Letters from Your Ministers

November 14, 2017: Carol Harston

Where were you 20.5 years ago when Joe Phelps first became Pastor of Highland Baptist Church?  Some of you can tell stories of where you sat during the call weekend, the first sermon you heard, and the first life moment Joe accompanied you through. Others of you were in other churches, other cites, or other stages of life. You got to know Joe through op-eds or public engagement or the warm welcome at the front door.

20.5 years ago, I met Joe as he and Terri walked in my family’s home. I was a 7th grader who paused to meet the future pastor (and my future boss) just long enough before I could spill the news to my parents of some fight that had erupted at school involving a close family friend. It was a short, “Nice to meet you,” before quickly moving on to the news of the day.

All these years later, Joe has become not only my pastor but also my colleague, my friend, and my wise guide. Joe’s tender heart, impassioned voice, and deep love for the gospel and this church has had a profound impact on me. Terri has been the bonus prize. Kara and Bobby have been dear friends. Carly and Steven have grown to be people of great depth and commitment, a journey I was honored to accompany. 

Joe has carried the mantle of leadership, responsibility, and vision for not only two decades here, but for over four decades in formal congregational ministry. I rejoice for him as he anticipates a freedom from the mantle’s weight and a chance to see the deep impression it has made upon his shoulders, his vision, and his heart. He is a servant of God who has been forever changed.

As he moves on to the informal role of everyday prophet and neighborhood pastor, I look forward to the times we reunite to pause just long enough for the pleasantries before we dive into the news of the day and the shared wonderings of where God’s light is still shining even in the darkness.

Thanks be to God for Joe Phelps and the family that he shared with us as gift. Sundays may come to look different, but we cling to the good news of our expanded, ever-present Cloud of Witness gathered round this sacred place.


November 21, 2017: Kathy Collier

Allow me to set the scene . . . it’s Tuesday at 10:30 a.m.: I load my arms with my Bible, two hymnals, three liturgical  planning resources, copies of next Sunday’s bulletin, a fresh cup of hot tea, pencil in my ear, cell phone, and office keys and spill everything but the hot tea onto Joe’s desk. I’m ready to plan  next Sunday’s worship for Highland’s faith community. Each of you are with us in spirit as we plan Sunday services. We consider the ages of worshipers along with learning styles, the flow of the hour from standing, sitting, participation, and personal reflection as we strive to weave sacred threads of scripture, hymn texts, prayers, and proclamation to reach each heart sitting in our wooden pews.

After a quick check in with each other, we pray and ask for God to join us in this work we call holy. The plan I bring each week is often only as good as the paper it’s printed on! Some weeks, I leave with Joe’s copy and my copy so marked up that it’s hard to make sense of our editing and planning. Every week is different and I will tell you some secrets:

  • Joe is a lectionary guy with the Gospel reading for the day central to the worship experience. It always amazes me how the readings for the day jump off the page and say to us: Use me for the opening words. I’ll lead hearts into     prayer. This is a hard word but needs to be heard.
  • Joe doesn’t recycle sermons—each week’s proclamation is new, and somehow it meets the needs of four weekend services that are vastly different!
  • We would never be able to hand his sermon manuscript to another minister to preach from—Joe Phelps writes in a shorthand that only he and God can understand!
  • I often tell Joe he needs to create his own hymnal. I rarely choose the closing hymn before Tuesday morning. He tells me the direction of his next sermon and then describes a hymn he would like to follow—never easy but somehow it is always provided.

I knew when I served as Highland’s Interim Minister of Music in 2002 that worship planning would be a sacred hour but it wasn’t until 2007 when I joined the staff that I came to understand the importance of planning worship for Highland.  I can’t fully explain the mystery but worship planning with Joe will be at the top of my list of memories I will always hold in my heart from our ten+ years working together.


November 29, 2017: Lauren Jones Mayfield

Joe Phelps. It’s a name with bravado, metaphorically speaking. I first encountered the reverb of this name while sitting at my desk in my former pastorate about two years ago. The ringing church phone revealed “Joseph O. Phelps” on the caller ID. While the church administrator answered and thank goodness it took a moment since she and Joe are friends, I texted Tyler with shaky fingers, “Joe Phelps is calling me!”

The second encounter with the name also included a caller ID alert, this time on my cell phone to share the wonderful news that I got the job here at Highland.

