In 2009, decades into his career, Steve Neill got a new opportunity.
He had served as associate pastor at First Baptist Church of Waterloo since 2006, but with the lead pastor returning home to Tennessee, he was asked to take over as lead pastor.
Neill had never previously filled that role, but he accepted.
Now, after over 30 years of ministry, Neill is retiring.
“It’s been a wonderful time,” the 59-year-old Waterloo man said of his most recent decade of work.
Before coming to Waterloo, Neill served in pastoral roles in Collinsville and Peoria after competing seminary in Louisville, Ky.
He and his wife, Sharon, also worked for 10 years in Tanzania, a country in east Africa.
He said that work has informed his other ministry.
“Any time you live out of our country, you get a different perspective on America and cultural values,” Neill explained. “We’re so accustomed in America to our values that we think the whole world thinks the same way we do. Then you go live in a different culture and you realize ‘man, not everybody’s like us, and actually there’s things about them that I wish we were more like.’”
That new perspective has helped Neill through momentous times in his tenure at First Baptist Church of Waterloo.
Perhaps the most visible change at the church was when it purchased the Canterbury Manor senior care facility and turned it into The Beacon, a community and children’s building.
While Neill said that was a highlight of his tenure, it is not what he remembers most fondly.
“The most important times have been as I’ve been able to watch children grow up in our church family and become Christians, give their lives to Christ and become outstanding young adults,” he said. “To me, that’s more important than any building: watching lives change over the years as you serve.”
Neill also pointed to the church’s emphasis on relational outreach ministry, which is when a church goes out in the community instead of asking the community to come to it.
One example of that was when members of the church replaced a roof on a young family’s home without any fanfare or self-promotion.
That work, like much of Neill’s effort with First Baptist Church of Waterloo, came with a challenge as the church worked to find its place in a community with well-established churches.
“We were just doing things to say ‘we’re not here to compete and be one of the big dogs on the block. We’re just here to serve,’” Neill said.
Neill also said it was difficult to come to the county as an outsider, given Monroe County’s culture.
“It’s hard, sometimes, to feel like you’ve been accepted,” Neill noted. “I’ve always felt respected in my roles as pastor, but it’s hard sometimes because you realize you’re not ‘from home.’ So the challenge for me was to get people to be able to see me for who I was and not an outsider.”
He eventually overcame that to the point that the people became his favorite part of being lead pastor.
Neil said he particularly enjoyed working with children.
“My legacy are those kids who are in ministry today, are doing church work today or are on mission today,” he said.
Neil said he will miss the ability to forge those relationships when he retires on July 28.
But those chances will not totally disappear because he and his wife hope to continue living in Waterloo.
In retirement, Neill plans to work as an interim pastor somewhere in the area and coach younger pastors.
Knowing he wanted to do that work, and seeing retirement made financial sense, is why he decided to retire now.
“This just seemed like a good time for us, so that I can spend more time doing interim work and short-term ministry assignments,” he said. “You don’t want to wait too long then you’re too old to do anything. I think this is a good transition time for us, and a good time for the church. I think it’ll be good for them to get a new voice that will help carry them into the next generation.”
Neill also plans to have fun by reading and spending time with his family.
Those wanting to wish Neill a happy retirement can do so this Saturday during an open house celebrating his retirement.
The event begins at 7 p.m. at 718 N. Market Street, with a tribute to Neill’s service at 7:30 p.m.