Five keys to ministry in the Deep South
One year ago, my wife and I packed everything we owned inside of a Penske truck and headed south. To a state largely unknown to us. To a people we didn’t know. For a job in which I had no real prior experience. Looking back, it was one of the best things to happen to Kelly and me. Crawfish, LSU, Mardi Gras, and heat. Those are the only four things I knew about Louisiana before I came.
Two years later, I’m addicted to gumbo, I love muffelatas, my love for college football has grown exponentially, and my skin is a little browner than before. Above all, I’ve fallen in love with the Lord’s Louisianan church. In many ways, Louisiana is nothing like Kentucky. But in other ways, it’s not much different. People are still people. When someone knows you care, they invite you into their lives. And that’s exactly what the city of Central has done with Kelly and I. After my first year as student pastor and adopted son of Baton Rouge, these are five things I’ve learned by moving into a new city, culture, and ministry.
1. Know their geography
When I came down to Baton Rouge for my first interview, one of my first comments was about the show, Duck Dynasty. After all, other than The Waterboy, half of what I knew about the state of Louisiana was from watching Phil and Willie! Mistake. What I didn’t know is that southern Louisiana and northern Louisiana are worlds apart. It’s like someone comparing me, a Western Kentuckian, to an Eastern Kentuckian from Appalachia.
Likewise, the world south of I-10 is a different world altogether and I embraced that. I had to quickly learn little towns and cities and bayous so I could keep up with conversations inside and outside church. The first time I heard someone say “Breaux Bridge” I thought they were just talking about a bridge. The first time I read the words “Atchafalaya” or “Pontchartrain,” I thought it was Cajun nonsense.
I also had to learn about small-town rivalries. For example, when Kelly and I moved to Baton Rouge, we settled 10-15 minutes away from our church. What we didn’t know was that it was in a different school system. So when we told people where we lived, we’d receive friendly little jabs about the dirty water and the lack of education.
God quickly reminded us that, no matter where you live, there’s always another county, state, or town that’s supposedly worse. For Kentucky it’s Indiana. For Indiana it’s Kentucky. For Louisiana it’s Mississippi. For Mississippi it’s Louisiana. So naturally, I adopted a healthy aversion to Alabama football. No matter where you live, geography is important. It’s more than street signs and maps. Sometimes it’s the first step in the adoption of a culture.
2. Know their loves
One of the things I worried about most before moving to Louisiana was the conversation. I’m a talker. And in Kentucky, no matter where I was, I never lacked for dialogue. Wherever you were from, I knew someone or something from your county. A high school basketball team. A coach. A politician. A famous landmark. A lake. A gas station. Anything. But in Louisiana I didn’t have that. In fact, in Louisiana they don’t even have counties! They’re called “parishes.”
“In order to give yourself completely to a people, you find what the locals love and you learn to love what they love.”
Moving to Louisiana is a lesson in religion and culture. You notice that immediately when you cross the state line. The sign that says “Welcome to Louisiana” is also translated in French! It’s another planet in many ways. So I had to find a new medium of conversation. I couldn’t get by on my “good ole boy” Kentucky knowledge.
Therefore, over time, I eventually found my new medium of conversation: the universal language of the south—Sports. Louisiana loves sports. Football, baseball, softball, basketball, golf, you name it. If there’s a ball and a television, they watch it. More specifically, they love their LSU Tigers. Kelly and I are now LSU Tiger fans.
While I’ve remained loyal to Big Blue back home, Kelly hasn’t. She’s completely defected and turned purple and gold. From the second she walked into Death Valley, she was hooked. And it makes me smile that my wife has become all things to all people. Whether it’s Louisiana or Lithuania, culture is critical.
In order to give yourself completely to a people, you find what the locals love and you learn to love what they love. It’s not fake. It’s not an act. It’s about serving people. After one year and some ‘tiger-baiting,’ Kelly and I are adopted Cajuns and love every minute of it.
