Published January 9, 2014
Gerald Harris, editor of The Christian Index, interviewed Ed Cliburn recently to get his view on Baptist life in the 21st century. Cliburn, a native of Newnan, served as minister of education of First Baptist Macon from 1954 to 1957 and was then called to be pastor of First Baptist Church of Thomaston, where he faithfully ministered for almost 24 years (1957-1981). He then served on the staff of the Georgia Baptist Convention for nine years.
Since his retirement from the GBC he has served as interim pastor of 27 churches and one term as the mayor of Thomaston. He also served as the recording secretary of the GBC from 1996-2003. Cliburn and his wife, Dot, live in Barnesville.
The Index: Who were your heroes when you were growing up as a young man?
Cliburn: Louie Newton has to be one of them, because he was every preacher’s hero. When I got into the Marine Corp I had a chaplain named John Craven and he was the man who captured me for the Lord. He was a chaplain in the 4th Marine Division and was with our troops in many of the campaigns in World War II, including Iwo Jima.
When he came back to Camp Pendleton I got to know him, but I was just running the post office. I was a “Hollywood” marine. I never got out of the country.
The Index: What years were you in the Marines?
Cliburn: I was in the Marines in 1945-46 and 1950-51, during the last part of WWII and the Korean War. After the Marine Corps lost so many personnel at Iwo Jima, Congress passed a resolution telling the Marine Corps not to send any more 17 and 18-year-olds out of the country for six months. I was in the group that got held back.
The Index: Did you get married after WWII?
Cliburn: I enrolled at Mercer after the War and got married to Marjorie in 1949 while I was a student. We met at church. She was a redhead and so was I. Can you imagine two redheads getting married?
The Index: I know your Marjorie died some years ago, after a long illness. Is that right?
Cliburn: Yes, Marjorie had strokes in 1977 and 2000 and she was paralyzed for years. After I retired she was able to do less and less, so I stayed home with her. She did better when I worked for the Convention, but passed away in 2004 when another stroke took her life.
The Index: How did you meet Dot?
Cliburn: I had known Dot for about 13 years. She was an active member of the Milner Baptist Church where I did two interims. We started seeing each other and we have been married now for almost five years.
The Index: What do you see as the major difference in Baptist life today than when you started your ministry years ago?
Cliburn: One of the major differences seems to be the indifference of pastors toward the Convention. There used to be more interest than now. Some pastors feel like there is not much inclusiveness. Part of this is the result of the politics, which causes many people to feel excluded. I don’t know whether this is real or perceived, but we would do well to include more people in the life of the Convention.
The Index: What do you see as the primary difference in the church in the 1950s and now?
Cliburn: If you go back that far you will remember that we had a lot of wives and mothers who took part in church activities and leadership, but the inflation that came in the 70s and 80s resulted in women joining the work force in order to make ends meet. They were no longer at home to have meals prepared early so their families could go to church. This affected revival attendance, prayer meeting attendance, and initiated Sunday shopping.
There was also a baby boom prior to that time. When I was at Thomaston we had babies everywhere. But the baby boom came and went.
And there is another big thing today – broken homes. Divorces and broken homes have had a negative impact on the church. A divorce will generally result in losing at least one of the parents to the church, sometimes both parents. The children that come spend one weekend with their mom and the other with their dad.
The Index: Don’t you think the vast number of abortions since 1973 would also factor into that equation?
Cliburn: Yes, I think it probably did have an impact.
The Index: The Cooperative Program continues to be our lifeline to missions and ministry, but there also seems to be a waning interest in the CP. What would you do to strengthen this vital stewardship concern?
Cliburn: I remember when Southern Baptists had a Stewardship Commission. It no longer exists. They produced a tool for our Convention back in the 50s called the Forward Program of Church Finance. It was a well laid out program. We did it in Thomaston for 22 consecutive years and our giving grew all throughout that program.
There is nothing like that out there now, but our churches still need that kind of help. Also, I have not heard a sermon on tithing in a long time, unless I preached it.
You know, tithing to me was a great lesson. I did not start tithing until I was in the seminary. I got really convicted about it.
I wasn’t making any money and starving to death running a paper route. But we started tithing and I discovered that you couldn’t give 10 percent without sitting down and planning and looking at how you are spending your money. That is nothing more than good stewardship, which God requires of us.
I think the Cooperative Program is in trouble for several reasons. First, tithing and stewardship apparently are not preached or taught as much in our churches from my observation. Second, there seems to be a disenchantment with denominationalism; and third, there is a dangerous swing back toward designated giving.
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