Rick Lawrenson steps down after 30 years of Nags Head Church leadership
After preaching 30 years here on the Outer Banks, Rick Lawrenson has stepped down as lead pastor at Nags Head Church.
Standing in front of the church congregation April 18, Lawrenson was joined by his family for a final pulpit sermon and there were more than 200 on hand for a send-off party April 25.
“I preached my final sermon as lead pastor at Nags Head Church but I don’t see myself as retired,” said Lawrenson. “I consider myself more in transition. Looking for the next area of service in the ministry.”
During lunch at Mulligan’s Grille in Nags Head recently, Lawrenson recalled how in 1986 he came down from Tidewater, Va. to help start a new church on the Outer Banks.
It wasn’t long before the church was chartered with a set of bylaws and boasted a membership of four dozen people. With Sunday and Wednesday services, it appeared things were rolling along nicely.
Sometimes though, appearances can be deceiving.
“After about six months, it became real obvious that the core group who initially invited me here were not looking for the same kind of church I was looking to be a part of,” explained Lawrenson. “They had a different vision for the church than I had, so I left.”
No longer a church-planting pastor, Lawrenson said he considered himself a church-planting failure. To provide for his family, he spent the next four years working construction and taking on other part-time positions at a couple of motels.
Calling it his wandering in the wilderness period, he built houses, helped build the outlet mall in Nags Head, the Washington Baum Bridge between Manteo and Nags Head and several other local landmarks.
“My fingerprints are on a lot of places built in the late ’80s,” he added.
Although he looked at other options, including some that took him to other areas, nothing seemed to click.
“The calls to pastor a church were not flooding in,” said Lawrenson. “I felt very much as though my ministry wheels were spinning in the sandy soil of the beach.”
There were, however, still some church-related opportunities. There were occasional requests to fill in for other pastors and a request to lead a Tuesday night Bible study.
Another spark of hope came when a young woman said to him, “Maybe God’s not finished with you here yet.”
It was during his construction days that he often drove past a little church on a corner near Jockey’s Ridge and wondered what could happen here on this corner.
Nags Head Baptist Church was started in the late 1940s. Once a thriving church, by the late 1980s, membership has dwindled to less than two dozen.
It was also one of the churches where he filled in a few times for pastor Stafford Berry. Berry had been after Lawrenson for years to join him and even brought Lawrenson up before the church for a vote to be an associate pastor. The vote was nine to seven.
“Why do you need an associate pastor with 16 people?” Lawrenson asked. “Anyway, I felt if that many people did not want me, it would be a difficult time.”
Lawrenson said Outer Banks construction was going well. He even earned a real estate license while working for a construction firm out of Virginia Beach building the Regional Medical Center in Kitty Hawk.
“They told me when I took the job we would be here a long time,” said Lawrenson.
“We found a house up in Moyock and were about to close on it when my boss called us all together at work,” he explained. “He said when we finish this building we are done. He pointed to several of us and said that this was our last day.”
Laid off from work, it did not seem to be the right time to buy a house. Lawrenson said he was still waiting to see what kind of ministry God wanted him in when that little church on the corner opened up in January 1991.
Lawrenson was invited to fill in while the pastor took a leave of absence. Then, in April, the pastor came back and, due to failing health, informed everyone that he would not return, telling them that he wanted the church to call Lawrenson as their new pastor.
“They did call me,” Lawrenson continued. “They had another vote and there were still people opposed, but this time it was something like 22 to four.
Perhaps that former church member was right, maybe God was not finished with him here yet.
“After the vote, one lady came up to me and said she didn’t vote for me to come,” Lawrenson recalled, “Then she said ‘but now that you are here I’ll do anything you need.’ And she did. An elderly lady, she became my first nursery director.”
In his book “The Replanted Church,” published in 2018, Lawrenson provides details on the generation gap between the church’s congregation and their new pastor. There was also little about the church to indicate that young families were welcome.
The community was, however, continuing to grow and the demographics showed potential. Perhaps it was time to replant the little church on the corner.
Sometimes change is slow, and at times even painful. But the church was willing to make the effort. Both in physical appearances and spiritual commitment.
Along there were some fresh new ideas and some painful growth. One change was, around 2004, to be Nags Head Church. As church membership grew, a new building was constructed in 2007. Church membership today has grown to well over 200.
“We had three services in a 120 seat church with overflow in another room watching closed circuit TV,” explained Lawrenson. “The new building tripled our seating capacity, and we continued with two services.”
Taking on a 30 year mortgage for a $1.5 million loan, Nags Head Church paid it off the balance in less than half the original loan period with the final payment coming in 2020 during the pandemic.
“I told the church when we took out the loan that I would not leave until it was paid off,” Lawrenson continued. “We made it a priority to pay that mortgage down.”
With the end in sight, Lawrenson advised his church elders that the end of his leadership was coming.
“I told the congregation I would stay as long as they wanted me to be there,” Lawrenson continued. “I never looked for another church or sent out any resumes. But I’m getting older and getting tired. It’s time for a younger, more energetic person with fresh new ideas.”
Baptist pastors fulfill many roles within the church. And they actually do work more than one hour a week. In addition to being the preacher, they must be an administrator and an evangelist. The pastor is also a servant leader and responsible for maintaining the spiritual edification of the congregation.
“It can be an exhausting job in a lot of ways,” Lawrenson explained. “Emotionally, spiritually and physically. The church has been supportive, but it’s time for a change. And also, the culture has changed in recent years. I said our church needs a younger man with a new vision, energy and enthusiasm that I don’t have any more. I could have stayed a lot longer, but I was not comfortable with that.”
Although most Baptist churches call an interim and take one to two years to find a replacement pastor, Nags Head Church conducted its search before Lawrenson left. After a two-year search, Nathanael Stevens was called to be the next lead pastor for Nags Head Church.
Lawrenson said bringing in a replacement early gave him time to provide some guidance. Over the past six months, Lawrenson started preaching a little less, then it was half and half, and in the final two months, Stevens has been doing the bulk of the preaching.
Now, after preaching an estimated 1,400 Sunday sermons, Lawrenson has stepped away.
Lawrenson says the future is still an open book. Although he can now sleep in a little later when his wife, Gail, will let him, there is time for some minor repairs to his Kitty Hawk house and travel is an option. He is, however, taking a year off from attending Nags Head Church.
“I don’t want people coming to me with questions,” he explains. “For some people, I’m the only pastor they have had. I want Nathanael to have some breathing room and when I come back (after the year) I would love to be on the Parking Lot Team or do whatever is needed.”
Lawrenson said he will continue serving as chaplain for Nags Head fire and police departments.
“I’ll continue with fire and police until they tell me I’m done or I don’t feel like I can do it anymore,” he added.
“So when I say retire, it’s almost a misnomer,” Lawrenson continued. “I’m retiring from being the lead pastor at Nags Head Church. After that, I’m really hoping to be involved in some kind of ministry, whether it’s preaching here or there, or doing some writing, helping some churches out. I may get a summertime job here on the Outer Banks doing something. It’s not like you can’t find a job.”
Lawrenson said his wife Gail and children Nathan, Sarah and Rachel are all supportive.
“Our children are all married and still in the church,” he added. “I’m still going to be busy, I’m still going to serve the Lord. However, I’m going to be gone from the church for a year. So, it’s retirement from the church that I have loved all these years. But I feel totally comfortable in leaving it in Nathanael’s hands. He is sharp. A visionary leader.”