When Rev. Ken Porter preached his first sermon at the First Baptist Church, he thought he’d probably shepherd the church for a few years and then move on.
He arrived in Gardner on Aug. 2, 1979 and lead his first service at the church the following Sunday. This Sunday, he’ll preach his last sermon as the church’s head pastor and retire. He’ll serve as the grand marshal of the Johnson County Fair Parade on Aug. 2.
“I never planned to be here 35 years. That wasn’t my plan,” Porter said. “That was God’s plan.”
Porter was born in 1949 in Albuquerque, the son of a U.S. sailor who served during World War II and was at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Though he was born in New Mexico, Porter was born to Texans and raised in west Texas.
He attended Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas, and married his high school sweetheart Sylvia in 1970. In his first gig, he served as a pastor in Hardesty, Okla.
“I fully expected my family was going to be moving from place-to-place,” Porter said. And at first, they did.
He served as a pastor in Hardesty from two years, from 1972 to 1974, before becoming the pastor at First Baptist Church in Rolla, Kan.
The church was basically two congregations, Porter recalls. There were newer members who wanted to grow the church, and founding members who wanted everything to remain the same.
“It was really hard,” he recalled. “The new one split off. The old one died.”
It’s a cautionary tale.
Many churches face the same struggle, Porter said. The older members want to worship with traditional hymns. While newer members enjoy a more rocking church service.
“I like them both,” Porter said and the First Baptist Church now has two services, one with a more traditional worship service and one features a more modern-worship style.
Rolla sits on U.S. Highway 56 and the Santa Fe Trail. The Porters would stay for five years, until 1979, but their growing family would call the Santa Fe Trail home for the next 40 years.
When they arrived in Gardner in the summer of 1979, Ken and his wife Sylvia were the parents of two children – Jessica and Jason.
“We probably thought our family was done,” Porter said.
But again, God had other plans.
When they were first married, Porter told Sylvia he wanted three children. However, Sylvia said they shouldn’t have an odd number of children.
“When I said we should stop at two, she said the last time, I’ll just have twins,” Porter recalls.
The twins, Jonathan and Joshua, were born in 1984.
“Those boys were a gift from God,” Porter said.
All four of the Porters’ children completed their entire schooling in the Gardner Edgerton School District. The church home on Washington Street is the only home his family has ever known.
However, Porter and Sylvia recently moved to Olathe.
“I told everyone from my congregation, don’t you dare tell my cul-de-sac (neighbors) that I’m a preacher,” he said.
People treat you differently, when they know you’re a minister.
Porter recalls playing golf with a member of his congregation and two other men he was meeting for the first time. They played the first nine holes, and then his friend told the other players about Porter’s profession. The men apologized for anything they may have said that might have been offensive.
“I know you don’t respect me more than God,” Porter remembers telling them. “No matter what I heard from your mouth, God hears everything. If you change it for me, that means you respect me more than God.”
Porter tries to meet people where they are.
“In the church, you have baby Christians. You have toddlers, teenagers – they’re teenagers spiritually – then you have mature Christians,” he said. “I don’t see people as false or genuine. I see them where they are in their development and ask is there something I can do along side them to help them grow.”
Porter said he’s proud of some of the changes First Baptist Church made in the 1990s.
Then, they decided to focus on developing ministries, rather than concerns about church structural leadership.
For example, they started a card ministry, sending cards to members’ family and friends who lived away and who needed a lift.
“The people receiving cards, they would stop in town and go to church,” he said. “That was a ministry… I think churches need to be organized around ministries instead of boards and committees.”
Porter also felt blessed when all of the churches in the community would do things together. He had a special friendship with Charles Ashmore, the former pastor of the Gardner First Presbyterian Church.
The local ministers worked to assist the Gardner Multi-Service Center and to provide church services at nursing homes in the community. Porter also cherished his friendship with former Police Chief Kenny Francis and served as chaplain of the Gardner Police Department.
While he’s eager to retire, Porter admits there are some things he’ll miss. He isn’t going to attend church at First Baptist for awhile to allow the congregation to get settled with new leadership.
“I’ll miss the people,” he said. “They’re kind of my family.”