By Sharon Mager
PERRYVILLE, Md.—John Gauger retired as pastor of First Baptist Church (FBC), Perryville, on Dec. 2. He and his wife, Linda, have served together in ministry for 40 years, 27 of which were at FBC, Perryville.
“I’d love to say that we gathered the largest crowd in our county. I cannot. But I can say that I have tried to be faithful to what God commands in His Word: to make disciples,” John said. “A high percentage of those we have seen trust Christ have grown to faithfully serve the Lord. We have seen a number become pastors, pastors’ wives, missionaries, and one campus missionary.”
Under John’s pastoral leadership, the church ministered in four countries, developing especially close connections with churches in Mexico and West Africa.
“We’ve partnered a number of times with a tremendous church in Mexico that has a huge vision. They’ll have us partnering with them to do eight VBS’s simultaneously in two states, leading a week-long pastors’ and lay leaders’ school, and then add door-to-door visitation or evening evangelistic meetings,” shared Gauger. “They stretched us till we were ready to tackle our most challenging assignment, West Africa!
“We minister to and evangelize extremely poor primary oral learners in an area with hundreds of thousands of people and no missionaries or churches. The IMB taught us how to be self-facilitating. With no Christians with whom to partner and working with people groups that have had no detectable Christian presence for many centuries, we hire a team of nationals to translate, drive, and make our ministry possible,” he said.
“Only two nationals on our team are Christians and one of them travels a distance from another country to work with us. There are no Christians in-country with skills we need (e.g., language skills, since English, if learned, is the fifth language for most) who can be hired. We store supplies for cooking, sleeping, water purification, and first aid with IMB missionaries a day’s drive away.”
In January, the church will send over its 26th team. Gauger explained, “It was never my idea, but it’s been my privilege to lead all 26 teams to Africa and close to 40 internationally. At the moment, the church still has me on the roster for the next two teams.”
Gauger was brought up in church but didn’t hear the Gospel truly preached until he was 16 and visiting a friend’s church, where he gave his life to Jesus. God called him to the ministry while in college.
“I wanted to continue studies in engineering. I was shy, I did not like speaking in front of others, did not want to learn other languages, and did not want to write papers. I wrestled with God for two years, but none of my arguments worked. One night I finally gave in and told the Lord I’d do whatever He wanted. And then I added one of the stupidest things I ever said. I told God that He’d better know what He is doing because I did not think I could do it.
“God was very kind to bless the ministry of His Word,” Gauger said. FBC, Perryville, doubled overnight and then tripled a month later. “We’ve had other growth spurts, too, but largely we have seen deeper growth with modest numbers saved, baptized, and discipled,” he said.
He explained that the “doubling and tripling” came when the church first opened their new building. The church was meeting at a school while working on their building for a year. “People were fascinated. They all wanted to come when it was finished. A lot stayed,” he said.
John said he was in a sister church when FBC, Perryville, began building. A team from North Carolina had planned to help, but the foundation was not done on time, so John, and several of those at the church he attended went to lend a hand. First, they helped for a few Saturdays, but several continued every Saturday through the whole project. Then, God called John to that very church.
“Very seldom do you inherit a building you worked on,” he marveled, noting his first day as pastor of the church was on the first Sunday they met in the new church building!
“Perryville is so old. Many of the buildings are 150 years old so for ten years everyone called the church the ‘new building,’” he laughed.
“Because we built our own church building, the people have a heart for helping others in-state and nationally with our construction skills. We have helped build and retrofit churches, and have worked in a number of states rebuilding homes after disasters. We’ve also worked a couple of times at Skycroft. The men love the cooking there.
“We enjoy a church that has genuine love for each other and who wants to impact the world for Christ. I am thankful that our church has been used, sometimes along with other churches, to help a handful of sister churches recover from closings to near closings. I am also grateful that our folks have a heart for missions. We do a lot locally, including a Celebrate Recovery ministry to chip away at the county drug problems, annual block parties and ministries of compassion to show our town that we care, and a strong connection to our local middle school for meeting needs within the families of their students. Our youth do missions ministry locally and in our state, often partnering with church plants in Baltimore.
Reflecting back, Gauger said the biggest thing that impacted his ministry is the cooperation of Southern Baptist churches, pastors, and missionaries.
“Most of what we do, we have learned how to do from others with whom we partner and cooperate. Whether it’s in our association, our state convention, or our national convention, the blessing of having others who can help or need our help is enormous. I love just to talk with and find what God is doing through our sister churches to encourage me and give me new ideas. I love that our Susquehanna Baptist Association’s pastors and wives still meet nine times a year for fellowship, prayer, training, and a meal. I find I learn as much sharing over the meal as I do from our helpful speakers. And our state convention staff is so knowledgeable and always ready to help or encourage me. One of our state staff, Doug DuBois, prays for me every week. And every one of them has been a great blessing one or more times. I’ve learned we can always do more together than we could if we worked separately.”
Gauger also acknowledged his wife’s incredible partnership with him in ministry. “In addition to being a wonderful wife, Linda is super mom and grandmom and has always encouraged me to visit one more person in need. She loves meeting with the other pastors’ wives at our monthly associational meetings. Linda had an exceptional music ministry and cherishes a ladies’ Sunday school class she has taught for many years. She quietly does ministries of compassion and is often taking homemade soups to the sick. She is an example of Christian hospitality hosting many at our home over the years.”
Gauger announced his retirement a year ago and stayed as the pastoral search committee independently and prayerfully searched for the next pastor.
“I had promised the search committee that I would not retire until they were satisfied they had found God’s man to take my place. Brian Dempsey was overwhelmingly called to be my pastor and our next pastor at [FBC] Perryville. In twelve months, if the pastor and elders feel the church has transitioned well to my absence, Linda and I hope to return and be regular members where we love and are loved by so many, at the First Baptist Church of Perryville.”
Gauger said Linda looks forward to the extra time we will have together with our grandchildren. “She will enjoy helping our friends in other churches as God calls. But, along with me, she looks forward to the time a year from now when we may return to our church family and simply enjoy good friends.
“She always thought I’d preach till the day I died, so it was quite an adjustment for her when she realized I would retire. She loved being a pastor’s wife. Linda trusted the retirement was God’s will, but that did not make it any easier for her or for others when we had our final worship time together with church family.”
The church had a surprise church family celebration for members and the Gauger’s children, John and Paula (and their spouses and children), who grew up in the church, with home-cooked food, photos and video clips from missionaries and a Muslim translator who helped John for more than a decade in Africa. The children and others also spoke.
There was also a surprise open house with food and servers for half of a Sunday afternoon. “They had invited old friends a few of whom drove two to four hours round trip to be present,” he said.
There was also a brief celebration after the couple’s last worship service. “The church placed hands on us to dedicate us to our next phase of ministry asking for guidance and blessing. They gave us a memory book of photos from the church family celebration and open house. Our praise team surprised us with a special song about friendship. We had many tearful hugs for a long time at the door.”