By Brian Blackwell, Message Staff Writer
LAFAYETTE – You would think someone who has 50 years of memories and relationships accrued while serving on the staff at First Baptist Church in Lafayette would have plenty to tell.
But recently Luther Burney was left speechless when asked to recall how he managed to serve for a half decade at one church.
“You have to live long enough first,” Burney joked with the Baptist Message shortly after a reception honoring his service to First Baptist Lafayette. “We are in the people business and I love the people. And they in turn have loved me and have let me work here.”
Family, friends and others from the community gathered in the church’s fellowship hall April 30 to recognize Burney, who came to the church April 9, 1967 as a music and youth minister.
ENCOURAGED TO BE AN INNOVATOR
When he first got there, Burney was encouraged by the support of Pastor Perry Sanders who told him to pursue new ideas.
“I respected Perry and he respected me,” Burney said. “I was always trying to do new things. Perry said as long as I could pay for it, I had the freedom to do what I felt led to do, and I ran with that.”
As the years passed, Burney added new programs that became quite popular in Acadiana.
Through the Symphony of Song, Burney’s choirs were joined by invited guests such as comedian Jerry Clower and singer and song writer Pat Boone. Burney also instituted the Living Christmas Tree, which drew crowds so large the event was moved on occasions to the 12,000-seat Lafayette Cajundome, located on the campus of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
DEVASTATED BY FIRE
While many of his memories at First Lafayette are positive, there is one he wishes had never happened. After Wednesday evening activities were over June 9, 1999, Burney received a call no minister wants to get – a section of the church was on fire.
Though no one was injured, the blaze destroyed the worship center and some offices. While the fire proved devastating, Burney was fortunate in that he was able to salvage many of his own items from his office.
Four days after the fire, the church worshipped in the gymnasium across the street and continued meeting there until a new worship center was built on the site of the original one five years later. In fact, the columns that survived the fire are standing inside the lobby of the worship center.
“It was hard because you always are concerned about your personal stuff,” Burney said. “It was hard to believe that it was happening. But we looked at it and said the church is not the building, it’s the people.”
A year after the new worship center was dedicated, Burney’s time as music minister came to a close with his December 2005 retirement from the position the same year Sanders also retired, though he remained on staff as an assistant to Pastor Steve Horn.
Burney said one of the blessings during his career at First Lafayette was being able to serve as the music minister under just one pastor. He still served in the capacity for six more months in an interim capacity until current music minister John Frank Reeve came on board in May 2006.
In addition to his responsibilities of visiting hospitals and conducting funerals, Burney also serves as a chaplain with Hospice of Acadiana, teaches a men’s Bible study class on Sundays and is involved with sharing the Gospel through the FAITH Evangelism program.
BURNEY’S TENURE A RARE FEAT
Horn said serving anywhere 50 years is a rare feat and was honored to have served with Burney for 12 of his years at the church.
“Luther is well loved in our congregation and builds great rapport with everyone,” Horn said. “He’s very good at the pastoral ministry, so it was a win for me coming on board back in 2005 and continuing to serve with him once he moved to part-time status.”
Looking back on how he remained at one church for 50 years, Burney said making the pastor’s job as easy as possible, along with other staff members, should be a high priority.
“Love the people, knowing not all the people will love you all the time,” he added. “Additionally, work hard and be innovative. When you are talking about tenure of service such as mine, it says as much about the church staff and the members as it says about the individual.”