Before he could drive, Everett Gossett settled on his life's work.
By the time he was 15, he knew he wanted to be a pastor.
"I've always been an avid reader," Gossett says. "I became interested in the ministry [from various books he read and experiences he had], and it became apparent to me that's what God was calling me to do."
More than six decades later, the longtime clergyman has decided to retire from the pastoral ministry. The last 47 of those years were spent as pastor of Red Bank Presbyterian Church, only his second stop in the profession.
"I never dreamed I'd be in one church all these years. The Lord has blessed it," says Gossett, who plans to stay on until a new pastor is elected.
Evidently, there was mutual admiration. Churches don't keep pastors they don't like for nearly five decades.
Gossett says he was raised in Tiftonia, amid a bunch of cousins, encouraging and generous neighbors, helpful school teachers, dedicated Bible teachers and youth leaders like Margaret Thompson and inspirational pastor Willard Peak.
"I made it known that I felt the Lord was calling me to [ministry]," Gossett says, "and people were always real helpful to me."
At Central High School, then on Dodds Avenue, Gossett was president of the Bible Club for two years.
"We conducted the morning devotions in the auditorium," he says. "They gave us the organ, the piano -- whatever we wanted to use. We had big crowds. In the last year, there was a spiritual awakening. The Lord just blessed what we were doing."
Imagine such a voluntary gathering happening in a public school today. Just imagine, though, because a variety of barriers would prevent it.
Gossett graduated from Central in 1954 with two students who also went into full-time ministry -- J.N. Howard, pastor of Signal Mountain United Methodist Church, and Thomas Miller, who retired as managing director of the Southern Baptist Annuity Board's public relations division.
Gossett graduated from the University of Chattanooga in 1958 and from Columbia Theological Seminary in 1961. His first pastorate was Calvary Presbyterian in Elberton, Ga. In 1967, he was called to Red Bank Presbyterian.
Unlike Gossett's fellow Central pastor grads, who have had various posts in their respective denominations, he has stayed put. There are advantages to that, he says.
"You know the families, their background, their roots, their needs," he says. You have the opportunity to serve "several generations."
It's also forced him to stay on his toes. Unlike other pastors, who can preach a sermon a second time at a new church, he has to be fresh.
"You don't get too dry," he says. "You have to read constantly."
During Gossett's tenure, the Red Bank Presbyterian sanctuary has been remodeled twice, a Boy Scouts program grew and thrived, adjacent homes were purchased for congregation use, a parking lot was built and a Chinese congregation was invited to share the church's space.
Among the highlights of his time there, he says, were World Missions Conferences in which scores of missionaries inspired members with their work in various fields and the Scout troop, in which strong adult leadership influenced boys for more than 40 years.
One rough patch, Gossett says, came in 1983 when the congregation voted to leave the Presbyterian Church in the United States and join the more conservative Presbyterian Church in America.
"It was very difficult," he says. The membership was "strongly in favor. I don't have any regrets."
Gossett, whose wife, Shirley, was beside him throughout his ministry until her death in December, also has seen times change from the days when he felt free to go through the neighborhood at night, knock on doors and meet people.
"I don't feel that freedom anymore," he says. "I guess [people] are afraid. It's a big change. I know other ministers feel the same."
Over the same period, many churches, including his, also have seen a drop in Sunday school and worship attendance.
"The nation has become more and more secular," Gossett says. "All kinds of things confront the church today, and these things have had an effect. And people travel."
Overall, he says, "they're not as committed, I guess."
Still, Gossett says he can recommend the job to his successor.
"It's a lot of work," he says, "but it's been a wonderful experience."
Contact Clint Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to my posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.