Editor’s Note: Our Conversations With Pastors series returns with a sit-down with First Baptist Church of Oneida pastor Sean Allen Lee. Originally from Kingston (he played basketball against Black Oak Baptist Church pastor Kyle Keeton when Keeton was at Scott High), the 45-year-old Lee has been in the ministry since 2004 and pastored several churches in North Carolina and Virginia before making the move to First Baptist. He and his wife, Ashley, made the move to Oneida with their three children in July 2020.
Lee is a U.S. Navy veteran and attended Clear Creek Bible College, graduating in 2008 with a double major in pastoral ministry and missions and evangelism. From there he attended seminary for four years, took a year off, and graduated from a doctoral ministry program in 2016 with a doctorate of ministry in church revitalization.
Independent Herald: So how did you get into the ministry?
Sean Lee: Through a whole lot of pain. I ran from the Lord for a long time. In 2003 I had gone through a painful relationship that had really turned my life upside down. I was just miserable. I was asking the Lord, “Okay, Lord, what do you want from me? What do you want me to do?”I tried all the things that most people try to satisfy whatever desire for the feeling of contentment that they can find. That included drinking alcohol, that included living a wild lifestyle in my 20s. I came to the conclusion that none of those things could satisfy the desire that was in me. At that time I didn’t know what it was, but I really believe I had a God-sized hole in my heart, and only God could fill that hole.
I surrendered to the ministry right around Valentine’s Day in 2004. I was 28. I had been in church and taught Sunday school. But I ran from the Lord for so long. And at age 28 I finally got right. I just knew that God was calling me to preach and I needed to quit running. I always say I’m a theological mutt. I grew up in a Pentecostal church, a Methodist church, went to a Presbyterian church, a Church of God, so I’ve been around a lot of mainline denominational churches, but I settled into a Baptist church.
IH: So what was it that made you settle into the Baptist denomination?
SL: Probably the influence of my family more than anything. And then the church that I was groomed by was in Jonesboro, Tenn. It’s called Cherry Grove Baptist Church. I grew
up there in my formative years and I agree with the doctrine of the Baptist faith probably more than others. Not that the Southern Baptist churches are perfect, by no stretch of the imagination. We’re far from that. But, doctrinally, I align with the Southern Baptists more than any other denomination. But let me make this clear: I can have fellowship with Methodists, Presbyterians … anybody who loves Jesus, I can partner with them and we can set aside our differences and celebrate what we have in common. And I feel that’s
a huge problem in Appalachia. Churches under a certain name, you’re automatically written off because that’s a so-and-so church. But get to know me a little bit and let’s rub elbows and talk about it. Sometimes I don’t think we give each other enough of a chance.
IH: You talked about running from God. Nearly every pastor we have talked to for this series talks about running from the call to preach. What is it that makes preachers run from that calling? Is it the fear that’s associated with being called into the ministry?
SL: For me, it was that I wanted my cake and to eat it too. Here’s what I mean: I wanted to go to the honkey tonk on Friday night and Saturday night, get a buzz and meet a girl, but then I’d go to church on Sunday morning red-eyed and somewhat hung over. I literally did that for two or three years. I always felt like happiness could be found in a relationship, not with the Lord but with a woman. I am an old Navy guy. That’s not an excuse, but that’s just how I kinda moved into that lifestyle. But, yes, running from the Lord, you know you’re called to do something different but you’re afraid. You’re afraid to get out of your comfort zone and you’re afraid to surrender, really. You feel like, man if I do this, I’m gonna be an old fuddy-duddy Christian. You just feel like you’re going to have to give up a lot.
IH: We talked about how you got into the ministry. How many churches have you pastored?
SL: When I was a freshman in 2004, I got called to a church in Hazard, Ky. That had had a rough stretch. I was an intern there for 18 months. Then I went to Pineville, Ky. I pastored Hosman Baptist Church off Hwy. 92. Then I went to North Carolina for nine years while I was in seminary. Then I went to Crewe, Va., where Lottie Moon — the famous missionary — is buried. I was there three years. And now I’m here at First Baptist of Oneida.
IH: Did you do any evangelism or is pastoring a church what you’ve always wanted to do?
SL: In Bible college, I was on the missions and evangelism track originally. I had this crazy idea that I was gonna buy a 1957 Chevy, and I was going to travel around the South
and be a traveling evangelist. That was legit what I thought. But when I went
to that church in Hazard and I got a chance to love on the people and watch them heal from things of the past, I knew I was called to be an under-shepherd. I knew I wasn’t just supposed to preach hell, fire and brimstone and then leave. Once I got to love
on people, I knew that’s where my heart was. I didn’t switch tracks, but I added the pastoral track and got a double major.
IH: How did you wind up at First Baptist in Oneida?
