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Car dealership chaplain makes inroads among unchurched

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Jay McAnnally’s job as a corporate chaplain for the Carl Black Automotive Group is simultaneously simple and complex: He just listens to people talk about their struggles and then he prays with them, but the struggles within the car dealership world are heavy and sometimes quite complicated.

As the first chaplain for one of the southeast’s dealership powerhouses, McAnnally sort of stumbled into the position, he said. He had been familiar with the automotive business while working as a geological engineer for the design and construction of a Saturn plant south of Nashville, Tenn., but God eventually led him to be one of the founding pastors of NorthStar Church in Kennesaw, Ga., nearly a decade ago.

It was at NorthStar that Mike Bowsher, president of Carl Black Automotive, approached McAnnally and said frankly, “I want to join your church.” McAnnally explained that Bowsher would first be required to attend a new members class to be sure he understood what the church believed, but Bowsher wanted a quick solution.

So McAnnally agreed to visit the Bowsher home for dinner, and after the meal he asked Bowsher two main questions for people who aren’t sure of their salvation: “If you were to die today, would you go to heaven or hell?” and “If you got to the pearly gates and St. Peter said, ‘Why should I let you in?’ how would you answer?”

The automotive executive provided a classic answer, McAnnally said. He held his hands like a set of scales and said he figured he had done more good than bad in his life, mainly through giving lots of money to charity. McAnnally explained why such an answer would not suffice, and that night Bowsher and his wife prayed to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

As Bowsher and McAnnally developed a close friendship, Bowsher began enlisting McAnnally on an informal basis to counsel with people at various Carl Black dealerships who were dealing with heavy issues. McAnnally recounted to Baptist Press the story of a woman named Sandy.

“She had worked at a bar called Cowboys, which was a western bar that was frequented by a lot of our car guys,” he said. “They’d get to know people, network and sell a lot of cars. She was the most popular server, a gorgeous girl…. She wanted to make more money, so she went to stripping. The guys followed her, and then she got cancer.”

McAnnally said Sandy was scared, and Bowsher, who had met Sandy from his days of living that lifestyle, asked him to make a visit to her home. He began to tell her how she could know Christ, but she said, “Jay, you have no idea what I’ve done in my lifetime. Jesus could never forgive me.”

Sandy’s remarks were genuine, and she was crying, McAnnally said. She added, “Jesus could have died on the cross, but I don’t care what He endured, he could not have had me in mind.” For 45 minutes McAnnally and Bowsher tried to convince her that Jesus has shed His blood on the cross not only for everybody else but for her too. She accepted Him and then died a couple of years later.

“Sandy has been a unique person in this story of what’s happened at Carl Black, and to this day we still refer to her,” McAnnally said, noting the way that in her last months, though struggling with cancer, she was not afraid to boldly share her faith with the roughest of guys in the car dealership business.

Employees of car dealerships often don’t have a church to call home because they work nearly all the time, McAnnally told BP. They live in a fast-paced, hard-nosed environment, and crude language is prevalent.

“It’s interesting that the people that I interact with often don’t know you’re not supposed to cuss around a pastor,” McAnnally said, adding that means many don’t have a preconceived idea of what a pastor is like.

McAnnally, who now attends West Ridge Church in Hiram, Ga., said he has learned the importance of simply listening in order to build trust and earn enough respect around the dealerships to be someone in which others can confide. He must be available, and he must not be too quick to spout off the Four Spiritual Laws, he said.

“Obviously, if they want to talk to me, something’s bothering them. It may be menial or it may be a life-threatening disease that they or one of their family members have, but I try to always make it a habit if somebody comes to me, before we end our conversation I’m going to pray with them on the spot,” he said.

Though he interacts with top-level executives like Carl Black, the company owner, and Bowsher, McAnnally said he makes a concerted effort to buy doughnuts for the crews that wash the cars and to hang out with them often, learning their names and learning something about each one of them. He said they’re not always receptive to the message he brings, but he keeps building relationships in the tough crowd.

In order to assist the chaplain in gaining the confidence of the employees, Bowsher told McAnnally he doesn’t want to hear anything the employees tell him, “unless they’re going to nuke the dealership.” It’s important for the employees to know they can trust the chaplain without him taking their stories right to upper-level figures, McAnnally said.

Something McAnnally started that has been integral to building unity among dealership employees is a weekly e-mail prayer list he sends to more than 600 people. Included are the names and dealership connections of a specific person, the request the person has submitted and an e-mail address link so that others can let the person know they’re praying for the need.

“Our Carl Black PrayerNet has probably been the lifeblood of this because it connects from Mr. Black all the way to anybody that has access to a computer,” McAnnally said.

After one and a half years on the job as an official corporate chaplain for Carl Black Automotive, McAnnally said one of the greatest needs car dealership employees have is to realize that “there is a God, that He is in control and they’re not.”

“When they come to me with a crisis, I say, ‘God is in control and our God isn’t an ‘Oops’ God. He doesn’t ever get surprised. He’s in control. You’re not. He may have you right where He wants you right now.’”

McAnnally gives Black and Bowsher the credit for a lot of the progress he has made in lives because they allow him to specifically tell people that Jesus Christ is the only way to a relationship with God. Many other companies would not allow such exclusivity, but it makes a tremendous difference where he works, McAnnally said.

“I think that’s what a lot of them need to hear. They think they’ve got this huge list of dos and don’ts, and I represent the church for a lot of these folks because they’ve never been in church much. They frequently will introduce me as their pastor, not as their chaplain,” he said.

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  • Erin Curry