Dr. Bobby Gantt will be the first to say he's not retiring from preaching, or Jesus, or God, the church or from servanthood. On Sunday, Jan. 31, however, Bobby is leaving Florence Baptist Church in Forest City where he has pastored for 36 years.
At age 66, Bobby is retiring from the pastorate to begin a new chapter of his life. He and wife, Ronda and their daughter, Alison, will publicly bid goodbye to the church and the community during a drive-thru from 2 to 4 p.m. outside the church's Life Enrichment Center on Sunday.
In these days of the coronavirus a public reception is not possible, but Bobby and his entire family will attend the 10:30 a.m. Sunday worship service where he will be celebrated. Social distancing and mask wearing is requested.
"It's time... it's time for fresh new ideas," Bobby said recently looking across his office that has partially been emptied of hundreds of volumes of books. He inherited two libraries from other pastors and added his own books to the collection. He has given many of the books to family members, including his sons-in-law ordained ministers Lance Rogerson and Brandon Hurley, to church staff and other friends.
Call to the ministry
On the first Sunday of February in 1985 the Gantts began their ministry at Florence. The family included 2-year-old Ashley and soon afterwards Amber and later Alison.
Bobby grew up in Cleveland County where he was a star basketball player at Burns High School. He had a fleeting dream to play college basketball, but when he realized that was not going to happen, he turned his thoughts toward coaching.
Those were Bobby's plans. The Lord had another plan.
The Lord called him to the ministry while he was a member at Elizabeth Baptist Church in Shelby.
His boyhood pastor, Rev. Fred Mauney, helped Bobby recognize his call. As a senior in high school, Mauney took Bobby under his wings and began to question him on three thoughts: Do you enjoy working with people? Do you enjoy studying your Bible? Do you enjoy speaking in front of people?
Bobby answered each question with a "yes," and believed they were true indicators God was calling him to preach.
As opportunities allowed, Mauney asked Bobby to speak at Elizabeth, and it was during that time Bobby surrendered to the call to preach. After high school and graduating from Gardner-Webb College, where he met his wife, Ronda, he furthered his education at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He would receive a Master's in Divinity and later his Doctorate.
Bobby pastored two other churches before coming to Forest City. He was pastor at First Baptist Church, Grover (NC) five years and served as pastor at Lockport Baptist Church in Lockport, Kentucky, while attending the seminary.
It was the best of times
While at Florence, Bobby helped lead the church through three major building programs encouraging the members to make personal commitments to capital campaigns to raise the money for a new sanctuary, a Life Enrichment Center (LEC) and a Christian Growth Center (CGC).
The church had no money to build a new sanctuary at that time but members committed to give above their tithes and offerings for the sanctuary and subsequently the other buildings. The former education building was also renovated.
Buildings were constructed by faith and the goodness of God's church.
Bobby said he will never forget walking in each of the three buildings for the first time as they were completed. The sanctuary was completed in 1991, the LEC in 1998 and the CGC in 2008.
The new facilities provided places for worship for adults, youth and children as well as study and fellowship for members and visitors of all ages.
As the church was blessed, Bobby said a decision was made in 2000 that for the past 20 years has touched churches across the nation and the world.
At that time in 2000 Florence Church began tithing 10 percent of every building fund receipt toward building and assisting churches across Rutherford County, North Carolina, the United States and countries around the world.
"God has been so good to us and it's the neatest thing I've ever seen," Bobby said of the church tithe from the building fund.
From those tithes Bobby said Florence has installed air conditioners, heating systems, taken care of a termite situations and helped repair fire damage in the county and region. Building has occurred in places like Brazil, the Ukraine, Canada, Senegal, Thailand, Slovakia, South Africa, Costa Rica, Liberia and Haiti with tithes from Florence Church's own building programs.
As a community leader, Bobby will always be proud of Florence's participation in the American Cancer Society. The church's partnership in Relay for Life meant fun, fellowship, games and good food as dozens of church families and friends gathered at each event.
The cause hit close to home for many at Florence, including the Gantt's daughter Alison. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1995 when she was 6 years old. Alison's illness took Bobby out of the pulpit for at least six weeks in the early days during her hospitalization and treatments.
