Dr. Doug Fairbanks Enjoyed 48 Years In Ministry

Tuesday, July 17, 2018 - by John Shearer
Dr. Doug and Carolyn Fairbanks
Dr. Doug and Carolyn Fairbanks
With his soft and friendly Southern drawl typical of someone raised in Chattanooga in the mid-20th century, Dr. Doug Fairbanks gives no hint during a quick exchange of all his worldly – and almost contrasting -- experiences and interests.

But he was exposed to entirely different Christian denominations growing up, served in Vietnam but dislikes war, decided on his own as a white man to go to a predominantly black seminary, and even writes poetry. 

All of those experiences joined together to help him in a career as a United Methodist minister that spanned 48 years. 

However, last month he preached his last sermon at the large First-Centenary United Methodist Church in downtown Chattanooga before retiring.

Reached after a couple of weeks of vacation – and admittedly sleeping better than he has in a while after no longer having to worry about caring for such a large flock of proverbial sheep – he recently looked back on his career.

Talking over the phone from the childhood farm of his wife, Carolyn, in Abingdon, Va., where they have moved, Dr. Fairbanks said he feels much satisfaction about his ministerial career.

“It’s been rewarding, meaningful, purposeful and challenging – all those things,” he said.

He first had the urge to be a pastor about the age of 10, he said, while at Highland Plaza Methodist Church. Later experiences confirmed that call.

His parents came from diverse Christian backgrounds. His late father, Doug Sr., who was named after the famous silent movie star and went on to work at the local DuPont plant, had grown up in the Church of God in Chattanooga.

The elder Fairbanks was in the Navy in World War II and on leave when he met his future wife, Jeannie, now 92, at a roller rink in Hoboken, N.J. She was a Roman Catholic.

So as a youngster he was exposed to both the more Pentecostal Church of God in Chattanooga and the more stoic Catholic faith following train trips back to New York in the summers.

As a result, it taught him a valuable lesson about respect for all fellow Christians.

“That showed me we can experience God in more than one way, and no one denomination is better than any other,” he said.

As a student at Hixson High, Dr. Fairbanks had some diverse experiences as well, primarily by playing several sports when that was much more common than with young athletes today. He was a quarterback and kicker on the football team and also played basketball and baseball.

He said the experiences playing such sports taught him the importance of working with people and understanding what it means to be part of a team.

He then enrolled at Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tenn., after graduating from Hixson in 1964. There, he played on the baseball team.

But his greatest catch may have come off the field, where he met his future wife, Carolyn, who later worked in education. They were married in 1967.

He went on to serve in the Army in Vietnam with the 25th Army Medical Battalion in the Cu Chi area after training in Fort Benning, Ga.

“I supplied all the medics,” he said. “I dealt with Medivac choppers and MASH units.”

He also went out on missions taking doctors and dentists to villages and jungles.

While he was fortunate to come out physically unscathed in a country where being about anywhere put you in harm’s way, the experience did damage his outlook toward war.

“It’s a sad thing that we human beings have to have war and can’t find better ways to settle differences,” he said. “War is hell.”

Upon his return, America was also at war at home, not only with debates about the Vietnam conflict, but because the slow process of integration in schools and elsewhere was also culminating with a few final bumps.

He finished his undergraduate studies at the University of Tennessee and was certain of his call to ministry. But rather than attend one of the mostly white Methodist seminaries that most aspiring Tennessee preachers did at that time, he decided to enroll at the Interdenominational Theological Center connected with the Gammon School of Theology.

“They had the M.L. King Center for Social Change and that appealed to me,” he said. “Dr. King was one of my top heroes.

“There were only three white guys in the seminary, but it was a tremendous experience.”

Early student and regular appointments included the Friendsville-Binfield circuit in Blount County and serving as an associate at Church Street UMC in downtown Knoxville. From 1976-79, he served the Beulah-Ridgeway circuit in the Knoxville area.

He also got a doctorate at the Graduate Theological Foundation in Northern Indiana after he began working in ministry fulltime.

From 1979-2001, he served in the Western North Carolina Conference. He decided to serve there due to his admiration for Bishop Scott Allen, who had earlier become the Southeastern Jurisdiction’s first black bishop and initially served the Holston Conference that covers East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

“He was fantastic. He was like a father to me,” Dr. Fairbanks said.

In North Carolina, Dr. Fairbanks served churches mostly in the Charlotte area before eventually deciding to move back to the East Tennessee area closer to his and his wife’s families.

In 2001, he began serving at Signal Crest United Methodist on Signal Mountain. Five years later, he became the Knoxville District superintendent before coming to First-Centenary in 2012.

Like all pastors, his years at all his churches were full of experiences of the highs and lows of helping people in times of joy and in times of need, and simply trying to offer Christ. Many stories about those times later became anecdotes told in an anonymous fashion in his sermons.

The United Methodist Church he has served has been in the news in recent months with its debate regarding whether to change the wording and rules in its Book of Discipline concerning the LGBT community. It is looking at whether to allow self-avowed and practicing gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions, both of which are currently not permitted.

A special vote among the church’s General Conference will be held in February 2019, and some fear it might cause a fissure among United Methodists, as it already has with other denominations in recent years.

Dr. Fairbanks said he believes the changing American culture has pretty much already settled that issue with a greater acceptance collectively of the LGBT community.

For him, the general issue of living like Christ is more important.

“The church needs to love people and give everyone the opportunity to love God as much as he or she is capable of doing,”

He added that he thinks Jesus is not happy with the way we continue to handle a lot of issues in society.

A more pressing issue, he believes, is dealing with the migrant children separated from their parents.

A person who writes poetry for a hobby, he recently penned a poem about the Statue of Liberty weeping over the recent immigrant crisis, he said.

Regarding his retirement, Dr. Fairbanks said he plans to keep busy writing some more poetry, playing golf, taking care of their acreage, and reading some Christian theological books.

He said he might want to do some more preaching on special occasions as time goes by, but that is not on his immediate radar.

However, Dr. Fairbanks thoroughly enjoyed his fulltime ministerial career, he added, including having to deal with complex issues that have been such a big part of serving as a minister.

“I really appreciated the privilege to help people in different situations,” he said.


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