Rev. Ernest McCowan: Pastor, Teacher, Coach
It was a sunny, Sunday afternoon when my colleague and friend Yvonne Cleaveland and I met with Pastor McCowan. After having ministered at the 11:00 service, he was pacing in front his church, Second Baptist, waiting for us to start the interview. Usually for me, the only thing on my mind after a full day of worship, is dinner! Although he didn’t say it, I’m sure that was what was on Rev. McCowan’s mind as well!
He greeted us warmly and said (parenthetically) “I hate to say this, but I’m kinda nervous about this whole interview thing.” Rev. McCowan made this confession as we followed him into the church and up the stairs to his office. We assured him that it wouldn’t be that bad!
His office was lined with baseball trophies, scholastic awards and gifts of appreciation for his 25 years of pastoring, which was a perfect segue for our opening question: how long have you been in the ministry?
I’ve been in the ministry for 36 years; the calling was on my life for several years and I tried to run from it. I was happy being a deacon, with the church I was affiliated with. I was in my early 30’s. I’ll never forget; I guess by me running from what God called me to do; it put me in a place where I had started to feel different. I’d go to church and just couldn’t get into it because I knew I wasn’t being obedient to what The Lord would have me to do. It was a little scary…
Scary…why would anyone be afraid of walking into their “calling”? Rev. McCowan explained…
I didn’t want to do anything wrong; to let God down. I was happy being Deacon Ernest McCowan. Because I wasn’t doing what He called me to do, I started not being happy in service and finally I said, okay, I’ve go to go talk with my Pastor. This was on a Monday morning and I went to his home and told him God has called me to preach. He looked at me and said “I was wondering how long it was going to take you.” He said he had seen it and knew it for years!
Rev. McCowan said what transpired after the pivotal meeting with his Pastor, started the ball rolling for what got him to where he is today.
That was a relief to me because I knew I didn’t have to try and prove myself to anyone.
Rev. McCowan’s Pastor told him he needed to see him back that evening around 6:00 or 7:00, so he thought he was going to cook him a steak or something. Food always seems the answer to everything! “Feed them, they will come!”
But to Rev. McCowan’s surprise, his steak dinner turns into “laying on of hands” from all these preachers from all over town, lined up in his Pastor’s living room. For those who have not heard the term, “laying on of hands,” it’s the biblical way of launching you out into the calling God has on your life. So there was no turning back for Rev. McCowan!
I’m thinking that I’m going to have to wait months to do my initial sermon. This is on Monday; he tells me I’m doing my initial sermon on Sunday night. But God had already given me the sermon. The first sermon I ever preached was ‘there’s nothing to fear with God on your side’. I’ll never forget, two weeks after being in the ministry, Rev. F. C. Barnes calls me…
Rev. F. C. Barnes, “Rough Side of the Mountain” composer and singer, and his son, Luther Barnes, national recording gospel artist, are from Rocky Mount, NC. Rev. McCowan knows these gospel legends because he’s from Rocky Mount.
I know Luther Barnes well. He started singing at everybody’s wedding in town. He was the first one that gave me an opportunity to preach outside of my home church. It was a 3 night youth revival…talk about butterflies! …And any time now, if I’m waiting to get up to minister, if I don’t feel those butterflies, I worry. That’s a good thing because when we feel that, we know we have to rely on Him (God).
So he got past the scariness of the call, he understood the need for the butterflies knowing he needed to rely on God; so were there any other challenges?? Yes, there were challenges and one of the most challenging things he faces in ministry as a whole, is trying to bring people to the point where they sense the urgent need of having God in their lives. It seems like there is no urgency anymore. Everything seems to come before God now.
In the ‘old church,’ nothing got between your worship and between you and God. Now you get calls like ‘Pastor, I got company that’s come to town and I can’t make it to church today’. You’re going to miss worship because you have company?! If nothing else, let them stay there until you get back!
We could hear the frustration in his voice and the urgency to see change, for people to be unified.
I think that’s one of the biggest challenges that most pastors face – keeping the congregation unified. There’s always something that tries to bring division in the house of God. Because the devil knows ‘a house divided cannot stand’. Every time God really starts to move, that’s when he (the devil) gets busy and crazy.
Reflecting on how it used to be on what he remembers growing up on a farm, living out in the country, Rev. McCowan took us back to a time in his life that still is near and dear to his heart:
I think about how it used to be in the old church. Church meant something to us. We would work all week and we still pressed our way to Wednesday night bible study. Wednesday night bible study used to be full but now you do good if you get 10 people in bible study. I think that’s why we become so vulnerable to satan because we are not equipped for the battle.” It’s like we’re in a battle but we’re not equipped for it. I’m not talking about everybody but we have so many that just don’t seem to realize that we need God more than He needs us. We try to serve Him out of convenience and it just doesn’t work. It’s our sacrifice. People used to make the sacrifice. Yeah, I’m tired but I’m still going.
