Just short of ten years ago, my family closed the heavy metal door to the moving truck. My whole life, in one sense, was being transported across the country to Maryville, Tennessee. In another sense, though, my whole life was staying behind. Growing up in Cut-N’-Shoot, Texas, a population under 1500 residents, had its drawbacks, but it was also, and always will be in some ways, home. And in the fall of 2006, we chose to discover the new chapter of life as a family and make Maryville, Tennessee our new home (something I was skeptical of at the time). With tears streaming, we all huddled together in prayer one last time at 3241 Mann Road, not knowing what lie ahead for us as a family.
Fast forward to Halloween night. We are getting “settled” in to our new home, new schools, new jobs, new roads, new restaurants, new everything. We had each other, but we as a family had no one. We didn’t know anybody. Our closest family members were about three hours away, and all of our friends were sixteen hours southwest of us. We decide, probably on a whim, to go to a Trunks and Treats event at First Baptist Alcoa. It wasn’t West Conroe Baptist Church, and I was perturbed that we actually thought we could replace what we once had in the Lone Star State. In the midst of walking around, like trying to gain bearings after a crash landing, a man approaches our family. His name is Freeman.
Freeman knows West Conroe Baptist Church, amazingly enough. He knows and loves the Texas Longhorns better than I do, appealing to my fandom. He’s a Texan; he knows our culture, our food, our stories. But more than this, this was the first time we felt known. It was a divine connection. Freeman greeted us with a massive smile, a firm handshake, and an energy that was unmatched. We had almost forgotten what it felt like for people to be grateful we were here in East Tennessee. It was a breath of fresh air. After talking a few minutes, he invited us to service Sunday.
I joined the high school worship team, and my brother followed suit once I left for college. Dad became a deacon, taught Sunday School, and helped revitalize the men’s ministry. Mom became a fervent disciple-maker of women and girls and poured so many hours into serving our church. Even now, ten years later, working at another church in Knoxville, I think about FBA, and pray for them. I watch my parents, even now, serve in the youth group as leaders, and serve in other various positions, leading a small group, and consistently making it to Sunday service at 10AM. Many people played a part in our journey along the way, but when I think about our time at FBA, I feel most indebted to one man. A man whose son was my roommate and in my wedding. A man you’ll find sitting out on the patio dressed in a robe, Crocs, and a bucket hat after resting from a long week of pastoral ministry. A man who has taught me much about ministry and life without even knowing.
In the years I spent watching Freeman, I have learned so much about what it means to be a preacher. First, it means being faithful to God’s Word. No exceptions. There are no “shortcuts” when it comes to preaching God’s Word faithfully. If that means it takes two years to get through Colossians, so be it. If that means leaving the originally planned sermon for something else stirring deeper inside of him, that’s what it means.
Second, it means being passionate about God’s Word. Freeman would on a weekly basis preach so hard, and sometimes so long, that the last fifteen minutes of his message would be hoarse and gravelly. He famously struts up the four or five stairs to the stage, then walks right back down to them and into the pews, then back up again. You cannot contain this man. This isn’t because Freeman gets carried away; it is because he loves God’s Word, and he hopes and pleads and prays we hear it.
Third, it means being authentic with God’s Word. Freeman is notorious for running down rabbit trails, using crazy illustrations to make his point, and continually commenting on his own preaching throughout the message. It may seem wonky to a stranger, but to someone who knows Freeman, it’s just an example of how deeply genuine the man is. Freeman doesn’t have all the answers, and he isn’t perfect with what he’s calling the audience to, and he never expects you to feel that way. Mispronouncing words and getting carried away isn’t a sign of weakness in preaching as much as it is a sign of humility and humanness. Every time I step onto a stage to preach, thinking about what kind of preacher I want to be, I don’t think of John Piper, or Matt Chandler, or Tim Keller, but Freeman Tomlin.
But the Freeman off the stage is just as good, in case you were wondering. In the midst of trying times, difficult people, and criticism, I haven’t seen someone handle such circumstances with as much grace and lovingkindness. In many cases, he’s let his reputation be put on the chopping block for doing the right thing, and he’s okay with that. He is the kind of pastor that would rather clean out the day’s schedule to stay sitting with you in your time of need. He is honest, but loving. I wish more pastors married those traits together the way he did. He puts his family first, not his church. That’s a big one. He takes time to rest, because he knows he can’t lead well with an empty tank. He cares for the needy, not because it’s his job, but because it’s his heartbeat. When someone asks me to describe “pastor,” I think of Freeman Tomlin.
This upcoming Sunday will be the final Sunday Freeman Tomlin is pastor at First Baptist Alcoa. While I know how deeply this transition has affected my family, I also know that this is a season of celebrating a man who was, truly, a “good and faithful servant” of the Lord in his time at 819 Gilbert Street. I’m thankful for the life and ministry lessons Freeman has given me, and many others.
Freeman, thank you for everything. Truly, everything. You displayed what it looks like to live a Colossians 3:23 life. You exhibited 1 Corinthians 10:24. You are the blessed man of James 1:12. Your ministry was patterned by 2 Timothy 2:15. We love you, and Leslie, and Cole, and look forward to hearing all about the next chapter in life that awaits you.