If you’ve met Laurie but have not yet met her husband, Bill, you’re missing out on one half of a great team! This month, Bill celebrates his 25th anniversary as the Worship Pastor of Sagemont Church! I was honored to interview Bill for our church magazine, so I’m including the article below so you can get to know the man behind the woman. Congrats Bill, and thank you for 25 years of leading us in worship!
Above: Bill and Laurie along with their son, J.J., daughter-in-law, Stephanie, and grandchildren Ezra, Juliette, and Caroline.
Worshiping with Bill Cole
The Early Years
Imagine coming to church and using hymnals every week because there were no large screens on which to project song lyrics. Imagine the choir staying on stage for the entire service, providing an organic backdrop to the sermons in their heavy, green and white choir robes. Imagine four large throne-like chairs positioned in front of the choir for the pastor, the worship pastor and others to sit during the service. And imagine a series of partitions, draped in serious green fabric, lining the stage and adorning the orchestra like a wooly green mustache.
Such was the view from the congregation when 29-year-old Bill Cole came to Sagemont as the new Worship Pastor in February of 1988.
Bill and his wife, Laurie, grew up in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. After traveling for four years singing at concerts and revivals as music evangelists, they settled at San Jacinto Baptist church in Amarillo, Texas, where Bill accepted his first job as a minister of music.
Bill admits that he felt a little overwhelmed in his early days as a music minister. “I was so ignorant,” he said. “I really was. I sat down at my desk on my first day and looked at my secretary, who was only a temp who had been filling in, and asked her, ‘What exactly is expected of me this week?’” She instructed him through his initial learning curve, and in time, Bill settled in to a niche that was clearly suited just for him.
Both he and Laurie fell in love with their church in Amarillo, and had no plans or desires to leave any time soon. When a search committee from Sagemont requested that he send them his resume, he did it more as a reflex than as a plan to follow through.
Members from the search committee flew to Amarillo to observe him lead worship, and he in turn flew to Houston to meet the pastor, visit the church, and become oriented with the Sagemont area. Bill and Laurie were already familiar with Brother John, and respected his reputation for his Financial Freedom seminars and for leading a debt-free church.
They prayed and sought the Lord’s will through the entire interview process, and finally acknowledged in the end that the Lord had given them the freedom to choose between two good decisions: stay in Amarillo or go to Houston. They decided to go.
Settling in at Sagemont
The transition wasn’t exactly easy. On moving day, their two oldest boys, David and Kevin, just preschool-age at the time, both had the chicken pox. Since one of their movers had never had the chicken pox before, Laurie had to keep them separated the entire time. Not an easy task considering she was seven months pregnant with their third son, J.J.
Nevertheless, they made the move to Houston and found a house to rent while they waited for their home in Amarillo to sell. Unfortunately, their house remained on the market for almost 18 months, and they quickly experienced firsthand the church’s reputation for generosity as they struggled through the transition process with the help of their new church home.
In those early days, there was just one service on Sunday mornings, and Bill settled into his new position of leading people to worship through music. In the greater culture of Christian music, names like Bill and Gloria Gaither, Sandi Patti, Amy Grant, Wayne Watson, and The Cathedrals were all the rage in 1988. Because Bill had learned so much from his father-in-law, he mostly chose hymn medleys knit together with a chorus here or there for Sunday morning services.
However, even from the beginning, he looked beyond Sunday mornings and asked what more could be done to lead others in worship. “My philosophy is that the choir needs a project to keep them engaged and growing,” he said. So just a few months after beginning to serve at Sagemont, Bill met with some choir members and the groundwork was laid for the First Annual Southeast Christmas Festival, a tradition that still lives on today, though it has evolved tremendously over the years.
It wasn’t long before the church added a second service on Sunday mornings, and later a third. In order to continue singing in choir but still attend Bible study classes, choir members could no longer remain on stage during the entire service. That change dominoed into others, including retiring the dated and expensive-to-clean choir robes and moving the church leadership from the large chairs on stage to seats in the congregation.
