By RENEE FITE
Friends who knew Neal Dillard in high school might be surprised to know he’s a pastor today.
In his younger days, Dillard was a poor public speaker.
“When I had to give a speech in class, I’d open my mouth and my legs would shake so bad nothing would come out,” he said.
In 1988, he answered the call to serve God. Today, he is pastor of Etta General Baptist, after serving as pastor at Dry Creek Baptist, near Caney Ridge, for 24 years.
“My family said, ‘he must be called of God, because he couldn’t do it on his own,’” Dillard said. “And they’re right, I can’t do it on my own. God has to do it.”
The Lord called me, Dillard explained.
“It may seem strange to some people, but I was sitting in church and knew God was speaking to me,” he said. “I was what you call a miserable Christian. I realized there were things I was putting first before God.”
When people called needing help, he would make excuses.
“God showed me what kind of Christian I was, and I started putting the Lord first, being faithful and going when people called,” Dillard said. “After I began to put him first in my life, it changed.”
Dillard began having dreams of preaching, waking himself up spreading the gospel. He realized then God was calling him. Dillard said God also showed him the first church in which he would preach – Hickory Flat in Knob Hill, Ark. A friend invited him to a service, and Dillard shared that he’d been called to preach.
“I was invited by a youth to come back the following Sunday and preach at their youth service,” he said.
Then the Baptist Association asked him to come preach to their youth at Camp Robertson in the summer.
“On the third night of the camp, I gave an invitation and 43 kids came to the alter and were saved,” he said. “That’s when God told me, ‘that’s what I kept you all these years for.’”
Neal grew up in Stilwell, and his wife, Billie, is from Welling. They married in 1977 and will celebrate their 35th anniversary in November. They’ve always enjoying singing gospel together. Billie sings and Neal is the musician.
The Dillards have performed with their daughter, Deanna, who plays the piano, and Arnold Briggs, who plays lead guitar, for 18 years. Their “adopted daughter” Leslie Dallis, who grew up with their daughter, still performs with the group occasionally.
Sometimes he evangelizes, visiting other churches.
“We celebrate birthdays quarterly with a luncheon after church,” he said. “We don’t have Sunday evening church, and that leaves me free to go to other churches to sing and preach.”
Billie is more than his singing partner, he said.
“You’ve got to have a good wife to go as much as she and I go,” he said. “I put God first and I have to do what God has called me to do.”
Salvation is the message he shares through music. No one is born a Christian.
“You must be born again and you’re led to Christ through the spirit,” Dillard said.
“So you’re saved; you get born again. The Bible says all have sinned. God kept me until I got back in his grace. I’m thankful for that. Jesus said ‘no one comes to the Father but by me.’ So, Jesus leads us by the Holy Spirit, like myself, or any who’ve been born again, when they hear the message and the spirit calls to them.”
The biggest thing as a pastor and preacher is to preach the word, Dillard said.
“As a preacher, you have to have compassion for people and want to see people saved,” he said. “I rely on what the Holy Spirit feeds me, and I study a lot.”
Many times, he’s gotten up to speak and God gives him a message, or he’ll change the message.
‘And he always gives me the scripture to back it up,” he said.
The church meets Sunday mornings at 10 a.m. for Sunday School, and 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. for church. Bible study Wednesday evenings is open for everyone to share their thoughts, Dillard said.
“I ask for testimonies. I like to hear what God has done for people,” he said.
“A lot of times, God has blessed somebody and they’re just waiting to share about miracles of healing, how God kept them safe from something bad or an accident, how God supernaturally stepped in and helped them physically or financially.”
Dillard believes there are two kinds of preachers.
“[There are] those who God has called, and those who appoint themselves,” said Dillard. “I’m the kind God has called.”
His favorite story in the Bible is about a woman who had an issue with her health.
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