Dale Roberts retires from pastoring churches – but not from doing the Lord’s good work in ministry
Dale Roberts retired as pastor of Lilly Ridge General Baptist Church at the end of May, but he’s quick to say that his 36-year career in ministry continues. That means he’s no longer “over a church,” but he’s still marrying, burying and baptizing, continuing the work he has recorded in his well-worn Bible.
As of Saturday, he had officiated at 113 weddings and 346 funerals, working with 13 different funeral homes and 53 cemeteries. He didn’t record all the hundreds of baptisms he’s been blessed to perform, but he’s made note of some 22 different ways those baptisms have been completed: in horse troughs and zinc bathtubs, swimming pools and bathroom showers, cattle-watering tubs and church baptistries. In creeks, rivers and lakes. On a front porch with water from a bucket. And other places and ways where the gift of salvation was symbolized by simple water and words.
“I’ll do it any way I can to help someone be baptized,” he said. “When you’re dying and you can’t go out, can’t move, I’ll come, and I’ll do it any way I can.”
Dale’s faith has always been a part of who he is. He grew up hearing his mother tell him he would be a minister someday.
He was born June 19, 1941, in the office of Dr. M. J. Hoerman in Gainesville. His parents, Ermal and Lucille Roberts, also raised three other children: Bill, now living in Olathe, Kansas, with his wife, Earlene; Robert, who now lives in Ava with his wife, Becky; and a sister, now Wanda Stewart, who lives with her husband Nurden in Independence.
The Roberts family lived on a farm in Isabella, and Dale attended the one-room school in Isabella for grades 1-8. In 1952, Ermal Roberts went to work for what is now the Missouri Department of Transportation, based out of the Gainesville maintenance shed. The family moved to Gainesville, and Dale graduated from Gainesville High School in 1959.
Praying for God to ‘Give me someone’
His mother’s prediction about Dale going into the ministry seemed unlikely as his teenage years passed. Although he was part of a devout, church-going family, he was 17 and heading into his senior year of high school before he finally made a confession of faith and was baptized. His younger friends and cousins had all been baptized. But still he hesitated, not sure he was ready.
Then, on July 17, 1958, at Piland Youth Camp, with a cluster of friends and relatives urging him to commit, Dale went forward and was saved. He laughs now, remembering that local pastor Allen Ledbetter and his parents “tricked me into going that night.” Ledbetter baptized him in the creek near Thornfield three days later.
After his high school graduation, Dale got a job at the late Earl Holmes’ service station and grocery, pumping gas, washing windshields and fixing flat tires at the former business on what is now County Road 806 – but back then was at Highways 160 and 5 south. His life changed forever when his friend Sharon Hartley stopped at the station one day as she drove home from what was then School of the Ozarks (now College of the Ozarks).
“I had been praying, ‘God give me someone I can live with the rest of my life,’” Dale recalled. “People will laugh at me for that, but I don’t care. It’s the way I live my life.”
Sharon had brought her roommate Barbara DePriest home with her for the weekend. When Barbara got out of the car, Dale sensed that this was the “someone” God had in mind for him.
“I probably spoke to her, but nothing more,” Dale said. “But that night, after work, I went to a singing at Lilly Ridge, and who walks in? Barbara.”
Any doubt was erased. He knew she was the one.
About that time, the late Ralph Amyx approached Dale and asked if he’d like to go to work for him at the Ford dealership in Gainesville. “I told Ralph Amyx, ‘I would like to do that, but I need to go to college for one year,’” Dale said. Then he asked the late Mearle Luna, superintendent of the Gainesville schools, for help getting admitted to School of the Ozarks.
Dale didn’t need a year of college to work in the Amyx Auto parts department. But he needed Barbara, and if she was going to school there, he would follow her. “That was the only reason I wanted to go to School of the Ozarks,” he said, laughing.
They spent the year “getting together,” he said, claiming to have approached her first “to see if she would be mine.” Barbara says she was the one who first approached Dale.
At the end of that year, Barbara went home to Caruthersville, where she had lived with her grandparents since her parents’ death when she was 10. “We contacted back and forth, I guess by phone,” Dale said. “And we decided to get married.”
‘I had to go chase the bus’
Dale started working at Amyx Auto on July 1, 1962. After work that first day, he drove to Mansfield, where he planned to meet the bus carrying Barbara from Caruthersville. Dale was waiting at the Mansfield bus station on old Highway 60 in his 1954 four-door, two-tone blue Ford when the bus blew right on by.
“I got my car started and had to go chase the bus,” he said.
He took Barbara home to his parents, and three days later, on July 4, the late Marlin McGinnis married them at his home. There was a one-night honeymoon at some tourist cabins in Gaineville, and the next day they moved into “Ivy Holmes’ old rock house,” near the current Ozark County Sheriff’s Department, Dale said.
