By Joe LaGuardia
We pastors realize the gravity of preaching every Sunday morning. When we enter a pulpit, we do not enter it alone. We stand upon the shoulders of great pastors, preachers, mentors, friends and heroes that have preceded us in declaring the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, and we reflect on those who have shaped us and continue to shape our congregations.
When I was called to serve as pastor of First Baptist Church of Vero Beach, I met one such hero of the faith, Rev. Dr. Doug Watterson, who served in this pulpit in the late 1960s, only to shepherd other churches in Florida and Texas. His last church of five years was at North Stuart Baptist Church, Florida. After retiring from ministry altogether, Doug and his wife, Jan, came back to First Baptist Church of Vero Beach to worship.
Dr. Watterson is one of those great pastors from a generation of prophetic architects of culture. Like others in his generation — Truett Gannon, Bill Self, Fred Craddock, John Claypool, and Peter Rhea Jones, to name a few — he is quiet and small in stature, but thunderous in his preaching against the ails of our times and the sins of racism, sexism, and injustice. His life was marked by civil rights and advocacy of women in ministry. He rallied congregations to embody a smart faith in which salvation led to Christ-like action and unyielding love to the world beyond the church walls.
Dr. Watterson’s ministry did not start in the church, but in the trenches of war. In World War 2, he served in the Navy. His testimony begins with this: “I was a 19-year-old sailor boy…”
After the war, Dr. Watterson attended the Southern Baptist Seminary in Kentucky. He went on to serve eight churches, including the First Baptist Church of Tallahassee, Florida, and Cliff Temple Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. He became known for race reconciliation, and his family recalls the many death threats during those cultural conflicts of the 1970s.
At Cliff Temple Baptist Church in Dallas, Dr. Watterson’s served in the trenches again, this time against fellow Christians who claimed a segregationist battle flag. While a famous pastor in Dallas sought to wield power in the Southern Baptist Convention with a narrow interpretation of scripture and justice, Dr. Watterson preached integration and equality in all levels of society. Cliff Temple ordained the fourth woman, Martha Gilmore, ever to be ordained in Texas in 1977. He served as Vice President of the Southern Baptist Convention until, eventually in the early 1990s, became a cheerleader for the formation and growth of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
I am heir to Dr. Watterson’s ministry. If it were not for pastors like him, I am not sure if I would’ve continued to be Baptist in my own ministry. Pastors like him inspire me; and his final sermon, that of his life’s story, echos throughout my ongoing commitment to the ideals and values he embodied.
Over the last few years of his life, Dr. Watterson’s health declined with dementia. I struggled with this personally, as I sat many times at his bed and encouraged him to tell stories of years past.
A week before he passed in March 2020, he told his wife of 68 years, Jan, that he wanted to preach one last sermon. He wanted to let people know of the abounding and abundant love of Jesus Christ and the hope we have in him. He and his wife held hands until his last breath.
My prayer is that, if I can be half as courageous as my friend, Doug, then I will have certainly lived life well. I want to leave the kind of legacy on churches that he left. I want to shape clergy who come after me as he did so others can advance the Gospel without the bigotry and misogyny that characterize too many Christians today.
When I grow up, I want my wife and I to be just like Doug and Jan: Always holding hands, always holding the line for our family, and standing in solidarity with others who come after us, preaching every last sermon as if life itself depended on it.