SL: When you go to seminary, the idea is to try to pastor while you’re going through and working on your doctorate of ministry. I was fortunate enough to stay at that church, but we had been there nine years and I just felt like it was time to leave. So then my family and I went to Virginia for three years and we led an historic church. It’s a lot of tradition and it’s hard to break loose of the old. My degree is in church revitalization so you try to celebrate the past but you don’t live there. I want to piggy-back on the rich heritage but we’ve got to realize that methods change. The message stays the same, but methodology can change. My family was having a tough time in Virginia, just to put it honestly. I sent my resume to the Tennessee Baptist Convention coordinator, who is a liaison for churches. Mr. William Paul Phillips was the chairman of the pastor search committee (at First Baptist). That resume got into his hands, and we just kept on meeting. And Kingston is not much different from Scott County. So to get me to come back to Scott County, there wasn’t much selling point, really.
I love the mountains, love the country life, and love country people. I never envisioned coming back to Tennessee. I wanted to go to Florida, to tell you the truth. My wife’s family is from Okeechobee. I wanted to play golf and I wanted to bass fish and live in sunny Florida. But my wife hates the weather down there. My Mamaw and papaw on my wife’s side live in London, and my momma and granny still live in Kingston, at Midtown. So Oneida’s a perfect midway point. It’s a perfect place for us to come. We love it.
IH: When did that process begin? You were appointed in July but the process probably began several months before that, right?
SL: Oh yeah. Baptist search committees are not known for moving very swiftly. So, probably seven or eight months. I was supposed to go to India on a missions trip
last March. But we had started talking the previous November. So it had been a good while. We met at the Hotel Roanoke in Virginia. This committee was really gracious to drive five hours plus, and I drove two and a half, and we met in a conference room. They asked the questions and we just had a really good interview. That was in March, and we corresponded through April and May. They brought me here in June for what they call a trial sermon in Baptist churches. We use the term calling in ministry but sometimes pastors don’t stay at churches because they’re not a good fit. But from what I’ve been told and what I feel, this is a good fit.
IH: What’s the biggest issue that faces churches today?
SL: From the inside I would say it’s apathy. Churches are lethargic. I preached a difficult message on hell yesterday. I don’t think people really contemplate eternal life. If you believe the Bible, when you die it’s either one of two places. There is no A, B, C or D. It’s either heaven or hell. And there’s only one way to get there, and that’s through Jesus. I feel like if we truly believed that, we wouldn’t be so apathetic from the inside as far as not going out and spreading the message. In the Old Testament it was “come and see” to the temple, but I’m always stressing to the church now that the message of the New Testament is “go and tell.” “Come and see” is the Old Testament, but we don’t live in the Old Testament. The New Testament is “go and tell your neighbor.”
From the outside, I really believe the challenge is the erosion of absolute truth. Churches are being challenged on every front with their religious liberty. A lot of churches don’t know how to combat that and make a lucid argument and try to defend their position in a way that is not just taking a King James Bible and thumping somebody over the head. That’s not going to win people, in my opinion. When people see that we love them, I think that’s kinda the big picture for me. One writer said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” If people don’t know that we care about them, I don’t think they’re going to listen to us.
IH: Do you feel that there’s an issue with conformity within the church, because they’re being attacked?
SL: We use the term inclusive. We don’t preach hate here. God loves everybody. But as far as being inclusive and that topic of just trying to let everything conform or just let it go, I think Christians have to take a stand. Where do you draw a line? I just spoke to the high school students at Oneida High School and I talked about the cancel culture that
we live in. I used Morgan Wallen as an example. Or Pepe LePew. But it’s kinda like being inclusive and the cancel culture, how far do you take this stuff? How far do you want the church to bend, if you will? When it infringes on our beliefs, or with the Constitution, when it infringes on our rights, where does it stop? It has to stop somewhere. I think it stops when Christians start taking a stand for what they believe in. I say this a lot, my seminary president said what you say is important but how you say it is just as important. You don’t have to be snide or snarky or smart-alecky, but I tell our folks all the time, when you’re trying to talk to somebody let your speech be seasoned with grace and not condemnation, because we aren’t the judge.
IH: The coronavirus pandemic has had a big impact on churches. Now there is a concern by some that people have gotten too complacent with sitting at home and watching a live stream of the services. Do you think that’s an issue, or as the virus goes away will people come back to church, maybe even more enthusiastically than before because they’ve missed the fellowship?
SL: People want to be catered to. It’s so easy to fry your sausage, get in your pajamas and watch your favorite preacher on YouTube. I see it as something that’s going to be detrimental to the life of the church unless people have good disciplinary habits and come back. The first Sunday we came back, we had around 180. I really feel like this church ought to be running 400 or 500. I know the demographics and where we’re located. I know we have a lot of other churches and I’m glad to partner with them. But there’s a lot of unchurched people in Scott County. There might still be some stereotypical thoughts about how that’s the “big white church in town” or you gotta wear a suit. I want you to know, and I hope you’ll let people know, we have no dress code here. All those myths…things change over time. I’m not saying all change is good, but some change is good. You don’t have to wear a suit and tie here. I will love you no matter what you wear. I tell our folks to invite people, let them be their guests, meet them in the parking lot and usher them in. Because if you don’t go to church, the Greek columns and the brick, it can be intimidating. For us who have been in church, we don’t see that. But we want to understand that we want a welcoming environment. Not every- body in the Bible Belt grew up in a Baptist church or a Pentecostal church or a Church of God. It’s new to them.