I wonder if we passed the microphone around during worship or throughout the many weekday meetings if the airwaves could handle the inundation of stories about Joe’s impact. Not just the vibrato of his name of course, but his presence. His commitments. His strident passion for God’s love coupled with his devotion to building relational bridges. His unapologetic evangelism for Gospel living. His writings. His sermons. His care, and well, his love of the Big Lebowski and Diet Coke.

Joe, your enthusiasm for Jesus will live on in this congregation, perhaps in the many ways that your name will continue to bring joy. It is a joy that connects folks from all walks, particularly those of us who share a mutual passion for ministry—no matter how long or short the paths cross. I’m so glad ours did here at Highland.


December 6, 2017: Perry Dixon

I am not cut from the same cloth as Joe. I am, in fact, a millennial. I was raised in a church context located after The Fall of the seminary down the road. I did not learn until graduate school of the fundamentalists’ rise to absolute power within the old convention. Though I have heard Joe speak of it, I cannot really imagine what Baptist life must have been like in the decades before the Fall. Our shared mentors, Dr. Bill Leonard and Dr. Frank Tupper, spoke of those days, too, with the same mythic gleam in their eyes. I will never know them. 

The terror of 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008 are the next most defining events for my generation. The consequences of each continue to shape me (us) today. The so-called war on terror has never ended; the blood-dimmed tide is loosed. Millennials are arguably still living in financial crisis: a crises that we did not create, but must bear nonetheless. Mass shootings are now accepted almost as weather events—lamented for a day and then forgotten as we live our lives. Our country is polarized in ways I suspect recall the Vietnam War era, but I cannot be sure,  I just know that things are not good. The world into which I have been ordained and towards which I now look as I imagine my career is a dangerous, scary place.

I am not cut from the same cloth as Joe, but I am, in fact, a Baptist. Though Carol and the youth community first saved my life, I have received invaluable wisdom from Joe, too. Joe really does believe in hope. He really does believe in love. He really does believe that people are worth saving, including him and me, and he really believes that God loves us enough to do it. Joe’s work in his life and ministry, especially here at Highland, has required courage. But, I think, more than courage, Joe’s ministry has anchored itself in love. Transforming love. The kind that we cannot create ourselves, but in which we must participate, and which we can know, deeply.

Though I cannot always fully understand Joe’s hope, I have been changed by it. I know that I need that hope, too. I have experienced the same love Joe teaches and preaches about, especially here at Highland, so I do understand that. And I am more thankful than I might explain. But, you know Joe, of course, and what kind of man he is and is still becoming. “I won’t say a hero, ’cause, what’s a hero? But sometimes, there’s a man.”


December 19, 2017: Renee Kenley Purtlebaugh

A few months ago, I searched out and listened very late one night to Joe’s interview on the Louisville Public Media radio show, Five Things. Word travels quickly about interviews and podcasts that cause us to pause, reflect, think, and this one had been on that fast track of news. With an active toddler in the house, I was perhaps the last one to find the time to listen, and so midnight at the end of a very long day became the appointed hour.

While listening, I heard the spirit of the Joe that I have come to know and love over the past decade, the spirit that we as a community of faith have come to know and love over 20 years of ministry together. In his familiar conversational tones and lilts, I heard his voice tell a vulnerable story of grief and loss that shaped his faith. I sensed the sincerity and genuine care for the people of this world that aligns and guides him as he walks through his days. I felt and resonated again with his deep love for, deep trust in, and deep hope because of God.

There’s no doubt that we have all been mutually shaped by this life we have walked together at Highland, and I am grateful for the gift of these days working alongside Joe. I’m grateful for one who has been the voice of challenge to my risk-averse self to remember to risk boldly. I’m grateful for one who challenges my quiet voice to speak up. I’m grateful for one who despite the ugliness of the world most days, still trusts that something good will come of it and constantly reminds us of God’s role as that longed for, hope-filled world takes shape.

I imagine retirement to be a sort of culmination of one’s life work, where each of the experiences and aches and pains and joys and sorrows all bubble over and shape you into the person you will be as you move forward and are birthed into the next season of life and calling. The experiences and relationships aren’t left behind, but instead are carried with you continually—forming and re-forming and forging a Velveteen Rabbit sort of “realness” that defines you in a new way as you launch into an unknown future and beyond. The work doesn’t end, the essence of who are doesn’t change, but our life together takes a new form.

May it be so for Joe and for Highland as we walk through these sacred and forming days and weeks of ending well together.