3. Know their names
While this may sound obvious, it’s not as easy as it sounds, especially when you pastor at a larger southern Louisiana church. I’ll admit, this is something I’ve always taken for granted. Even at my last church, there was an average of about 80 people per Sunday. And they were all more or less related, so the family tree made it easier to remember!
But in Baton Rouge, especially for the first 6 months, every Sunday was a memory lesson. As I soon discovered, the senior citizens were less forgiving than the students. If you didn’t remember their name (first and last), they could smell the insincerity. “What’s my name, son?” they would ask me with a suspicious eye. “Uh…Betty?” So for months, I would plug names in my phone and try to remember as many as I could.
Remembering someone’s name is important because it tells them you value their friendship and their time. It quietly ascribes a measure of honor and significance to the people of your church. In ministry, and in any facet of life, to remember someone’s name is to dignify them as a person. And I learned that quickly in Baton Rouge. Unfortunately for me, in southern Louisiana, all the names are practically French, so I fumbled more names than I can remember. Delacroix, Hebert, Boudreaux — I butchered them all.
“Remembering someone’s name is important because it tells them you value their friendship and their time.”
Anytime I met a Baker or a Wilson, I gave them a big hug. God bless the Smiths. And when you leave your hometown, nobody in the world has a clue how to pronounce “Obbie.” After a year, half the senior citizens at Zoar still call me “Obie” (O-be). I’ve stopped correcting them at this point. When you’re eighty years old, you’re pretty much going to call people whatever you want. But I don’t mind. However, I’m still getting used to being called “brother.” Names matter.
4. Know their culture
If you’ve never heard of a king cake, then that probably means you’re not from Louisiana. But you don’t need to be from Louisiana to know about Mardi Gras. During the Mardi Gras season, bakeries and stores make “king cakes.” And one of these traditions is to put a figurine shaped like an infant inside the cake (It’s an old tradition concerning fertility). It’s unadulterated Louisianan culture.
Unfortunately, nobody warned me about this small tradition. So you can imagine my surprise when I chomped on a small child in my cake and pulled him or her out of my teeth. Welcome to Louisiana. It’s the same culture that uses the word “lagniappe” to denote “something extra” or a “small gift.” When someone gives you an extra tip or just a little Christmas present, that’s a “lagniappe.”
Pastors should always remember the doorway into a culture is often through the language. It makes its way into Cajun phrases like “I’ll be there for five.” No, that’s not somebody ordering a table for five. That’s how many southern Louisianans say “I’ll be there at five.” The French influence is also why some Louisianans say, “make groceries” instead of “get groceries.” They’re not stuttering. They’re talking French-English. It’s hilarious. And fun. It’s called culture. And it makes Baton Rouge a special place. Coming from the state that invented the “hillbilly,” I’m in no position to throw stones.
5. Know them
Moving to the Deep South was an experience in culture shock. For instance, the first time I saw a line of casinos on the side of a country road, I thought we’d moved to an Indian reservation! But crossing into another state and culture also affirmed one universal truth: nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care. As cheesy as that sounds, it proves more true every day in cross-cultural ministry.
Every state is filled with one thing: sinners. And Louisiana sinners are just like Kentucky sinners. Despite their rebellious hearts, they’re searching for something authentic. Something real. Louisiana is a place filled with kind, diverse, hard-working people. However, they’re also wretched sinners in desperate need of a Savior. And that’s why we’re here.
We understand that the dignity of Psalm 8 and the depravity of Romans 3 go hand in hand. And in his sovereignty, Christ has turned the roadblocks of language, culture, geography, and sports into an avenue for the gospel. We love Louisiana because Christ loves Louisiana. And after one year, I thank God for such a high calling in the “Sportsman’s Paradise.”
Obbie Todd serves as associate pastor of students at Zoar Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He holds a Master of Divinity and Master of Theology from Southern Seminary and is a Ph.D. candidate in theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Obbie and his wife, Kelly, are currently in the process of adopting their first child. You can follow him on Twitter @ObbieTyler.