'Authentic Christian': David Helms Combines Intellect, Pastoral Skill
Paul James likes to play tennis on Friday afternoons with his friend, the Rev. David Helms. But there's a problem: Sometimes, little tennis gets played.
"We don't allow playing tennis to get in the way of our theological discussions," says James, who describes Helms as an intellectual who could easily have been a professor at a college or seminary. "We take long breaks to discuss things, and we play tennis in between the breaks."
As the senior minister at First Baptist Church in Southern Pines, Helms is known for his skill and sensitivity in offering support to his congregation and a comforting presence in life-altering situations. As a husband and father, he always has time for his family. As a Moore Countian, he gives time and energy to many community improvement activities.
"By offering each other grace, hope and love in the face of life's challenges," he says, "we are offering one another a shoulder to lean upon. I think that's a good metaphor, both for being a pastor and for life itself."
James puts it more simply. "He's a great minister," he says of his friend. "He loves people dearly. His mind is centered on them."
The son of Julian and Margaret Helms, David Helms grew up in Charlotte. He started his college career at East Carolina University intent on law school and interested in many different fields of study, including philosophy, biology and English. He finally settled on English after a professor told him, "No matter how much you know, if you don't know how to express it, then it will do you little good."
After getting involved with Campus Crusade for Christ, however, Helms began to feel a call to ministry. When considering the ministry as his career, he talked to his home pastor in Charlotte, Carl Baits. He was also influenced by his pastor at college, Jean Adams, a man he calls "a very deep thinker, who challenged you to think deeply about your own faith."
According to his friend Paul James, Helms is quite a thinker himself. The two of them play tennis on Friday afternoons, although the game sometimes takes a back seat.
Helms enrolled in a seminary in Texas after graduating from ECU but later transferred to Southeast Baptist Theological Seminary in the town of Wake Forest. The move had a bigger impact on his life than he might have expected, because it was at seminary in Wake Forest that he met his future wife, Carolyn Dalton.
Carolyn, who grew up in Chatham, Va., was attending seminary to further her studies of the spiritual aspect of healing after studying nursing at a medical college. The two met in the class of a professor known around campus as the "Whispering Prophet," whose monotone lectures on biblical history were notorious for putting people to sleep.
David took a seat directly in front of the professor to keep himself awake, unaware that Carolyn had staked out that same seat for herself the previous semester. When Carolyn came in and saw David sitting in her place, she politely informed him, "You're sitting in my seat." David diplomatically said nothing that day, but the next time they attended the Whispering Prophet's lecture, he turned to her and said, "I prayed to God about sitting in your seat, but he didn't convict me for it."
Carolyn and David married with a semester and a half in seminary remaining for David. Carolyn graduated from seminary in 1982 with a master's degree in divinity and religious education. David graduated in 1983 with a master's in divinity.
In 1999, Helms received a doctorate in ministry from Princeton, having completed a program he called mind-expanding, which required independent research, consultation with professors and attendance at summer programs. In March 2000, David and Carolyn visited Israel with a group from their church and toured biblical sites, led by a professor of Old Testament history.
"I think when you read any piece of literature, including the Bible, you imagine the setting a certain way," Helms says of their Holy Land trip. "When you get to see it, it changes the way you think of it and heightens your awareness."
Carolyn adds: "The intensity of it (Israel) was amazing, both the sights and smells."
In the summer of 1983, fresh out of seminary, Helms took a position as the minister of youth and education at First Baptist Church, and the couple moved to Southern Pines, where their son Eric was born. Eric is now 24 and a graduate of Furman University.
Helms credits John Stone, senior minister of First Baptist at the time, for being a mentor.
"He really taught me how critically important pastoral ministry is," he says. "A large portion of a minister's life is walking with people through major life events they are experiencing, whether it's the birth of a child, a wedding, or when they are hurt, sick, or facing tragedy. It's a privilege to share that with people."
"Southern Pines has been a great place to live for 25 years," Helms says. "It has a lot of amenities most small towns don't have, and it has a lot of interesting people with interesting backgrounds."
At the same time, he is quick to add that there is always room for improvement.
"When we first moved here, we got the impression that it was a little paradise. But there are also large pockets of poverty here. During our first Christmas here, we delivered Christmas presents to a house with a dirt floor. It was very striking."
The Helmses, never ones to see a problem and do nothing about it, have been involved in many community service projects in addition to their First Baptist duties, including Family Promise, the Sandhills Moore Coalition for Human Care, the Moore Housing Partnership, and the Apostles Build.
One of the newest projects is the Barnabas program, which the Helmses were instrumental in starting. Carolyn says the location of First Baptist, which is across the street from Southern Pines elementary, made her ask: "As a church across from a school, how are we involved? What are we doing for the school?"
The Helmses describe the Barnabas program as a "ministry of encouragement" for third- and fourth-graders from Southern Pines Elementary. The name "Barnabas" is biblical, translating to "son of encouragement." After school, students are escorted across the street to First Baptist, where they spend a couple of hours involved in enrichment programs in a variety of subjects, from science and social studies to music and manners.
Students benefit from the personal attention they receive, and also get to play games, make crafts and take field trips. Students and their families are also invited to stay and eat dinner with the church on Wednesday nights.
Katie Roscoe, the minister of preschoolers and children at First Baptist, says that one of the things that impresses her most about Helms is his attentiveness to the children of the church.
"He knows them by name," she says. "He's really interested in the kids and gives them a lot of attention."
First Baptist has experienced quite an increase in growth over the past decade, prompting debate about future expansion.
"Our major focus for the next few years will be to expand our mission ministries both in our community and beyond, helping people in need," Helms says. "We want to continue to allow community groups to utilize our facilities, as we have in the past and are currently doing."
The growth of First Baptist, he says, will not be centered on building a new sanctuary, although that was a proposal in the long-range plan. "We don't envision First Baptist becoming a mega-church, and we'll give more emphasis to starting new churches in the way we partnered to start First Baptist Pinehurst."
Roscoe describes Helms as "the most authentic, sincere Christian I think I've ever known." The most impressive thing about him, friends say, is his sincerity and open-mindedness.
"He's very open-minded," James adds, "although he has particular beliefs that you can't shake him from. He enjoys listening to people as much as he enjoys telling people about things."
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