A document called a certificate of license hangs on my study wall. It reads:
“This is to certify Michael Lee Ruffin who has given evidence that God has called him into THE GOSPEL MINISTRY was Licensed to preach the Gospel as he may have opportunity, and to exercise his gifts in the work of ministry”
(The capitalization and punctuation are reproduced exactly as they appear.)
The document goes on to say that the license was presented to me by Midway Baptist Church of Barnesville, Ga., on the 21st day of April 1974.
I was born on the 24th day of September 1958, so I was five months shy of turning 16 when I received my license to exercise my preaching and other ministry gifts. Frankly, I am uncertain as to exactly how I had “given evidence” of my call or much of anything else except maybe raging adolescence and the gumption to get up in front of a crowd of folks and talk.
The folks at Midway, of course, assured me that I had a tremendous preaching career ahead of me but they had after all helped to raise me and so were more than slightly biased in their appraisals of my abilities.
The signature of Rev. Herman J. Coleman is on my license, although we all knew him as “Preacher Bill.” One thing you had to say for Preacher Bill was that he would give budding, blossoming or even dead-on-the-vine preachers the chance to preach if they wanted to preach.
I remember my father, who was serving a life sentence as deacon chairman at Midway, coming home once sniffing that sniff that he sniffed when something was bugging him. When Mama asked him what was wrong, he said, “(Sniff) Sometimes I think that Bill would license a dog to preach if he said he’d been called.”
Apparently some guy who had just repented of his sins and turned from his reprobate ways and gotten baptized had decided after a couple of days of euphoric discipleship that God had called him to preach – and Preacher Bill was ready to give him the piece of paper.
“Seems to me like (sniff) we ought to wait a few months to see how he pans out before we go giving him our seal of approval,” Daddy opined.
Daddy didn’t object when Preacher Bill wanted to license me to preach and, to be fair, by the time I had reached the age of 15 years and 7 months, I had already done a fair amount of preaching, although all of it was at Midway. That was mainly because of the way that Preacher Bill used our Wednesday night prayer meetings to “showcase” the preaching talent in our church.
I once heard our pastor brag that he had not spoken on a Wednesday night at Midway in more than three years. That was because he kept a calendar on the bulletin board in the church foyer on which one could, if one so desired, sign up to preach on a Wednesday night.
I was 13 the first time that I put my name on the calendar.
Somewhere I still have the notes from that “sermon” that was titled “The Danger of the Tongue.” I took my text from the book of James. After writing a detailed outline of what I wanted to say, I rehearsed the message over and over, timing myself each time until I finally satisfied myself that I had 20 minutes worth of material.
When my Wednesday night to preach rolled around, I thundered prophetically against every bad use of the tongue of which I could think, thankfully restricting myself to its verbal misapplications like gossiping, lying and singing “Jesus Christ Superstar” until, after about five minutes had passed, I ran out of things to say.
Between the night of my debut and the Sunday morning of my licensing, I spoke on a few more Wednesday nights and in one or two Sunday morning youth-led services. In fact, it was during the invitation hymn following one of my youth Sunday messages that I responded to my own altar call and accepted the call to preach.
After I was licensed, I got a lot of opportunities to preach at other churches in the area. I guess that a teenage preacher was enough of a novelty that it seemed a pretty good show to bring in. Besides, I was a convenient speaker for youth-led services in churches that were not fortunate enough to have their own resident preacher boy.
Over the next couple of years, I preached in several Baptist, Methodist and Pentecostal churches, for all of which I feel much appreciation to this day because of the opportunity they gave me to begin the process, which continues to this day and will continue to the day I die, of honing my preaching skills.
Just before I entered Mercer University in September 1975, my high school English teacher’s father-in-law, a fine gentleman named Rev. William Key, called and asked me to come see him. While we sipped iced tea in lawn chairs in his back yard in a suburban area of Milner, he offered me my first preaching job.
He was officially retired, he told me, but he was serving as interim pastor at a rural church called Pritchett Memorial Baptist Church in the Jugtown community somewhere between Thomaston and Meansville and Barnesville. He was pretty sure that he could get them to call me as associate pastor.
The deal would be, he said, that I would visit the sick and the lost with him on Saturdays and then on Sundays. We would alternate services; he would preach on Sunday morning and I on that Sunday night one week. The next week, I would preach on Sunday morning and he on Sunday night.
They could, he said, pay me $25 per week.
And so it came to pass that for the next 18 months or so I preached to those poor saints every Sunday. It was an opportunity that not too many 17- and 18-year-old college freshmen and sophomores get. I will always be grateful to Preacher Key and the folks at that church for giving it to me.
Indeed, I will also always be grateful to Preacher Bill and the Midway Baptist Church and to all of those other churches in and around Barnesville, Ga., that gave this preacher boy a chance.
For that matter, I am grateful to those churches that later gave this preacher man a chance – and to the church that even now gives me the opportunity to exercise my calling and to practice my craft.
I thank them that they did – and that they do – take a chance on me.
Curriculum editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing in Macon, Georgia.