BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (BP) — At age 15, Ronnie Hicks visited Glendale Baptist Church for the first time. As Hicks walked out the door, pastor Richard Oldham sensed God telling him, “I want to use this young man.” So Oldham told Hicks that God’s hand was on him.
Hicks didn’t know what to make of the pastor’s words that day in Bowling Green, Ky. But three years later he felt God calling him to preach and committed his life to vocational ministry, with Oldham serving as his mentor through college at Bowling Green’s Western Kentucky University. Forty years later, Hicks retired from a career of serving as pastor of Southern Baptist churches and it was clear that Oldham’s sense of God’s will had been correct.
Hicks is not alone in that experience. During Oldham’s 56 years as pastor of Glendale, more than 250 young people have surrendered their lives to fulltime Christian service — with their pastor mentoring them all. Often he helped them recognize their callings by saying, “God’s hand is on you.”
Today, Oldham’s protégés, who call themselves “Swordsmen,” occupy pulpits across the Southern Baptist Convention and have served as state convention presidents, SBC Executive Committee members, trustees of SBC entities and leaders in many other capacities. For more than 50 years, the Swordsmen gathered each summer in conjunction with the SBC annual meeting.
“His legacy is not a megachurch,” said Mike Routt, a Swordsman who pastors Circle Drive Baptist Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., and is the SBC Executive Committee current vice chairman. “But more than 250 people have surrendered to ministry under his leadership. If all of those 250 people and their families were back at Glendale, he would have one of the largest churches in America. But his legacy is not there at Glendale Baptist Church. His legacy is at churches and preaching points across America and around the world.”
Nurturing the young
Oldham was called to Glendale on July 21, 1957. Initially he told the pastor search committee he wasn’t interested. But they called a second time and said the church was in a business session and would not adjourn until he agreed to pray further about coming. That prayer led to a move from Lansing, Mich., where he was pastoring, to western Kentucky.
Five decades later, at age 83, Oldham hasn’t felt God call him into retirement. Though he has difficulty breathing because of a lung condition called pulmonary fibrosis, he still preaches, performs funerals and makes hospital visits as he is able — and of course spends time with college and high school students.
In the past two years, four new Swordsmen have surrendered to vocational ministry.
“I met with some [young people] last night until 11 o’clock,” Oldham told Baptist Press in an interview earlier this year.
From day one at Glendale, he felt called to spend much of his time with younger people in the church. Often he can be found in a local restaurant surrounded by an entire section of students, and on Sunday nights he produces a local radio program called “Teentime” on which his young disciples preach, sing and give their testimonies. In 51 years of Teentime, Oldham has never preached on the program himself.
“One time in a deacons meeting one of our deacons brought up that the pastor is spending too much time with young people,” Oldham said. “And he thought the deacons ought to correct me. I had to say to them, ‘Men, if you don’t want your pastor to spend time with young people, you need to get a different pastor because God’s called me to do that.'”
Asked how the deacons reacted, Oldham replied, “They didn’t fire me.”
As he spends time with young men and women, Oldham says a key to guiding so many into ministry is exposing them to outstanding preachers. For previous generations, that meant hosting at Glendale men like Vance Havner, R.G. Lee, J. Harold Smith, Angel Martinez, Jerry Falwell and W.A. Criswell. Lee, longtime pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., preached his famous sermon “Payday Someday” five times at Glendale, with people saved each time.
More recently Oldham has hosted SBC leaders like R. Albert Mohler Jr., Hershael York and Richard Land.
“When these men come, I get our young people to spend time with them,” Oldham said. “They go out and eat with them. I purposely had these men come to expose our young people to greatness.”
Gift of singleness
A unique facet of Oldham’s ministry is his lifelong singleness. He had girlfriends early in life and was even engaged once. But shortly after arriving at Glendale, he realized the ministry to which God had called him was too time-consuming to take on a wife and children.
“The Lord seemed to say, ‘It’s OK. I’ll take care of you,'” he said of his singleness. “And He has.”