Christian music continued to change as well. More and more congregational music became guitar-driven rather than piano-driven. For a church that didn’t even have a guitarist, obvious adjustments had to be made. As music grew more contemporary, Sagemont worked like many other churches to discover its identity in an ever-changing culture.
The demographics of the church changed as well. With people living longer, the generation gap became a delicate matter to handle. As many as five different generations could potentially be worshiping together in one single service, so while the desire for steady, Bible-based doctrine remained unified, musical tastes and preferences began to vary greatly. “At one point we just decided that we’re going to be mostly contemporary because that’s where our future is,” Bill said.
Bill remembers conducting a survey at one point in which Sagemont members were asked their opinions about the style of music offered at church. The biggest response fell into the “Very satisfied” category. Second to that were the two categories just to either side: “Satisfied, but I could go a little more traditional” or “Satisfied, but I could go a little more contemporary.” There were those who preferred drastic changes to one side or the other, but the survey showed that over 80% were pleased and comfortable right where they were, confirmation that the church was on the right path, musically.
Experience Breeds Wisdom
After 25 years of ministry, Bill has years of experience and wisdom to pass on to the next generation of music ministers to follow behind him. First, make sure you’ve truly been called because if you’re not up for it, there are a lot of easier places to spend your life serving the Lord. Secondly, find a church and a congregation that truly fits your passion and personality, but remain extremely flexible. And thirdly, aside from the message of the Gospel itself, the vocals are altogether important.
The ability to wow a congregation with technology, special effects or surprising moments exists today in ways that it didn’t 25 years ago. “But the gimmicks will only make things better if the basics are good,” Bill said. “The message has to be central, and the vocals have got to work because that’s what drives the message. So if you do nothing but come up on a bare stage with a clean heart and sing a pure song for God, that’s enough.”
Now in his fifties, Bill has expanded the ways in which he appreciates and communicates with God. No longer is it just through music, though his passion still exists for that. But now, he has added dimensions of experiencing God through creation as well. “I just want to love Him in different ways,” he said. And ever since he and Laurie built a home on four acres of land in Santa Fe, his opportunities to worship God through nature have exploded.
“Laurie has an eternity-long list of honey-dos, but I love it. I work in the yard and I’m doing things and learning things I’ve never done before. I’m burning stuff and trying to trap animals and transplanting trees. It’s fun!”
Since Laurie also devotes herself to ministry through the organization she founded several years ago, Priority Ministries, their home provides a place of escape where they can both enjoy some solitude, rest, and renew their souls. “I have tons of stuff to do, and while none of it sounds super spiritual, it replenishes me very much.” He is also an avid reader, and takes advantage of the quiet moments at home to refill his soul in order to pour himself out again at church.
Their three boys all grew up at Sagemont, and are now finding their own places of service in life and in God’s will. J.J., the youngest, is following in his dad’s footsteps leading worship at Neartown Church. Their middle son, Kevin, is head waiter at the restaurant, Houston’s. And their oldest, David, is finishing school and working. David and his wife, Stephanie, have given Bill and Laurie three wonderful grandchildren: Ezra, Juliette, and Caroline.
“Outside of church, I’m Granddad and Farmer Bill. I’m meeting my neighbors and mowing the grass and playing in the pond and growing fruit,” Bill said.
As for what’s on the horizon, it’s hard to say. But Bill admits that he’s a “mountain person.” “If I don’t have a mountain to climb, I get very bored. I like to have a project, and I love to learn to do new things.”
Who’s to say whether the next new thing will be something at church like a never-been-done-before project for the choir or a stretch-them-like-crazy assignment for the praise team, or if it’ll be something at home like raising bees or grafting trees. But my guess, after knowing Bill Cole for the past 25 years, is that it will be a little of both.
Leave a comment to congratulate Bill on 25 years!