'Rebel priest': Bill Henderson reflects on time as interim pastor

Ty Roush
Black Mountain News
Bill Henderson has served as Black Mountain Baptist's interim pastor twice in the last 13 years.

BLACK MOUNTAIN - Bill Henderson’s voice echoes throughout First Baptist Church of Black Mountain. He is alone sitting in a front pew, creaking the wood with his grip.

He’s been here alone before, standing at the pulpit and facing an audience through a camera. His voice would echo then, too, to an empty room and open pews.

“It made it feel more like a performance,” Henderson said. “And it’s just not my style. It’s the most effective experience that a pastor has, and that is he or she is relating to a group of people and looking them in the eye and talking to them about life and God and how you make things happen.”

Henderson has been the interim pastor since May and held the same position 13 years earlier. His job in the interim is to “recalculate, and maybe even see some new things and go in some new directions.”

His second time around, Henderson, 74, wanted to fill the church with life.

“I didn’t want to let anybody go to sleep,” Henderson said. “I want them to come alive.”

The call

Some ministers have a “Damascus Road awakening,” a “call to the ministry,” or even a “bolt of lightning” where “God’s calling me into something.” Henderson experienced it differently.

Both of Henderson’s parents worked in the ministry, and he remembers the pair leaving for Hong Kong on a mission while he was young. He remembers always having an attentive ear, listening to the needs of others.

From an early stage, Henderson understood that he wanted to help others, he just didn’t know how.

“I tried a lot of things,” Henderson said. “I thought I’d be in medicine, and I wanted to do graduate work in psychology.”

Though he had strayed from his parents’ profession, Henderson kept finding jobs “in the field of religious life.” He says he found freedom and that he came to understand what helped others the most.

Through his training in pastoral counseling, he “learned about the makeup of people and what makes them screwy, what gets them way off track, how do they go wrong, how do they hear the wrong stuff and do the wrong stuff with it.”

Henderson was given 20 minutes one Sunday morning to get his start as a pastor.

“I said to myself, I don’t know how to do that,” Henderson said.

His time at the pulpit was a “great thrill.” It was his awakening “to try to bring something to help people get some handles on life.”

Bill Henderson has served as Black Mountain Baptist's interim pastor twice in the last 13 years.

He followed his desire to help others by moving into youth ministry. A more recreational and activity-oriented practice, Henderson was granted freedoms into shaping younger minds while allowing the youth to open up to him. 

Over time, Henderson recognized that, as a pastor, there was only so much work and success that could be made in a community. After leaving Rome, Georgia, with his wife, Rena, to other churches throughout the state, Henderson learned about an intentional interim training program at Wake Forest University.

As an interim pastor, Henderson would be trained to “help the congregation get a hold of its responsibility again, break their hold on a dependency with a pastor or even the prospects of having a popularity cult in churches.”

From aiding troubled youth, Henderson would now aid churches.

‘Rebel priest’

Working as a minister does not mean you are “called in here to win the world,” Henderson says.

“And if you want to do that, you ought to be on TV somewhere with some yahoo evangelistic ministry while reaching all the goofballs that give you money and stuff like that,” he said. “You come to minister a congregation to help them get healthy … you’ve got to love your people, you really got to care about ‘em.”

An interim pastor puts churches back on the right path. Henderson does his own work at the church before volunteering elsewhere in the community: homeless shelters, local ministries and fundraising.

For Henderson, his call is to help others reach the right path, even if the church he serves on disagrees with his motivations.

“Some churches have been uncertain about me because I’m a bit of a rebel priest,” Henderson said. “But I’ve learned what it really means to minister a congregation.”

When Henderson says “rebel priest,” he's saying he cares “about people more than I care about the institution of the church.” For the church to follow through on its functions, the institution “has really got to be healthy.”

Bill and Rena moved throughout North Carolina while in the training program. After finishing up in eastern North Carolina, the couple went west. Bill would hike portions of the Appalachian Trail, looking over the valleys of trees below. 

He says he remembers the breeze on his face and feeling familiar with the area. Though welcoming, he says it felt different.

Black Mountain

It wasn’t long before Rena fell in love with Black Mountain.

As a result of Henderson’s first stint with First Baptist Black Mountain, both Rena and Bill decided to purchase a property from Graybeard Realty where they built their new home.

The plan was to have Rena pursue her career in town while Bill limited his work at churches within a 100-mile radius. So far, he has served in Jackson County, Polk County, Asheville and Greenville, “and those were kind of two-year hitches.”

Living in Black Mountain, however, meant a proper place for retirement.

Bill volunteers in the community, both with the Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry and with local efforts. He’s visited local nursing homes and built friendships, and throughout this year, he says he’s worked to maintain those relationships.

Henderson began writing daily prayers to those he knew at the nursing homes. His mailing list started out short, but now he’s up to 80. 

The prayers come from “deep inside” of Henderson, he says, “and it’s not goody-goody stuff.”

By September of this year, Henderson finished 365 consecutive days of prayer messages without interruption.

By January of next year, when Henderson’s second term with the church is completed, he says he’s looking forward to more time “being free of any kind of regular schedule.”

Even in retirement, he’s “still got this stuff in me.”

“When you get into ministry, you just always are a minister or a pastor,” Henderson said.

Pandemic service

Bill Walker, a former deacon chairman, told Henderson about an idea that other churches had been working on.

The concept of an outdoor service was initially a “little weird,” Henderson said, though the church’s audio-visual team was prepared and looking forward to the opportunity.

Henderson walked away from the pews and into the parking lot. The sun and breeze welcomed him as he was set at a pulpit by the nearby oaks.

“I felt like John Wesley preaching to the Indians,” Henderson said.

Churchgoers remained in their cars, connected to Henderson’s voice via FM transmitter. His voice continues to echo, and he could now connect with the eyes of his congregation.

He says he, along with the help of the church, brought life back to First Baptist Black Mountain. Under the trees and familiar breeze, Henderson was back to being a pastor, not a performer.