The Rev. Shelton L. Smith preaches a farewell sermon today at the Church of the Open Door, a place he has called home and nurtured for nearly 17 years.
Dr. Smith is leaving the independent Westminster church with its 3,000 members and broadening his ministry to the media and pulpits around the country.
As the newly named president and editor of The Sword of the Lord, a semimonthly publication with a worldwide circulation of 100,000, the 52-year-old pastor and his wife Betty will move to Tennessee, where he will supervise a staff of 63 and write "a salvation presentation" in each issue.
"The paper's major focus will be to get the ear of clergymen across the country and get them back to the Bible," he said. "A lot of clergy are diluted by liberal theology and sidetracked on different agendas."
Centering a ministry on social issues is "putting a Band-Aid on cancer," he said.
"Not that we don't give out groceries here; we do," he said. "We give the Gospel, too, and get people to come to Christ. When they get the Gospel, they get the principles to walk on their own two feet."
He often compares the church to a hospital.
"We are not a museum with perfect artifacts," he said. "We are a hospital for long-term, sometimes intensive care."
His message won't change, he said, as he prepares for what he perceives as an awesome responsibility at The Sword. His adult children -- a son and a daughter -- will work with him on the publication, also moving their families to Tennessee.
Dr. Smith will continue to preach as a guest in different churches each week and may, on occasion, return to Westminster. He also plans to launch a radio ministry.
"I am still a preacher, the most important assignment in the whole world," he said. "If I had 1,000 lives to live, I would want to live them all the same way."
He eschews ecumenism, which tries to consolidate the ministries of many denominations, because it "dilutes everybody's message and sacrifices individuality."
"Bible preachers must be evangelistic in outreach," he said. "Everyone is going to heaven or hell. It is the preacher's responsibility to get them to heaven."
Leaving the congregants of the Church of the Open Door has been the most difficult aspect of his new task. "My roots are too deep," he said. "I have loved them, and they have loved us. They have been family for 17 years. We are not going to stop loving one another, but I won't be here."
Since he announced his decision in April, he has been preaching pieces of his goodbye each week to a congregation whose members he knows by name.
"I want to prepare them, not discourage them about my leaving," he said. "The Lord has already prepared another preacher somewhere who will do a great job for these people."
For several years, Dr. Smith has been on the board of directors of the newspaper, established in Dallas in 1934 and now in Murfreesboro, Tenn. When Curtis Hutson, the editor and Dr. Smith's friend, died in March, he said the time had come for him to take over the paper.
"I knew it was what I should do," Dr. Smith said. "I told the people here my decision, and I got on the plane to Nashville."
He has logged about 30,000 air miles since then, returning nearly every weekend to lead services.
"There have been tears and people asking me not to go, but in the next breath, they tell me they understand," he said.
The minister said he feels confident the work he began and the growth -- 10 times the original number of members and several new buildings -- will continue.
"Carroll County is a great area, and this church has an expansive ministry," he said. "It ought to grow for a long time. This place is built on something a whole lot bigger than me. The Lord and the Bible are the anchors."
Open Door grows because the members spread the the message of the Bible, he said.
"When you walk in here on Sunday, it's not the dullest hour of the week," he said. "We are excited about what is going on."
Verna Hollingsworth of Hampstead said she felt at home the first time she visited two years ago.
"They read the Bible to you, explain it to you and lead you in the right way," she said.
The church numbers many local officials and state legislators among its members.
"Whatever you are doing as a Christian can have a strong, positive influence on others," said the pastor.
He preaches gospel, not politics, he said, but never avoids controversy. "If a politician is on the wrong side, we say so," he said.
Dr. Smith takes a strong anti-abortion stance and has preached against the National Endowment for the Arts, which he would like to see "defunded."
"The NEA has become a place for people to trash values and religious things at government expense," he said. "When they start demeaning the things that made this country great, we are going to rise up."
State Sen. Larry E. Haines, a county Republican legislator and vice president of the church council, has known the pastor for all 17 years of his tenure.
"I never met a man so gifted; no matter what the subject he speaks on it with wisdom," said Mr. Haines. "He really knows and understands people."
Mr. Haines is chairman of the five-member pulpit committee, which has been conducting a national search for a new pastor. The committee has invited several candidates to preach in the next few weeks.
"Whoever this man is, I have asked everyone to pray for him now," said the pastor. "I want them to love and support him as they have me."
Mr. Haines said, "Shelton Smith has been an instrument in God's hands here. His leaving is a sad day for us."
The congregation plans a testimonial today.
"We will give honor to whom honor is due," said Mr. Haines. "We are keeping our eyes on the Lord, but our minister deserve recognition."