Bill Dudley does not believe a pastor should ever retire, so when he ends his 25 years as senior pastor of Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church Sept. 7, 2014, Dr. William E. (Bill) Dudley will not retire -- "I don’t believe retirement is biblical" -- but will be looking forward to whatever lies ahead.
"God is not through with me," he said, during an interview Thursday. "I have no idea where I am going, but I am ready to find out. I’m living every day to finish my ministry here well, and then decide where God is calling me."
That call nearly 25 years ago was to a decidedly different church when he came to Signal Mountain. The congregation had started a new sanctuary to add to Marr Chapel. "When we came the new sanctuary balcony had not been completed and the transepts not used." There was one worship service "and all sat together in the center nave. Now the balcony and transepts are filled for two worship services with an overflow in the chapel and closed circuit in the second service."
Despite the fact Dr. Dudley says "I’m not a building pastor, that is not my thing," a gigantic building program has gone on. There have been two major building additions, one in 2001, the cornerstone building addition that more than doubled the land and building space, and another in 2006 when a youth wing for youth ministry was added. Inbetween those additions was refurbishing to upgrade the building.
It was all the congregation, he said. "The leadership is very gifted and strong in their commitment to this church. We have no debt. The church is healthy financially. The people chose elders who led these endeavors and they led well. In the same way they led the dismissal of the congregation from the Presbyterian Church USA to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. They led well. It was not pastor driven."
In 2007 the congregation voted, almost unanimously, to transfer from the Presbyterian Church USA to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and Dr. Dudley transferred his ordination to the EPC after 38 years in the PCUSA.
"That was a very significant moment for me. It was a tender time for me and my family after my long standing in the PCUSA. It was a very renewing and inspiration of great joy to be in the EPC." He currently serves as moderator of the EPC.
Dr. Dudley says of the church growth, it was "mysterious." "I don’t completely understand," but he credits God for that and for the change in denominations. "It was miraculous, not orchestrated. That all of us agreed to that step was very significant. I could never have imagined this So much of where we are today is of the Lord."
There are two particular events at the church that are personally significant. One was when shortly after they came to the mountain, their oldest son was killed. "God is faithful all the time. This church carried us as a family when we were deeply wounded. I can’t say enough about this congregation. "
Another important action of the church also came shortly after he came. There were two young boy in the congregation who were handicapped. A program that has expanded over the years provides care and concern for the handicapped and their families, and "inspires me."
There are many advantages in a long pastorate, he said. The trust relationship you have with a congregation helps you know your people personally. The ability to be with people throughout life from baptism to confirmation to marriage and baptize their own children, is a marvelous gift. There is no description for the depth of that bond.
"The challenge for a pastor of long tenure is that he must stay spiritually vibrant and alive in his faith in order to lead the congregation. There is a danger of stagnation in long pastorates, a change of vision of what God calls you to be as a church family. In 25 years at Signal there have been three or four different styles of ministry models we have used with different goals for each one."
He said an important time for him is when he buries those of long standing in the church and a challenge when those who have been leaders of the church become physically limited and you care for them.
A number of young pastors have been on the staff with him over the years, many now in other churches, and he has been a mentor for them. "I love them and have lunch with them. Hardly a week goes by I am not in conversation with them. They have just blessed me as chosen sons. I count them very dear and special to me."
He is particularly pleased with the close association of the church with the Signal Mountain Church of Christ and with the Alexian Brothers. Over a year ago Dr. Dudley announced that he would be leaving in two years. He planned this so that the church would have time to plan for a transition to a new pastor.
"It’s been a marvelous time. I have no regrets. It’s hard to imagine 25 years have passed. People on Signal Mountain and Chattanooga are only exceeded by my thanks for raising my family here and being a part of this community."
A native of Opelika, Ala., he is a graduate of Auburn University with master and doctor of ministry degrees from Columbia Theological Seminary. He served as associate pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in Montgomery, Ala., pastor of Newnan Presbyterian Church in Newnan, Ga., and again at Memorial Church in Montgomery as senior pastor for 14 years prior to his call to Signal Mountain.
He has served for the past 16 years as a trustee of Montreat College, N.C. and within the Chattanooga community has served on numerous boards and ministries, is an active member of Chattanooga Rotary Club and on committees for Auburn University.
He and his wife, Julia, are the parents of three children and have three grandchildren.