Stephen and Sandie Hodges.

Timing is everything. And when Stephen Hodges first got a call from Bethlehem Baptist Church, about three years ago, the timing — for whatever reason — wasn’t right. 

But two years later, the timing was right, and Hodges is nearing the end of his first year as pastor of the church in Oneida’s Oak Grove district.

Hodges and his wife, Sandie, originally “had no desire to come to Oneida,” he says. In fact, they had no desire to go anywhere, “except maybe Florida.” But God’s ways, as we’re told in the Book of Isaiah, are not our ways.

“The Lord decided to put us here instead of Florida, so here we are,” Hodges says.

The friend connection

Stephen Hodges was ordained into the ministry in 1976. Over the course of the 42 years since, he has spent some time as a full-time pastor, so bivocational time that was split between his church and his private counseling business, and some time as a church staff member. But it was his desire to move back into a full-time pastoral decision, and a friendship with Morris Anderson, that helped steer him to Oneida and Bethlehem Baptist Church.

And while Oneida may not be quite as warm as Florida’s sunny shores, the winters here are certainly warmer than Michigan — where Hodges pastored his first church in 1977. And he is self-admittedly “not a guy who wants to be in a big metropolitan area.” So, Oneida — which Hodges sees as similar to the up-and-coming Blount County he grew up in — turned out to be a good fit for he and his wife.

It was through Morris Anderson, the president and founder of Manna Ministries, who has conducted a number of revivals at Bethlehem over the years, that Hodges made the connection.

“Morris is a friend of mine and he did a lot of revivals here even when Lon Chenoweth was here,” Hodges said. “He contacted me and told me about Oneida because he knew I was wanting to get back into being a senior pastor. So he was the primary instrument in that.”

The first time Hodges had contact with Bethlehem was about three years ago. He met with the deacons, but the timing just wasn’t right.

“Sandie and I prayed about it and just could not feel a solid sense that we needed to come here,” he said.

But, two years later, Bethlehem contacted Hodges again. “As soon as they contacted me, and as soon as we came up here, it was a totally different feeling,” he said. “I do not know why, except I don’t think the Lord wanted me up here then and he wanted me up here now. It’s one of those at-home kind of feelings. We had no question about it and still don’t.” 

Getting started in the ministry

Stephen Hodges grew up on a farm in rural Blount County, outside Maryville. The family had horses, showed cattle, and did all of the things a farm family does. So, it was perhaps no surprise that young Stephen Hodges thought he wanted to be a veterinarian.

But another part of his upbringing was church. The Hodges family attended a small church in Maryville, and “Daddy would stand me up on the back of the pew in front of us and I would direct music along with Ted Wilson (former football coach at Maryville High School).” 

So Hodges always assumed that he would be involved in music. Later, after he and Sandie were married, they even sang in various churches. But, gradually, he realized the call to preach.

“It was just sort of a gradual thing,” Hodges said. “Not to be a pastor, but just to preach. It just kinda began to creep up on me, and so I began praying about it.” 

When the pastor at Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church in the 1970s asked Hodges to attend a pastors conference in Nashville, life was about to change. There, he heard Morristown hardware store owner John Wallace speak. And one thing Wallace said was that he had been praying and asking God to have pastors invite him to preach if it was meant for him to preach.

“I thought, I’ll try that,” Hodges said. “And on the way home, the pastor asked me to preach for him. And then some more people asked me. Every time I got up to preach I felt really scared but really comfortable.” 

To Oneida...

Born and raised in Maryville, Stephen Hodges attended the University of Tennessee and then Carson-Newman College before seminary school. He first pastored a church in a small town just outside Ann Arbor, Mich., beginning in 1977, then eventually returned to Tennessee and accepted a position as pastor at a church in Greenback.

Of the four decades since, he says, “I haven’t always been pastoring and certainly not always a full-time pastor as I am here.” 

Instead, he concentrated on his private counseling and ministering practice in Maryville. He and Sandie had one son, and now have two grandchildren who live in Powell (“I’d like to have 15 or 20,” he says of the grandkids, “but I think two is pretty much it.”)

And, eventually, the timing was right for Hodges to wind up at Bethlehem.

“I really love Oneida,” he said. “I’m trying really, really hard as a new kid on the block to figure out how to do what I believe the Lord has put us here to do.” 

The Hodges have settled in, live at the church’s parsonage near Oneida Elementary School, and have integrated within the community. Hodges said he doesn’t feel like Oneida is a temporary stopover, but instead that he’s in it for the long haul — however long that is.

“My goal is to just preach as long as Charles Stanley. So I have about 20 more years to go on that,” he joked. 

In the meantime, he and his wife are enjoying the Oneida experience.

“The people here are just wonderful. They’re really wonderful,” he said. “The people in this church are wonderful and we’re just tickled to death to have the opportunity that the Lord has presented us.” 

Looking forward

Stephen Hodges sees plenty of opportunities to expand the ministerial reach of Bethlehem Baptist Church. But, as with all things, it will take time. 

For now, the church’s women’s ministry is active, holding a couple of conferences in 2017 and more recently holding a drive to fill laundry baskets with hygiene items and other essentials to be donated to the local women’s shelter and homeless shelter. The church also has a weekly women's Bible study that is open to the public, with a new study set to begin in September.

“We’re doing more of that kind of thing,” he said. “Our women here are really doing a wonderful job meeting needs in the community.” 

The church has also revived its adult softball program, putting to use one of the two fields in the adjacent recreational complex with hopes of eventually reviving the lower softball field. Hodges hails from a community with a rec-league softball program and sees an opportunity for Bethlehem to get its once-vibrant program back up and running at full steam.

There are similar opportunities in other areas. Hodges envisions a family life center on the south side of the church grounds, complete with a gymnasium where basketball programs and dodgeball tournaments can be held. He would like to start a Celebrate Recovery program, the nationally-recognized, faith-based addiction recovery effort. 

And then there are the kids — a group that Hodges feels a real burden for. Bethlehem recently restarted its children’s church and added a nursery for Sunday morning services, and Hodges keeps a list handy of new Sunday school and Bible study classes for children and young adults that he would like to see implemented. The church is the location for the Fladie family’s school Bible study program, which allows students to leave school with their parents’ consent and attend during school hours. And Hodges has been working with Oneida High School Principal Kevin Byrd and plans to do more events such as a “fifth quarter” after football games.

“We have a lot we want to do,” he said. “It just kinda takes a while to get it all running.”

This story is the April 2018 installment of Focus On: Religion, presented by Huntsville Manor on the fourth week of each month as part of the Independent Herald's Focus On series. A print copy of this story can be found on Page A3 of the April 26, 2018 edition of the Independent Herald.