Life has led two local pastors back to where they started.
Rev. James Neil Hollingsworth Jr. took the pulpit as senior pastor at Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Buckhead – a church he often attended as a teenager.
And Rev. David Shivers moved back to Sandy Springs in August to take the helm as pastor of First Baptist Church of Sandy Springs, a church he grew up in and where his father, E.B. Shivers, served as pastor from 1958 to 1980.
Shivers said he left the area to go to college and never moved back. Now 35 years later, he’s exploring his hometown, which he’s found has changed quite a bit.
“This was just farmland and a house on this corner,” Shivers said of the church property.
Shivers grew up across the street from where the church now sits, and spent a lot of time riding his bike around the area. Shivers said the church was a big part of his childhood.
“It was such a special place to grow up,” Shivers said.
Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church voted unanimously to call Hollingsworth, known as Dock, to serve as its seventh pastor. His first service at the Peachtree Road church was Sept. 22.
Hollingsworth has several connections to the church he now leads. Growing up, Hollingsworth attended special events at Second-Ponce de Leon with his high school friends. And while at Mercer University as an undergraduate, several of his college friends attended Second-Ponce de Leon.
According to the church, Hollingsworth had no intention of staying when he came to Second-Ponce de Leon as interim preacher 15 months ago. He had served as interim pastor at nine different congregations over the past 12 years.
Hollingsworth also worked at Mercer University’s Macon and Atlanta campuses for the past 18 years. He was assistant dean and assistant professor of leadership, and supervised ministry at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology. He was also executive director for The Center for Teaching Churches, according to the church.
“I fully thought I would retire at McAfee, but the energy and possibility of this place has captured my imagination, and by God’s grace it would not let me go,” Hollingsworth said in an email.
For nearly 20 years, the congregation at First Baptist Church of Sandy Springs has been trying to get Shivers to come back to Georgia and lead the congregation.
“The first time I got a call was probably around 1994. I had just started pastoring a church in Mississippi,” Shivers said. “Life was happening. We were growing churches. It was just not the right time. I had to wait on God’s perfect timing.”
But Shivers said he’s always been interested in returning to First Baptist.
“This has been a church I have prayed for since I could pray,” Shivers said. “I have prayed for this church daily. It’s my first love, as far as churches go.”
Shivers said he hopes to return the church to the vibrancy he remembers from childhood. In its heyday, the church had about 700 members. But recently, it has dwindled to fewer than 100.
“This time when they called, and told me they needed my help, the timing was right,” Shivers said.
Shivers moved from a small town in Indiana, where the closest traffic light was eight miles away.
“I was in rural America and loved it,” Shivers said.
He said he led a large, active congregation in Indiana, but with its rural location, there wasn’t much room for growth. “I was in rural America where the population of our county was 6,000,” Shivers said.
Shivers said he’s always wanted to lead a church to exponential growth, and believes Sandy Springs’ population provides that opportunity. “There’s so many people around [Sandy Springs] who just don’t go to church or have stopped going for various reasons.”
And so far, it’s working, he said. “In six weeks, we’ve grown,” Shivers said.
Shivers said he’s not necessarily interested in creating a mega-church, though. He said he likes being able to form relationships with everyone in the congregation.
“I love being at a place where I know everybody,” he said. “We just need to find a place where people can feel comfortable and connect to God and connect to each other. Where it stops growing, nobody knows, but it will grow.”
Shivers admits the church has been through some troubles lately. But he said he’s never really asked about why the church has struggled in recent years.
“I don’t really know why and I’m not going to look backward. I’m only going to look forward,” Shivers said.
He said he’s still taking stock of the church and the community around him to figure out the next moves for the church. But a social media presence, day care program, and updates to the church buildings are likely on the horizon, he said.
Despite his aspirations for growth, Shivers said he enjoys the familiarity of the Sandy Springs community.
“There’s still a small-town feeling about Sandy Springs,” Shivers said. “Weekly, I have run into people I have had a connection to that I haven’t seen in 35 years.”
He said he recently got a call to officiate a funeral for a woman who used to attend the church. Her nephew was shocked to learn that Shivers not only knew of his aunt, but used to go fishing on her property as a child.
“There’s a reconnection that’s occurring that’s benefiting this church,” Shivers said.
Shivers’ office is decorated with old family photos, including one of him and his father fishing at that pond.
“This church was very important to dad,” Shivers said. “I think dad would be pleased. I hope.”