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The Rev. Herbert McCoy: ‘I’d Rather See People Saved Than Eat When I’m Hungry’

Story and Photos By Jessica Isaacs | jessica@highcountrypress.com

The Rev. Herbert McCoy is one of four preachers who will be honored with their wives at a community-wide pastor appreciation event set for Saturday, Aug. 6 at the National Guard Armory in Boone. Click here to read more about the event and check out the July 2016 edition of High Country Magazine for the full story.

You Must Be Ready

It was 1951 when a young man from Ashe County named Herbert McCoy met a girl he still calls “Sweet Pea” at church. He was 18 and she was 15, and, even before they met that day, God had spent their entire lives preparing them for the journey they were about to begin together.

“I came to church with my brother. He saw me, and that was it,” said Jean, the girl from over in Watauga County who would soon become Herbert’s wife.

“The rest was history,” Herbert said.

They exchanged vows and promised to forever together in August of that year, and two years later started a family. Herbert was certainly busy man as a young husband and father, but something tugging at his heart promised there was an even greater adventure on the horizon.

“I felt the calling of God in my early teens, but I didn’t surrender to the call to preach until the day I turned 22,” he said. “That small, still voice got so real on me inside. That was my purpose in life — to preach the gospel.”

Herbert publicly declared his commitment to fulltime Christian service in October of 1954, and he answered the call to the pulpit early the following day when two pastors at their home church needed help covering a revival weekend. At the time, the young family attended Elk Knob Baptist Church, which straddles the line between Ashe and Watauga counties.

Herbert and Jean McCoy.
Herbert and Jean McCoy.

“One of them was assisting the other in revival. They were having service at 11 o’clock that morning and also at 7 o’clock in the evening, so they decided they wouldn’t have service the next morning. I told them the Lord had called me to preach and that I would preach it for them,” he explained. “One woman, she hit the floor shouting and said, ‘Praise God, if the old ones won’t preach the young ones will.’”

So began Herbert and Jean’s journey into fulltime ministry. They didn’t know at the time what plans the Lord had for them, but, whatever it was, they were ready to go.

Passionate, eager and on fire for the Lord, Herbert began preaching part-time in several churches in 1955. For some he’d supply on occasion, and for others he was a regular guest.

“Back then, you know, you’d try to be a pastor at three different churches at once,” Jean said with a little grin.

Serving many churches at once was rewarding in many ways but came with its fair share of challenges, although other pastors in the area kept similar practices.

“Some people talk about preachers preaching for money. It would be hard for anybody to believe this today, but the first church I preached was two Sundays a month and they only gave me little over $1 for the year,” he laughed. “Preaching for money, huh?”

It wasn’t easy, but Herbert knew he was following the footsteps that had been set for him by his Lord and Savior.

“I was preaching because I knew that was what God had called me to do,” he explained.

By 1963, he was preaching fulltime; but, just as the McCoys began to settle into the life of a preacher’s family, God let them set sail on another unexpected voyage. Having only completed his education through the 10th grade by the time he started preaching, Herbert soon knew he was ready to finish what he’d started.

“I felt the need after I started preaching to go back to school, so I started back in the 11th grade when I was 25, almost 26,” he said. “I went to Cove Creek School.”

Upon his graduation from Cove Creek, he went on to study and prepare for the ministry at both Fruitland Baptist Bible College in Hendersonville and at Gardner Webb in Boiling Springs. All the while, he balanced his academic work with his roles at the helm of both his family and his church. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in philosophy with a psychology minor from Appalachian State University, from which he graduated in 1968.

“It wasn’t easy for me to go back to school like I did, but I did it because I felt so strongly that’s what God wanted me to do,” he said. “It was a sacrifice, actually, for my family, but if you put Jesus first you’ve got to do what you believe He wants you to do.”

Go Into All the World

While some pastors are called serve one church through the entirety of their ministry, others, like Herbert McCoy, are equipped to serve many throughout their lives.

In the more than five decades following the day he gave his life to fulltime service, Herbert McCoy pastored at many churches with Jean and their two children by his side. In some cases, he pastored with the same church for up to nearly a decade, and for others he was called to lead them in a short-term period of trial and transition. He even pastored several churches on more than one occasion over the years.

