Members of Hardin Baptist Church in Hardin, Ky., often joke that they can’t decide whether their pastor, Ricky Cunningham, is a farming preacher or a preaching farmer.
Ricky can easily settle that debate.
“At my core being, I’m a farmer who God has called to preach,” he says. “I would never give up the church and go back to farming as a livelihood, but God didn’t take that farming desire away from me. So I believe I’m a preaching farmer.”
As pastor of Hardin Baptist for the past 26 years, “Brother Ricky,” as he’s affectionately known, has successfully melded the work of the Lord with a love of the land that was cultivated on his family’s nearby Calloway County, Ky., farm. When Ricky was growing up, his father, Bobby, and grandfather, Garnett, operated a large farrow-to-finish hog operation, grew several thousand acres of row crops, and maintained a beef cattle herd. Ricky had every intention of joining them after high school.
God had other plans.
“I was saved at the age of 13, and by 16, I started sensing that the Lord had a plan for my life besides just salvation,” says Ricky. “I was being called to preach, but I really tried not to listen. I was bound to the land. I wanted to settle down, grow things. I thought I’d have to give all that up to preach.”
Ricky struggled with this spiritual crisis for several years as he continued following an agricultural career path. He was active in FFA, serving as state vice president his senior year of high school, winning awards for public speaking, and earning his American Farmer Degree. He also remained deeply involved in his hometown church, Ledbetter Baptist, but the idea of preaching kept nagging at him. Finally, in 1980, at age 19, he answered that call during a revival at, fatefully, Hardin Baptist Church.
“I said to the Lord that night, ‘If you are really calling me to preach, have the song leader sing ‘I Surrender All’ during the invitation,’” says Ricky. “Well, you know what happened. But I thought that was too easy. So I said, ‘OK, Lord, if this is really you calling me, have the song leader sing the first, third, and fourth verse.’ Well, sure enough, he skipped the second verse and went right into the third. That was it. The next Sunday, I announced I was going to preach.”
Around this same time, Ricky had been putting down roots on the family farm, entering into a partnership with his father and grandfather and marrying his high school sweetheart, Celisa. In making the decision to preach, Ricky says he also made a “bargain” with God.
“I didn’t want to move around like most of the Baptist preachers I had always known,” says Ricky. “I wanted to live here, be near my family, and stay on the farm. I told Him I would preach only if I could pastor a small country church in this area.”
God obviously agreed, and Ricky started out at a 60-member church, Owens Chapel Baptist, where he remained until moving on to Hardin Baptist in 1983. Since the job at Hardin was full time, Ricky dissolved his partnership in the family operation with hopes that he could still farm in his spare time. Fortunately, the church leaders said he could farm as long as he got his church work done.
“Now, I get to farm more than ever before,” says Ricky. “I run the planter and combine for my dad, and I have beef cattle of my own. In the spring and fall, I can work two or three days a week to get the planting or harvesting done and work at the church the rest of the week.”
During his tenure, Hardin Baptist has grown from a membership of about 75 to more than 1,600. The church has outgrown three buildings, and multiple worship services and Sunday Schools have been added to accommodate the crowds.
Balancing his dual passions for preaching and farming, Ricky believes, has been a key to stimulating that growth and helping him garner the support of his congregation.
“The farming mentality just makes me a better pastor,” says Ricky. “I’m always using practical sermons with farming stories to illustrate my message. Even though the majority of our people are not farmers, they either have grandparents or parents who were on the farm, and I think they can relate to that.”
As such, Ricky says his congregation doesn’t mind that their pastor communes with God aboard a combine or tractor. Church members have learned to recognize when he’s been in the field helping his father tend to some 1,000 acres of corn and soybeans or in the pasture working with his own herd of 30 registered Angus cattle.
“If I preach a really powerful sermon, they’ll say, ‘You got to ride the tractor this week, didn’t you?’” laughs Ricky, who, along with his father is a customer of Henry Farmers Cooperative’s Midway, Ky., branch. “When I’m farming, I get more alone time with the Lord, and the congregation can see the difference.”
Not only do these experiences provide fodder for his sermons, farming principles are also incorporated into Ricky’s preaching philosophy. He often uses agricultural metaphors in his ministry, like comparing his congregation to cattle.
“When a farmer goes into the pasture to feed his cattle, he doesn’t just pour the feed and leave,” says Ricky. “He waits until all the animals come up and he checks them. If one is missing, it’s probably sick, hurt, or lost. So I look at Sunday morning as my primary time to feed my people. If I’m giving them good feed, I expect them to be here, and I check to see who is not. If someone’s missing, I want to know why. Are they sick or hurt or lost?”
May marks Ricky’s 27th year at Hardin Baptist, his fears of being uprooted by the ministry unfounded. He’s proud that he and Celisa were able to raise their two children — daughter Kalista and son Kory — in the church, and he’s even prouder that Kory is following in his footsteps as Hardin’s youth minister. Kory and his wife, Katie, also have a son, 10-month-old Crider, making Ricky a grandfather at 48.
“Most preachers start out small and want to go to the big city,” says Ricky. “I never wanted that. I just wanted to stay here. I count it as a privilege to stay in the country and be a farmer that God has called to preach.”