Members of First Baptist Church, Hindman, Ky., say Mike Caudill was a dedicated soul-winner and preacher. But his recovery from the loss of his son, Casey, has strengthened their faith and fashioned the pastor into someone marked by such words as "loving," a "mentor," and "counselor."
Sixteen-year-old Casey collapsed near the Knott County Central High School baseball field after practice three years ago from a previously undetected heart ailment. After comforting so many who had been touched by death in the town of 800 – Casey was the seventh teen to die in a twenty-seven-month period — the pastor now was on the receiving end.
"I sit in awe of how God has blessed Mike's life," said Jarvis Williams, one of Casey's former classmates and now a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. "Most people would have quit the ministry.
"God can use not only the words of his heart but his understanding," Williams said. "He can go to someone and know from the core of his being there is an answer to the loss of a loved one. There is hope. For him to say, 'God works all things for good' has more impact."
Fellow seminarian Mark Combs, who said Caudill has been like a father to him, ranks him alongside two of his favorite radio preachers, John MacArthur and John Piper. Since Casey's death, he has observed more passion in the pastor's sermons and a greater hunger to touch the world.
"He believes what he preaches," said Combs, who plans to become a youth minister after graduation. "God has done so many things in his life. I can see how God has molded him. I also get strength from being around his daughter, Carolyn, and his wife, Alice."
Still, Caudill displays a more solemn side now, said a woman who joined the church during a sweep of revival in the community from 1996-98.
Jessica Heintzelman, a senior at Washington Bible College in Lanham, Md., said it is obvious the pastor misses his son. But she thinks his skill as a pastoral counselor has been aided by learning to cope with grief.
The former youth group member remembers how strange it felt to see a pillar of the church sobbing as he hugged her at the funeral home.
"That was my only son," he told her.
"That was a turning point," said Heintzelman, who with her husband has applied for a two-year missionary assignment in central Asia. "Where we're going I know we could suffer. There's an anti-Christian movement there. But I know we can get through it because of the suffering I saw people endure [in Hindman]."
First Baptist's deacon chairman, Chuck Childers, said Caudill tends to be more open with his emotions now.
And, while he has always been a good pastor, he preaches more about love and heaven because he wants to see everyone get there, Childers said.
"You always know your pastor is there for you," he said. "But when you see him hurting and coming back with the Lord's help, you realize the Lord can help anyone get through it."
Caudill sees himself as more responsive to hurting people after the tragedies of recent years. Many people have told him "you've really changed," something he attributes to his real-life lessons.
"I've worked with a lot of people who are hurting," the pastor said. "I see them and am compassionate, but now I feel more. Grief is not a nice friend, but it can be a great teacher."
His experience has allowed him to break the rules he learned in seminary about avoiding overly personal messages in the pulpit.
On the third anniversary of Casey's death March 7, he shared deeply about God's continuing call on his life. He said he feels free to express emotions that everyone has but is afraid to discuss openly.
Not everyone responds. Two years ago Caudill started a group called "Grief Sharers" to reach out to those who had lost children. But the pastor said it wound up as a short-term effort because residents at the time were reticent to discuss personal feelings.
However, he sees a difference today in his congregation. Members look for ways to console others when difficulties strike. They are eager to talk about God's work in their lives during informal times of sharing on Sunday evenings.
"People are beginning to realize, 'I may not be Jesus but I can represent Him and love a pastor and a church that has gone through tragedy,'" he said. "There's a love and a depth here. Sometimes we're so busy trying to spread the message we forget to be mentors."