After spending more than 30 years as pastor at Abilene Baptist Church, the Rev. Bill Harrell plans to retire in July.
Harrell said about two years ago he knew it was time to start making plans to step aside and bring a new pastor to the Martinez church.
During the Feb. 12 service, Harrell let his congregation in on those plans and told them his final day of preaching at the church will be July 29.
“Just like I knew he (God) was calling me here, I knew that he was telling me that my work here was soon to be done,” Harrell said.
Harrell, originally from Tifton, Ga., led his first sermon at Abilene on Jan. 18, 1981. In January 2011, church members celebrated Harrell’s 30th anniversary with the church.
A search committee to find a new pastor for Abilene has been formed, and a candidate for the position will go before the church on March 25 for a vote, Harrell said.
Harrell’s successor will become a co-pastor at the church and will work with him to learn the pastoral duties.
“What I’m shooting for is a smooth transition,” Harrell said. “The church will hardly know it happened.”
Harrell and his wife of 49 years, Carolyn, plan to stay in Augusta once he retires.
The church Harrell will be leaving in July is not the same one he entered 31 years ago, when membership registered at 940 people.
Now with nearly 3,000 members, the church embarked on an extensive expansion project in 2008 that included building a new Christian life center on Roberts Road; renovation of the church’s grand foyer; and construction of a 55,000-square-foot building housing the children’s ministry and administrative offices.
The total value of church-owned land and buildings has increased from $1 million to about $22 million, Harrell said.
Harrell’s message also has reached people through a television ministry he started called Strength for Today, that spans Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee.
After he retires from Abilene, Harrell said he hopes to stay busy preaching at churches that need a pastor to fill in on any given Sunday, as well as going to revivals and Bible conferences. He said he’s even open to serving as interim pastor if needed.
“I’ll no longer be the pastor of a local church, but I’ll still be in the ministry until the day I die,” he said.
Throughout the years, Harrell also has given his support to several political candidates running for office. When now Gov. Nathan Deal was starting his campaign, Harrell was invited and agreed to lead an invocation at his local fundraising barbecue.
Harrell admits that he doesn’t shy away from tackling controversial political topics such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
While serving more than 15 years on the Southern Baptist Convention, Harrell earned the nickname “The General” for his role in organizing the conservative movement in Georgia.
“I’ve been more politically oriented than most pastors are willing to be,” he said.
“I know where the line is, and I know how to walk close to the line.”