makes sure that all of us in our ministry do it with passion, and that more than anything, we focus on people and trying to meet people's needs," Berrong said.
"We've been fortunate to have such a consistency in our church, and he has set the stage for that. [Becoming senior pastor] is a daunting responsibility, because Brother Ralph has set the bar so high," he said. "He is an individual who has been a mentor to me, though, and he's helped prepare the way for me through these years."
Easterwood plans to continue teaching a Sunday School class for seniors at Glen Haven, as well as overseeing missions revivals and maintaining his duties as a police chaplain. He said he also hopes to preach on an occasional basis at Glen Haven. "As long as you have your health, a pastor never retires from preaching or teaching," he said. "As long as you have the ability to preach and teach, you're always going to want to do that."
Easterwood said when he and his wife retire, they will spend time traveling, and spend time with their five children, 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.