Home Christian News Encouraging Others, Staying Active Is the Plan for Former Pastor

Encouraging Others, Staying Active Is the Plan for Former Pastor

Don Wilton, left, developed a close friendship with evangelist Billy Graham after becoming Graham's pastor in 2008. Wilton, who retired this month after pastoring First Baptist Church Spartanburg, S.C., for 30 years, hopes to follow Graham's example in encouraging other pastors.

SPARTANBURG, S.C. (BP) – As of last Sunday, Don Wilton may no longer be the pastor of First Baptist Church. But he has no affection for a certain word.

It’s one he would like to see … well, retired.

“The word ‘retirement’ is very unfortunate and non-existent for me,” said Wilton regarding his decades of ministry, 30 years of them spent at First Baptist. “God called me to share His truth to a searching world.”

Dates on the calendar already reserve times of preaching and teaching. He’ll guide others on trips to Israel, as he has for several years. Wilton, who arrived at First Baptist in 1993, will continue to mentor and support other pastors.

That last desire comes from a longtime friendship with First Baptist’s most well-known member, Billy Graham.

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Not long after Wilton’s first sermon in Spartanburg, he received a phone call from Montreat, N.C., with a distinctive voice on the other end.

“One can only imagine what was going through my mind,” Wilton said of that day. However, it started a relationship that eventually became one of pastor to church member when Graham moved his membership to First Baptist in 2008.

If anyone had the standing and ministry experience to hold over his pastor, it was Graham. But of course, that wasn’t the case. Even as their meetings grew to become a weekly occurrence, Wilton recoiled at the idea of calling him “Billy” when Graham suggested it. A compromise, to Graham’s delight, was met at “Brother Billy.”

Wilton, a native of South Africa, arrived in New York City with his wife, Karyn, 45 years ago. For 15 years he served as professor of evangelism and preaching at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary before First Spartanburg issued a call.

The couple has three children. Greg is dean of Leavell College at NOBTS. Rob is a Send City Missionary for the North American Mission Board and lead/founding pastor of The Vintage Church in Pittsburg. Shelley is an upper-level leader with Samaritan’s Purse.

Wilton had also served with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s schools of evangelism in the 1980s, but never met Graham until becoming First Spartanburg’s pastor.

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For more than two decades Wilton visited Graham – and until her death in 2007, Graham’s wife, Ruth – at their mountain cabin home in western North Carolina.

“We became extremely close,” Wilton said. “I was privileged to lead his funeral and honored to sit at the feet of one of God’s peerless servants, to learn so much from him and was privileged to hold his hand all the way to his journey to heaven.”

After Graham’s death, Wilton wrote “Saturdays with Billy,” an account of their friendship.

In 2018 Wilton began to realize the time had come to find a successor at First Baptist. It’s a not a time of transition the church is used to. Wilton was its third pastor in 70 years.

January 2020 was planned as the time to step away, but COVID changed those plans.

“When we came to the beginning of [2021], we knew it without question that it was time for us to lay down the responsibility,” he said.

“We’ve had an incredible ministry here and seen thousands of people come to know Christ. God has allowed us to be part of tremendous building programs and a broadcast ministry. We’ve sent people as missionaries throughout the world. First Baptist has been engaged in church planting, encouraging pastors everywhere and sharing the Gospel in prisons.

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“Then you talk about the ministry team here. I’ve had the privilege of serving with the most spiritual, golden group of men and women who have an average tenure of 22 years.”

Mentors like Graham and longtime First Baptist Atlanta pastor Charles Stanley have given him examples to follow.

“They passed those [lessons] on to me at a very deep level,” said Wilton. “I’m excited to take young pastors to Israel and invest in them.

This article originally appeared at Baptist Press.