When the Rev. Bill Harrell received a phone call 30 years ago about becoming pastor of Abilene Baptist Church, he instantly knew what to do.
"The moment I heard the person's voice, I knew what it was," Harrell said. "From the very beginning, I knew that God wanted me here."
After that fateful phone conversation, Harrell left his ministry at First Baptist Church in Metter, Ga., to come to the Martinez church, where he first preached on Jan. 18, 1981.
During today's 6:30 p.m. service, church members will recognize their senior pastor's 30 years of service with a concert and reception, followed by a dinner at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Savannah Rapids Pavilion. Tickets for the dinner can be purchased for $20 today.
"There's not many churches that can celebrate 30 years with one pastor," said Terry Doss, Abilene's associate pastor of administration and education. "That's a milestone."
Harrell, a native of Tifton, Ga., has seen Abilene Baptist undergo a significant amount of change in the past three decades.
The church's main sanctuary was extensively renovated in 1993, and the church has purchased additional land throughout the years for expansion.
In 2008, a Christian life center was constructed on Roberts Road. Most recently, work on the church's grand foyer, lounge and coffee shop was completed. A 55,000-square-foot building that houses the children's ministry and administrative offices also opened in 2010.
"God's blessed it," said Harrell, who also has served on the Southern Baptist Convention for 16 years. "It's grown, and we continue to look for him to bless it in the time to come."
While the church's conservative teachings have not changed, membership has risen from 940 when Harrell came to Abilene to nearly 3,000 members today.
One of Harrell's greater accomplishments, he said, has been to reach out to the community through special programs during the year and with a television ministry that spans Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee.
Harrell credits much of his longevity in the ministry to his wife of 48 years, Carolyn, who has worked as his secretary for 18 years.
"This really has become a family," Carolyn Harrell said of the church. "We're just really happy that they've accepted us like that."
Harrell admits that as a pastor he is never sure where his duties might take him and how long he'll stay in one location. All of that, he said, is decided by God.
"You never plant any fruit trees because you don't know if you'll ever live there long enough to enjoy the fruit," he said. "After you've been somewhere for 30 years, you look back and say, 'Well, I wish I had planted fruit trees 10 years ago.' "
As for the future, Harrell said he can't predict when his time at the church will be complete.
"I will be here until God says it's time to go," he said.
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