"I will never forget how the church rallied around us and prayed for us," he said.
Leaving Florence Church is going to be especially difficult for Alison, Bobby believes.
"It's the only church she's ever known," he said. "She's having a hard time."
Bobby reflected on the dark days after 9/11 when people came together across the country after the terrorist attacks on America.
The sanctuary at Florence was open each day so people could come by and pray. "We were unified. We were together," he said.
In these changing times
Although pastoring a church has many duties, probably the most fulfilling for Bobby was being in the pulpit to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.
"There are so many time demands on a pastor you do not always have the time you'd like to spend on every sermon" he said.
During his days at the seminary Bobby thought he'd probably spend 18 to 20 hours per week on a sermon, but pastoring his church often took more hours than he could have ever imagined.
Some of his best sermons came with just a few hours of preparation, he said.
God intervened especially during those times.
Bobby always wanted to be present with church members during their times of trouble, crisis and sickness.
In more than 36 years at Florence, Bobby said advances in medicine have meant changes in the time spent with hospitalized members. COVID-19 changed that too as well as stopped visits to nursing facilities and rest homes.
Three decades ago when a church member was going to have surgery, he'd enter the hospital one day, have surgery the next and come home in a few days.
Today's patient often goes to the hospital, has surgery and is out the same day. Outpatient surgery has meant Bobby would arrive at the hospital very early in the morning to pray with a church member prior to the surgery.
Some days Bobby would be in four hospitals in one day -- Rutherford, Shelby, Asheville and Spartanburg.
COVID-19 changed the way people worship across the world and certainly at Florence. Fortunately the technology was already in place at Florence before the virus shut down gatherings and live streaming was available.
Live streaming messages began on March 15 at Florence and continued for 14 consecutive weeks, a fact Bobby would have never thought could happen. COVID would mean mask wearing and social distancing during the three worship services per Sunday-8:45 a.m., 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. as in-person gatherings resumed.
Regular activities are still limited.
Bobby was asked if there were any regrets about his days at Florence.
"Oh, you always want to see more people come to Christ and come to church," Bobby said.
"It's been my greatest joy as a pastor to see someone come to Christ, grow in a relationship and to see a life changed...A life transformed by the Lord Jesus," he said.
A new chapter
While the church is saying good-bye to its pastor, Bobby said, "My family is saying goodbye to their pastor, Florence Church. "They have been our pastor. It's been a good relationship," he said.
Bobby is looking forward to spending more time with his family, including six grandsons -- Bo, Dillion and Duke Rogerson and Hayden, Sawyer and Maddox Hurley-- ages 8 to 2 -- and his daughters and sons-in-law.
Bobby has a surprise gift for each of the little boys, items he had in his library. Each child will receive a construction worker's hard hat from three building programs their grandfather helped to oversee.
Becoming emotional, Bobby said he is not sure how he'll be able to walk out of his office, lay his keys aside and leave the church for the last time.
"I can't imagine walking out of here," he said. "The church has been so good to me, to support me and my family," he said.
"The staff is great people. The church is in good hands and the future is bright," Bobby continued.
"It's time for fresh new ideas. There is always time for a new person to come in."
Now, go on your way serving the Lord
Back in December, as has been his tradition, Bobby portrayed a shepherd during his final Christmas monologue at Florence. At the conclusion of the program the shepherd (Bobby) walked away from the manger to go back the fields to watch over his flock. The shepherd stood tall and with his eyes forward he said he had always been a shepherd who looked after his sheep.
"That's all I've ever done," Bobby said quietly walking away.
Bobby plans to preach again someday. Not tomorrow or in the very near future. First he's going to rest and spend time with his family.
"I hope the Lord will let me preach again, maybe supply or do an interim," he said.
Bobby wants to continue being a part of seeing lives transformed through the Gospel.
Down through the decades Bobby has baptized hundreds of new converts as they've made professions of faith in the Lord Jesus. As so many of them made their way out of the baptismal waters, Bobby lovingly and with encouraging words told them publicly, "Go on your way serving the Lord."
On Sunday the church called Florence says to its pastor, "Now, go on your way serving the Lord."