So, yes, I think it’s going to hurt us. But here’s the thing: It’s kinda like distance learning. I hate distance learning. I want to see you, look at you, fist-bump, hug you, whatever. Fellowship cannot be replaced by online stuff. It’s this whole thing of being in person, and there’s something about when the church gathers and we’re all under the same roof, and the preaching of the word, and the singing and the praying and all of that, there’s something about that element there that you don’t get when you’re at home on the iPad. I’m telling you, life is all about relationships and I feel like we need to do better jobs in our churches with establishing relationships. If people aren’t careful, they’re just going to stay at home and be content.
IH: You mentioned unchurched people. We think of Scott County as being an overwhelmingly religious community, and it is — most people identify as Christian. But there was a statistic that a preacher presented to us earlier in this series, where a study had found that something like fewer than 15% of the population in Scott County attend church regularly. Would that surprise you, and how do we fix that?
SL: It does not surprise me, because this is the kind of communities that I’ve lived in and have done demographic studies. How do you fix it? That’s a great question. I’m going to tell you what the director of missions for our association told me. I’m just an honest, straight shooter. So don’t be taken aback by anything I tell you. I’m not going to sugar-coat it. But what we need to do, in this county, based on my eight months, is celebrate what we have in common as different churches, put aside the petty differences, and work together. I don’t see a cooperative spirit in our churches. Every church is doing it’s own little thing. I live on Coopertown, directly between New Haven and Black Oak. I have met James Roberts (pastor at New Haven), I have definitely met Kyle Keeton (pastor at Black Oak) and I’m friends with both of them. I’m good friends with Steve (Hodges, pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church). I’ve met Chris (Sewell) at Winfield. I’m trying to get acclimated to my brothers and would gladly meet with any pastors. But a big weakness in any association and in churches in general is that pastors are lone rangers. We do our own thing. If we’re not a catalyst, or a thermostat, if we don’t set the temperature, the team work ain’t gonna make the dream work. We’ve got to get together and work together for the glory of the kingdom.
When I go places where I’ve got full freedom, I’m Billy Baptist. I’ll give you my Baptist beliefs. When I go to places that are non-denominational, I’ll use language that doesn’t rub people the wrong way. When I go to a King James-only church, I take my New King James and I set it aside and I use my King James, you know? I’m a cultural architect looking at all these pieces of the puzzle, and I think some of my petty preferences can be put aside for the bigger goal, and that’s teamwork. How do you do it? I feel like churches have to start working together. I feel like we’re just isolated little ministries, but what if we started connecting the dots? It’s a challenge. You have to have guys that aren’t on their high horse and think they know everything. I don’t know everything. There are older men that are teaching me and younger men that are teaching me. I think a teachable spirit, a spirit of humility, and just teamwork. We need to practice on teamwork.
IH: You like to fish and hunt. Sitting in a deer stand or being in a boat, you’re able to clear your mind and contemplate. I imagine some of your better sermons have been formulated when you’re in those environments and you just have time to think and meditate. How does that factor into being a pastor?
SL: There are a couple of myths about being a pastor. Pastors do seem to be lone rangers. They really do. But there’s something about getting out in a boat, or getting somewhere where you can just kinda block out all the things that are always consuming you. I try to guard my schedule. I have three kids and guarding my family time is a big thing. But pastors have to have an out for their mental stability. Mine just happens to be fishing. I named my John boat “The Word.” I was trying to be funny, and when people call me, I just say, “Tell them I’m in The Word.” But it’s hard to disengage sometimes. I was thinking about Tom Cruise in that movie Top Gun, how it was when he went through that plane crash and then reengage. It’s hard for pastors sometimes to take off the pastor hat and put on the daddy hat or the family hat or the coaching hat or whatever. But I try to be the family guy I’m supposed to be and guard that time. I love to golf and play down here at the Oneida Municipal Golf Course. I have two expensive hobbies: Fishing and golf. But those are my outs. I have a group of guys I play with. I have a group of guys I eat at El Rey with. One of the things I love about Scott County that’s different from where I came from is all this luscious cuisine we have here. If I want to go to Mi Rancho, I go to Mi Ran- cho. I go to El Rey. I go to Element Asia. I had Handy Randy’s just a few minutes ago. The Barn. People from Scott County think we don’t have anything, but move off somewhere like I just came from and it’s not as bad as we think. We’re blessed.