From chicken to church

Published 12:25 pm Saturday, July 2, 2016

God — and Chick-fil-A — have had a lot to do with the Rev. Dr. Robert H. Carpenter becoming a pastor and, most recently, as the interim senior leader of Courtland Baptist Church.

The Rev. Dr. Robert H. Carpenter is the senior interim pastor at Courtland Baptist Church. -- SUBMITTED | ROBERT CARPENTER

The Rev. Dr. Robert H. Carpenter is the senior interim pastor at Courtland Baptist Church. — SUBMITTED | ROBERT CARPENTER

At the time of his calling in July 1987, the 25-year-old was already actively involved in a career with the popular restaurant chain. His skill set was such that he was planning on getting his own franchise.

Through a scholarship from the WinShape Foundation, which was established by Chick-fil-A founders Truett and Jeanette Cathy, the Norfolk native had been able to attend Berry College in Georgia.

When he speaks of the Cathys, both of whom he got to know quite well, the warmth is heard in his voice.

Speaking of which, to hear Carpenter talk you can’t tell that at one time he had endured a stuttering problem. But he’s quite candid about the speech impediment. He once referred to himself as a “recovering stutterer,” a condition that developed starting at age 9. The cause of which can be traced to genetics; his mother and grandfather were also stutterers.

Perhaps in spite, or because of Carpenter’s stuttering, God had other plans for the up-and-coming young businessman.

“I felt the calling in my heart, in my spirit,” he said about the pull to go into the ministry instead of a new Chick-fil-A store.

The stuttering issue was, of course, a large part of his reluctance to become a pastor to any Christians. His struggle lasted from the summer to September. During that time, he came across the passage in Exodus about Moses having a very similar issue of being able to speak clearly and authoritatively. But God assured the future leader of the Israelites — and Carpenter — that He would be with each of them. That was when the young man finally surrendered to His will and “stepped out in faith.”

Carpenter even visited with the Cathys to explain what was happening. Being Christians themselves, the couple respected and even encouraged the protege to follow his heart.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without Chick-fil-A,” he said. “They’re like a family.”

Formal education took place at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he’s earned a master of divinity degree in 1992, followed eventually by doctorates in ministry in 2001 and 2007. In the meantime, he even became a chaplain in the Navy for 26 years. Carpenter’s first congregation was Modest Town Baptist Church on the Eastern Shore, which lasted from 1993 to 2006.

“They were very gracious,” he remembered the congregation fondly.

During which, in early 1997, he found speech therapy through the Precision Fluency Shaping Program at Eastern Virginia Medical School, where Ross Barrett is director. In an online published testimonial, he wrote, “Words cannot begin to state how much my life and ministry have changed since I completed the Precision Fluency Shaping Program.”

He added that on returning, both his wife and congregation noticed the improvements.

With that, Carpenter said, “God fulfilled His promise.”

The pastor went on to lead at Talbot Baptist Church from 2006 to 20011, and Wilroy Baptist Church from before coming to Courtland. By the way, his predecessor, the Rev. Tommy Speight, has reportedly gone to Hillcrest Baptist Church in Suffolk.

Carpenter said about his post here, “I feel very blessed to be here,” Carpenter said about his post in Courtland. “God will lead us in the future according to His will.”