He worked in the Amyx Auto parts department, and Barbara stayed home with their children: Paul, born in 1963 (now living with his wife, Mary, in St. Charles); Gary, born in 1964 (now living with wife, Shelly, in Gainesville); and Kathy, born in 1965 (now living in Monkey Run, Arkansas). The Robertses have nine grandchildren.
Dale and Barbara and their children faithfully attended church at Center Point, the church Dale’s growing-up family had attended after they moved from Isabella to Gainesville. Dale became a deacon and was Sunday school superintendent, starting each Sunday’s session with a quick little three- or four-minute sermon. “It was a little testimony, a little something short. I worked all week trying to find something I could say, and not just stand and read,” he said. “It was just in me to do that.”
This went on for many years, and then, at a dinner for ministers and deacons in Ava on March 29, 1983, something else happened.
39 1/2 years at Amyx Auto, 36 years as a pastor
“I was sitting there at that dinner, and Joe Gaddy was sitting there beside me. Joe and I had been friends all our lives. He was there at Piland Youth camp with his sister Jean when I was saved,” Dale said. “So, after the dinner part of the meeting was over, and ministers and deacons were talking, Joe said to me, ‘Dale, don’t you have something to say?’ And I did. I announced my calling to the ministry.”
About four months later, he was invited to pastor his first church: Lead Hill Free Will Baptist in Mansfield. He pastored that church for two years, continuing his Monday-Friday job at Amyx Auto and driving the 45 miles one way to Mansfield every Sunday and sometimes other times when needed for funerals and weddings.
Next, in July 1985, he was called to pastor Black Oak General Baptist Church in Ava. “It was a bigger congregation, and we had a wonderful time together,” he said. “The church grew and grew and grew, with a lot of youth coming in.”
And then, “the Lord told me I’d done all I could there,” he said. “And here came Lilly Ridge General Baptist Church, back home in Gainesville.”
Dale would pastor Lilly Ridge for 14 years during his “first run,” as he calls it, serving from January 1991 until May 2005. During his time there, the church grew in membership, with an average attendance of 134 every Sunday, and it made several improvements, including building a new sanctuary.
And then, again, “the Lord told me I’d done all I could there,” Dale said. “I couldn’t understand why he was pulling me out, but he did, and then, here came Hilltop Victory Church in Thornfield.” He preached there for the first time in September 2005.
By then his job as parts manager at Amyx Auto had ended when the dealership closed in 2002. He had worked there 39 1/2 years.
He worked a short time for East Side Auto Parts and continued his pastoring work.
After launching their three kids, Barbara had gone back to school, commuting to classes at what was then Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State University) in Springfield and at the school’s campus in Mountain Grove. She earned a bachelor’s degree from SMS and then a master’s degree from Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar.
She taught art in Dora and other area schools, retiring from Thornfield School in 2006.
Dale was pastor at Hilltop for a little more than seven years. “It was a wonderful time,” he said. “I hated to leave over there. It was going good, with 50 or 60 every Sunday, but then the Lord told me my work was done at Hilltop.”
He was 72. He might have retired, “but then we came back to Lilly Ridge on Feb. 10, 2013.”
He continued there for six more years, and finally, on May 26, the Lord told him, one last time, that his work there was done. Now he considers himself retired from pastoring, ending the work he has done almost continuously for 36 years since that first call to preach at the little church in Mansfield in 1985.
Barbara, he says, “has been there every step of the way with me.”
They’ve been married 57 years.
God’s work continues
Dale has preached thousands of sermons, and most of them took awhile to develop. “I’m not smart enough to get up there and roll it along without notes like some preachers,” he said. “I like to have something before me so I can start and finish with a purpose. I’m not really preparing all week, but on Monday I’m starting to generally think about what to say. I think and I look, and I spend the week trying to get my thoughts together. Generally, by Saturday, I’m comfortable and ready to share the message,” he said.
While he says he has retired from pastoring, he knows he’s not done with ministry. Not by a long shot. He loves nothing more than helping someone find salvation. The requests come out of nowhere, and out of everywhere. Recently he was eating lunch and someone came up and said, “Say, Dale, I want to ask you. Would you baptize me?”
“Yes, I will,” Dale replied. “Does Jesus live in your heart?”
“Yes,” the person replied.
“I’ll be happy to baptize you,” Dale answered.
Sometimes they go to a creek. Lick Creek under what’s known locally as the Cheese Plant Bridge has baptized many a saved soul. Dale remembers one time when he had arranged to baptize someone there the next day, but when he drove over the bridge, he saw there was hardly any water in the creek at all.
But the Lord provides. “That night, it rained,” Dale said. “But it only rained in Gainesville.”
And the next morning, the water was flowing deep and wide. Lick Creek “looked like an ocean,” Dale said. The baptism went on as planned.
And in that way, time after time, water has been found somewhere, and another person’s eternal life has been assured.
And so Dale’s work for the Lord continues.