“When I’d serve at one church and feel God calling me to another one, I’d try to be obedient,” the reverend said. “I can say I always left the churches in better shape than I found them.”

Calling so many churches home meant that the Rev. McCoy would face and overcome many different obstacles with many different people.

“God blessed me with wisdom and a spirit of discernment so that I could always understand the situation. I pretty much was able to see where they were and see where they needed to be, especially in the latter years of my ministry,” he said. “You definitely learn that people are different. Each church has its own personality, just as each individual has his or her own personality.”

It also meant many periods of transition for his family, who lived in many parsonages over a period of 35 years.

“This is something a little humorous, but it happened with our son. One night, we were moving from our home to a church and the people had been renting the parsonage, so it wasn’t in too good a shape,” said Herbert. “Jean and I and our two children went down to look at the situation. She likes for things to look good — I do, too, but she does especially. Bless his heart, he was about nine, and he could just tell that his mother was disgusted with the way things looked. The little young’un said, ‘But Mama, they do have a good clothes line.’ He was optimistic. Eventually, they fixed it up nice for us.”

The McCoys have been to many churches, lived in many homes and seen many things over the past 58 years, but the one thing that never changed was the purpose for their calling and the message they continue to share.

“What’s always been my biggest joy, and I’ve enjoyed it more than anything no matter where I might have been preaching, is to see people accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. I’d rather preach and see people saved than eat when I’m hungry.”

My Good and Faithful Servant

In 2012, after nearly 50 years as a fulltime pastor and another near decade since he first declared his calling, the Rev. McCoy retired from the pastorate at Zion Hill Baptist Church. Like many of his fellow pastors, he will be quick to say he doesn’t like the word “retire” if you ask about his career.

Jean and Herbert McCoy.
Jean and Herbert McCoy.

“Some people think that when you retire you quit; but I didn’t retire from preacher, just from being the pastor,” he explained. “I don’t like to say I’m retired, because I intend to preach as long as I’m able.”

Throughout his career, he was heavily involved in the greater community, served on several advisory boards, gave much of his time to social service in the High Country and served a term as moderator for the Three Forks Baptist Association.

Between 1955 and 2012, he served as pastor at area churches including Baptist Home, Pine Mountain, Elk Knob, Zion Hill, Pleasant Grove, Bristol of Jefferson, Proffit’s Grove, Poplar Grove, Old Fields, Rutherwood, Friendly Grove, Setzer Creek, Meat Camp and South Fork.

Today, he travels to preach at various churches across the High Country. No matter where he is, one thing remains unchanged:

“I just enjoy turning loose and preaching the gospel,” he said.

Herbert and Jean often enjoy revisiting the churches they’ve called home over the years. Those congregations are their family, and they’ve got family all over town.

“We enjoy the smiles and the hugs from the people,” said Jean. “They seem glad to see us, and we’re glad to see them. It brings back old memories.”

The McCoys have seen many changes in the world over time, and, as they look toward the future, Herbert maintains that our nation is in desperate need of a spiritual awakening.

“People don’t frown on sin like they used to, but I still see some people who are excited about what Jesus has done and what He is doing. There’s so much apathy and complacency. People need to realize that there’s a heaven to gain and a hell to shun,” he said. “That’s putting it bluntly, but it’s facts. It would be hard for me to believe in a literal hell if the Bible weren’t so plan about it; but since the Bible is so plain, just as sure as there’s a heaven, there’s a hell.”

That’s why, as long as he lives, he will never stop sharing the good news.

“Still, I preach and lead people, minister to them. The gospel doesn’t change,” he said. “The methods of carrying the message may change, but the message doesn’t change.”

On being honored by the community at the upcoming pastor appreciation ceremony, the Rev. McCoy said:

“It’s a good feeling and I’m grateful. My greatest reward will be when I can stand before Jesus and hear Him say, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

He sees this recognition as an opportunity to share at a greater level his life’s philosophy:

“Work and manage as if you’ll be here a long time, but live, serve and worship Jesus as if you know you’ll meet Him any hour,” the Rev. McCoy said with a smile on his face. “Now, you can’t improve on that philosophy.”