NAPLES, Fla. (BP) – Where is Naples? That was Hayes Wicker's question nearly three decades ago when the pulpit committee from First Baptist Church in Naples, Fla., contacted him about becoming their pastor.
Today, he knows the answer well as he enters the twilight of a 27-year pastorate that made a God-sized impact on the southwest Florida city and left a legacy of Cooperative Program giving. In mid-January, Wicker, 68, announced his intention to transition gradually out of the church's pastorate and make way for younger leadership to carry the ministry forward. He hopes this approach to transition can become a helpful model for other churches.
During Wicker's tenure, First Baptist has given nearly $9.2 million through CP. The congregation averages more than 3,000 in weekend worship – up from less than 1,000 when he arrived – and told Baptist Press it has forwarded 6 percent of its undesignated receipts through CP for approximately the past 20 years.
"We're a part of the Kingdom, and we're not just our own little congregation here," Wicker told BP. "I believe in our Southern Baptist missions and ministries, and we need to continue to partner. I've always taken seriously that we can do together more than we can do separately."
Ashley Clayton, vice president for CP and stewardship with the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, said First Baptist's commitment to CP has been exemplary during Wicker's tenure, "especially among other megachurches across the SBC."
"Under Hayes Wicker's leadership, FBC Naples has supported SBC missions and ministries, fueled by the Cooperative Program, at a very high level, over a long period of time, especially among other megachurches across the SBC," Clayton said. "Over the past 27 years, this church has been an anchor church for Florida Baptists. FBC Naples has been unwavering in its support of Southern Baptist causes in Florida, North America and throughout world. I am grateful for the high leverage engagement of Hayes Wicker and FBC Naples through their commitment to the Cooperative Program."
When Wicker was approached by First Baptist Naples, he was pastor of First Baptist Church in Lubbock, Texas, which had more than 6,000 members and a television ministry. The thought of growing a smaller ministry in a non-Bible Belt area excited him -- even though staff shortages forced him to do the church's janitorial work himself initially. But Wicker placed a condition on his call to Naples: If the church called him as pastor, he would implement a 25-point covenant.
The covenant included commitments to the Bible as God's inerrant Word, to follow the leadership of Wicker and his staff and to operate by the principles of Henry Blackaby's "Experiencing God" study.
Some thought the covenant would cause First Baptist not to call Wicker, he noted, but the congregation was undeterred. First Baptist called him, and the covenant even attracted a new member, former Richard Nixon aide Charles Colson, who included the covenant in his 1993 book "The Body."
Colson – famous for his Watergate involvement, 1973 conversion to faith in Christ and subsequent ministry – became a key ministry partner with Wicker. Later, Colson developed his book "How Now Shall We Live?" from an eight-week apologetics class he led as an outreach at First Baptist. Colson died in 2012.
As the church grew, it relocated to a 100-acre campus, launched at least five ethnic congregations, began a thriving women's ministry led by Wicker's wife Janet and developed a dual membership concept for believers who spent the winter in Naples and lived elsewhere the rest of the year.
The church also drew a range of celebrity members, including professional golfers, politicians and NFL players. Wicker came to serve in both state and Southern Baptist Convention leadership roles, including president of the Florida Baptist Convention and president of the SBC Pastors' Conference.
But the ministry also had challenges.
Wicker recalled integrity lapses by staff members, an apparently demon-influenced teen in the church and one instance when a church member took Wicker out on a boat and pointed a gun at him in an attempt to influence a church decision. The 2008 recession was another challenge as it hit Naples hard. But First Baptist maintained its commitment to give 6 percent through CP throughout the recession and recovery.
"I'm honest about any of these struggles," Wicker said, "because I just claim 2 Corinthians 1, that I can comfort with the comfort that God has comforted us with."
Florida Baptist Convention executive director Tommy Green told BP Wicker's investment in his community, other pastors and CP has made an impact for Christ.
First Baptist "always has been a model of Cooperative Program giving under Hayes Wicker's leadership," Green said, adding, "First Baptist Naples has consistently contributed through the Cooperative Program. Their gifts have certainly enabled Florida Baptists and the Southern Baptist Convention to do tremendous ministries."
As for the future, Wicker said he is not retiring from ministry and is seeking God's will for his next assignment.
"Psalm 32:8 has been one of my life verses," Wicker said. It teaches God "will instruct me and teach me in the way I should go."