Though a few young women vied for his attention over the years, Oldham has always held himself to a strict code of conduct with women and never faced any accusations of impropriety.
Once, a woman he had counseled in the church office called at 2 a.m., insisting that she needed to see him immediately. He told her she was not welcome at his house at that hour and that he would call the police if she came. She was welcome, however, to schedule an appointment at the church office the next day, he said. She never came to the office.
“I’ve tried my best to walk circumspectly and not give opportunity for questions,” he said.
He only allows women to ride in his car in emergencies, and then only in the backseat. He also tries to have someone else present when he counsels a woman.
During his ministry Oldham has baptized more than 6,000 people. Many of them went on to be Swordsmen.
“If you only knew some of the students who came to Western Kentucky University without Christ and left to go to seminary, the pulpits of America and the mission fields of the world,” said Hollie Miller, a Swordsman, former Tennessee Baptist Convention president and pastor of Sevier Heights Baptist Church in Knoxville. “Truly amazing.”
Routt is among those won to Christ under Oldham. As a freshman at Western Kentucky, “God was very far from my thoughts,” Routt said. But he began attending Glendale and fell under conviction from the Holy Spirit through Oldham’s preaching and the personal witness of Oldham’s nephew Roger “Sing” Oldham, another Swordsman who serves today as vice president for convention communications and relations at the SBC Executive Committee.
“The very night that I became a Christian was the night that I surrendered to fulltime vocational ministry,” Routt said. “… On that night my freshman year at Western I walked the aisle and gave my life to Christ and surrendered to vocational ministry.”
Bill Ricketts, a Swordsman, former Georgia Baptist Convention president and pastor of Prince Avenue Baptist Church in Bogart, Ga., said he still uses witnessing methods he learned from Oldham.
“The first time I ever learned about sharing the Gospel was with Richard Oldham, and he taught me the old Romans Road,” Ricketts said of the Gospel presentation drawn from the New Testament’s Book of Romans. “I still use that from time to time to share the Gospel with people. So even to this day there are things that he taught me that I value, that I treasure.”
Naturally, 56 years of ministry have brought difficult moments. One of the most dramatic occurred in the early 1990s when during a sermon Oldham realized that the choir behind him was leaving. Soon the congregation began leaving too and he heard a voice from the balcony: “Don’t move. It’s just going to take one shot.”
A gunman was perched in the balcony with his weapon aimed at Oldham. Because of sunlight shining through a stained glass window, Oldham couldn’t see the man. But he responded, “Whoever you are, you’re not going to take a shot. This is God’s house. Let’s pray.” Oldham began to pray and a deacon talked the man into surrendering his gun before the police arrived.
Other difficult times came when beloved staff members died or moved to new ministry assignments.
“We’ve had outstanding people that were with us,” he said. “When they left, it broke my heart.”
A vast network
Yet the difficult times pale in comparison to God’s blessings over the decades, Oldham says, including service as Kentucky Baptist Convention pastors’ conference president and preacher of the KBC convention sermon several times. One of the greatest blessings, though, is seeing God use his Swordsmen, Oldham said.
“I really cannot imagine anyone, other than my parents, who has influenced my life for Christ as much as Richard Oldham,” Miller said. “I came to Glendale Baptist Church as a college freshman and my life has never been the same. Bro. Richard is a powerful preacher, an amazing mentor and the most passionate personal witness I’ve ever known.”
As Ricketts traveled in Central America earlier this year, he was reminded how far Oldham’s influence extends. At an orphanage in rural Honduras, he noticed a Western Kentucky University mug on a table. When he asked about it, the orphanage director’s wife said that’s where her husband attended college. Ricketts mentioned Oldham and learned the director had been saved and baptized under Oldham’s ministry.
“I thought to myself …, ‘Could we ever know the extent of this man’s ministry?'” Ricketts said. “I just marvel at it.”
David Roach is a writer in Shelbyville, Ky. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).