Bible Study…the Bible…is it still relevant? Pastor McCowan thinks so.
I think so much of the bible is being fulfilled today. Especially in Matthew where He talks about there’s going to be a great falling away and it’s going to be in the house of God and He says where the love of many will wax cold. Then we hear of wars and rumors of wars; it’s right here at hand. It’s sad that so many people use God. If they’re not in trouble, you don’t see them as much but as soon as trouble comes, here they come. Although people may not be where you are, we still have to be compassionate. I believe that’s why the Word tells us that you who are strong, bare the infirmities of the weak. That’s why we have to put up with some things in other folk until they get to where they need to be. We have to be careful not to try to figure out where they are and where they’re not because we don’t know. Sometimes just showing people that you care about them goes a long way.
Pastor McCowan just celebrated 25 years as Pastor of Second Baptist in June (2017). During his anniversary celebration, he was able to hear from his members how the ministry changed their lives. He gives praise to God when he tells how a member recently said they were ready to give up on God and themselves and, not through him but through the preached Word, they changed their lives.
I was in a revival in Siler City year before last and I knew nothing of this situation and that night, the sermon God gave me was ‘Devil, I Changed My Mind’. After service, the Pastor brought a lady up that came to him that morning, ready to commit suicide and we prayed for that young lady, God delivered that young lady and she was there every night. And that Friday night I called her out and asked ‘baby you still holding on?’ She said ‘yes, my mind is made up’. And she said thank you Pastor and I’m saying ‘thank You Lord!’ When somebody says or does something to let you know you had some type of impact on their lives, that’s the greatest reward for us as ministers. When people’s lives are changed through the preaching…let’s you know that your labor is not in vain.
A “church without walls” is a term used by a number of ministries, and Rev. McCowan shared how Second Baptist exemplifies that model by their outreach to the recovery houses and nursing homes. Second Baptist has several members that came through the recovery program because church members go to Oxford Houses, pick them up, and bring them to service. One lady who is a former drug addict, not only has a job but is a supervisor! Ministry is not just for the Pastor, but his family as well as his members.
At the time, I was married, my wife and I and some of the other members went to her (recovering drug addict’s) home and we refused to let the devil have her. We set members up around the clock so that she wouldn’t be alone. We took the children out of the home; one of them was the same age as my daughter; and we took her in for a while. The children were with the members so they could still get to their mom. Members volunteered their time to stay with her. Now she heads ministry here, has a supervisory job, and has been clean for at least 20 years – that is rewarding! When people talk about successful ministries, it depends on who you ask. We’re not busting out at the seams but I’ve seen God’s Hand move like never before. Even in my own life, it was predicted that I wouldn’t last six months. As a matter of fact, somebody told me the people in that church are going to run you out of that church. I’ve been here going on 26 years. To God be the glory! I tell any young preacher, you don’t need any gimmicks, you don’t need any tricks, all you need to do is preach the Word. You have to get into the hearts of the people and if they believe in you and you show them they can trust you, they will follow you.
Future plans for Rev. McCowan? He says when he retires from the school system, he hopes to start a mid-week Bible study for seniors. Not only at Second Baptist but in the community because a lot of seniors don’t get out.
And we found out, the pulpit is not the only place Rev. McCowan ministers. When asked what he loves to do for enjoyment, his response:
I love to play and coach baseball. Baseball afforded me the privilege of going to school on a scholarship. I played semi-pro for 4 years with the Braves Organization. Up until this year (2018), I played on a softball team and I coach baseball at the school I work at. We were 3 times district champions, 3 years undefeated seasons. Through my tenure as coach, we’ve broken all school records. I coach middle school, so there’s still a lot of teachable moments. I thank God because a lot of times I find myself teaching those kids godliness and don’t even have to use His Name. Nowadays, they don’t want God in school but I tell them when you took prayer out of school you opened up the door for everything else to come in. But baseball is my passion.
When we ended our interview, we thanked Rev. McCowan for taking the time to talk with us and he told us it wasn’t as scary as he thought it would be – in fact, he really enjoyed it! That just goes to show that what God gave him as his initial sermon, still holds true today not only for Rev. McCowan, but for all of us: With God On Your Side, There Is Nothing To Fear!
– Kathy A. Atwater (Jackson Center Staff Member)
The March edition of our Northside News centered on the church pillar of community. In addition to meeting the pastors of the historically Black churches in Northside/Pine Knolls, this issue explored themes of faith and love, fears associated with your calling, and historical roots of Black resilience. The above blog post is one of four pastor profiles written by Ms. Kathy Atwater and Ms. Yvonne Cleaveland. Check back next week to see which pastor will be highlighted next!