Fire Trucks, Trash Cans, and a Calling

Stephen Cook is senior pastor of Second Baptist Church in Memphis, a congregation he has served since 2010.  Over the past 20 years he has served churches as a minister in North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia, but got his start in congregational life working as a custodian at his home church during his teenage years.

Stephen is committed to the work of spiritual renewal in churches, giving leadership to Dawnings, an initiative of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to help congregations discern God’s desire for the Church as it participates in Christ’s mission in the world.  Stephen is also committed to nurturing next generation ministers, having completed his doctoral work around the topic of helping first-call clergy transition well from the world of the classroom to the world of the congregation. 

He holds degrees from Wake Forest University (B.A., Religion), Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (M.Div.), Brite Divinity School (Th.M, Pastoral Theology and Counseling), and Columbia Theological Seminary (D.Min).  Stephen serves on the board of directors for Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association, Together for Hope Arkansas, and the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. 

Married to Amy, they are the parents of two sons, Benjamin (4th grade) and Jonathan (Kindergarten).

Most – maybe none – of my peers understood me. At least, that’s the way it felt as an adolescent. Since the time I was 13, I have known God was calling me to a life of ministry; to a life set apart for service. As a teenager, little feels more discomforting than feeling different from everyone around you.

The church became my refuge. That’s where I went every day after school. There was a sense of being at home there that I loved. The office staff and the custodians were always welcoming me to come alongside them in whatever they were doing. When I turned 14, my mother took me to get a work permit and I was hired as one of the church’s custodians.

Granted, it wasn’t the most glamorous position on the planet. But, it was a job that put some money in my pocket and, more importantly, gave me a way to take care of the place I had grown to love so deeply.

The guys on the custodial crew taught me how to work. They took me under their wings. They trusted me to be able to do more than I knew I could. They showed me what service – even what seemed to be the most menial forms of it – really looks like. Those men were mentoring me in the art of ministry, even if they never would have called it that.

At the same time I was emptying trash at the church, I was also fortunate to find another outlet to practice my newfound calling. This came by way of a program for youth exploring vocations in the emergency services.

Through most of my teens most of my time was split between the church house and the fire house. On weekends, during the summers, and on school breaks I was able to ride along on 24-hour shifts with our city’s fire department. I provided an extra set of hands to assist on calls. I got to learn what it means to be part of a team that tends to people in their hours of greatest need. Riding that big, red fire truck, I was honing skills for ministry that have shaped and served me ever since.

Those firefighters were heroes through and through. I was a firsthand witness to incredible courage and extraordinary agony. They shared their stories and their wisdom and their lives together. In the fire house, I see now that I was catching glimpses of what the Church can and should be: a place where everyone has a task to do and we depend on one another, knowing there’s always someone who’s got your back. You take risks and you do what matters because the community is counting on you to show up when they call.

I was being mentored in the art of ministry, even though then I never would have named it that.

But thanks be to God! Thanks be to God that through the lives of ordinary folks who so often are overlooked and taken for granted; with and among these good people I found a community that helped me to hear and to hone my call. They are the ones who showed me some of what Jesus must have had in mind when he said that he came not to be served but to serve.