by Kate Asbury Larkin
When First United Methodist Church of Opelika hired Rick Lane as the first full- time youth pastor at the church–and in East Alabama–the median income in the United States was $20,171. The average cost of a house was $83,900. A postage stamp was .20, a Lincoln Town Car sold for around $13,500 and Coca-Cola® had just introduced Diet Coke®. The year was 1982.
Rick was 24-years-old and had been married to his wife, Chona, for three years. He was a recent graduate of Troy (State) University, earning a degree in criminal justice juvenile corrections with a minor in social work, a far cry from the direction he thought his life would take before his senior year of high school.
“As a teenager, I thought I wanted to be a pharmacist or a marine biologist,” Rick said. “Then, the summer before my senior year in high school, I came to the Lord and I went from wanting to push drugs (phar- macist) or a marine biologist to somebody who just wanted to help young men and teenage boys. When I came to the Lord, I really, really meant it and I haven’t been the same since; I fell in love with Jesus.”
Following graduation from Troy, Rick was working as a part-time youth min- ister at a small Baptist church when his childhood friend, Kevin Flannagan, who had moved to Opelika to begin Youth for Christ, told him about the job at FUMC.
Just 17-years-old in 1982, Judge Russell Bush was one of the youth invited to be a part of the selection committee. “I have always been proud to say that I was on the interview and selection committee that hired Rick,” Russell said. “It was obvious that Rick was sent by God to be the youth pastor at First Methodist; it was a clear choice.”
And, without a doubt, a perfect one. It’s the only youth minister FUMC has ever had–and the only full-time job Rick Lane has ever had, too.
Do the math. On November 1, 2022, Rick will celebrate his 40th anniversary at FUMC. Forty years. Four decades. As youth pastor. At the same church. Surely, that’s a record.
“I thought the Lord would probably move me and put me in another place on day,” Rick said. “We’ve had offers over the years, but we’ve never felt the Lord moving us from First Methodist (Opelika), so I’ve always turned them down.”
Now, in 2022, Rick is ministering to his second generation of youth. He raised his daughters, Kerri and Hannah, in his youth program and today, Kerri’s son–Rick’s oldest grandson, Lane–is an active par- ticipant. In the summer of 2023, his grand- daughter, Madison, will move up. Russell’s daughters, as well as all the children of the other teenagers on Rick’s selection com- mittee in 1982, have gone through, or are currently involved with, the FUMC youth program, along with more than 1,000 other teenagers who have been discipled, nurtured, supported and loved uncondi- tionally. At least 10 of those have gone on to have full-time careers in ministry.
So, at 64 years old, what keeps Rick in youth ministry now?
“I think that God just wired me the way I am,” Rick said. “Just to be around teenagers and to love them and to teach them about God’s love. I haven’t ever been called to do anything else.”
A lot has changed over the four decades Rick has served the youth of Lee County, but none more drastic than the tech- nology that is available today. When he started, there were no personal comput- ers, laptops or cell phones. Rick said there were subtle changes over the years, but the birth of the cell phone really changed the game.
“Life was so different pre-cell phone,” Rick said. “There are, of course, good uses, like, for instance, I have a group text to keep in touch with more than 200 youth and their parents every week. But, the social aspect of the cell phone, the negativity–that has been the thing that has really, really taken a toll on our teen- agers. They can access and do just about anything on their phones. It does make it harder to keep them focused.”
But Rick is quick to point out that, although literally everything in the world has changed since 1982, teenagers, them- selves, have not.
“The teenagers now aren’t different at all from the teenagers 40 years ago,” Rick said. “It’s our culture that has changed; if a teenager can make it in life in the cur- rent culture, we should applaud them.”
Rick and his staff spend a lot of their time warning teens about the dangers in the world.
“There is just so much information, so much negative stuff that will hurt them,” Rick said. “I just ask them to be careful and to keep their eyes and their hearts and their minds on the Lord and not get carried away by the things of the world.”
Resources have changed, too. When Rick was hired, his salary was $15,000 and the youth budget was $500 annually (today, the youth budget is $30,000). His ministry began on the third floor of a dated educa- tion building built in 1954; just a hallway with classrooms for youth to hang out and figure out how to make it fun. In 2003, the current education building was completed and a whole floor was designed specifi- cally for youth ministry. When the elevator door opens on the fourth floor of FUMC, guests walk out into the Cross Café, a pop- ular hangout with pool tables and other games, a kitchen, Christian music playing and overall décor that draws teenagers in. Large rooms with comfy furniture and, thanks to Allen Conradi, newly installed, state-of-the-art audio and video equip- ment, make the area ideal for gathering, singing and studying God’s word.
“We wanted that elevator to open into the Cross Café and for the teenagers to just say “WOW!,” Rick said. “And that is exactly what happened. The café has been a won- derful tool; youth have loved hanging out there for almost 20 years. It’s very welcoming and everybody is welcome. It doesn’t matter who they are, what they’re doing in life or what bad decisions they have made; they’re probably not doing anything that maybe I didn’t do in high school, but I don’t care about any of that; we’re just gonna love teenagers because they’re teenagers. I always tell my teenagers that there is only one thing that really bothers me, and that’s when they don’t take care of each other, they aren’t kind or don’t respect other people. If somebody comes into youth group drunk or high, I can handle that, but don’t let me see a group of teenagers talking about somebody or laughing at them, I just can’t stand that.”
Perhaps it’s his love of teenagers–his love of all people, for that matter–that makes Rick Lane so loved and respected.
Over his career, Rick has served with 12 senior pastors at FUMC. I asked two of them the same question and they both answered it the exact same way: What makes Rick Lane so successful as a youth pastor and how has he continued to draw so many teenagers to the FUMC youth group?
Authenticity. Rick is authentic. Genuine.
The Rev. Dr. Tim Thompson, pastor emeritus at FUMC and pastor number 5 and number 8 in Rick’s career, said, “Authenticity is the one word I would use to describe Rick. He is real; there is noth- ing fake about his faith or his love for kids. There’s nothing fake about Rick at all. I mean, he is as genuine and authentic as anybody I’ve ever met in my life. Young people can spot a fake and they know Rick’s not one. There is absolutely no guile in Rick Lane. There’s just not. What you see is who he is. For me, that’s the number one thing I see that has made him so successful for so long.”
The Rev. Dr. Nolan Donald, the current senior pastor at FUMC and the 12th minis- ter Rick has served with, has known of Rick since Nolan, himself, was in high school.
“Having grown up in Auburn, I had heard of Rick Lane long before I ever came to First UMC as the senior pastor. While I had never met him before we moved to Opelika in 2021, his reputation had pro- ceeded him.
I know countless people who were impacted by his ministry and now that I have gotten to know him, I clearly see that all I had heard for all those years was warranted. His faithfulness and self- less service is unlike anything I have seen before. There is simply no way to measure all that God has done through Rick over the last 40 years.”
In addition to ministering to youth in the walls of the church, Rick has spent time with teens at the beach, the lake, pools, water parks, theme parks, ski resorts, choir trips and pretty much anywhere else teens enjoy going. He has introduced countless youth to hunting (all kinds), skiing (water and snow), fishing and missions, both locally, domestically and internationally. He has taken groups to the Henderson Settlement in Frakes, Ken. every summer since 1999 and except for the two years of the pandemic, he has led teams of teens– and adults–to Orphanage Emmanuel in Honduras at least once a year since 2007.
He has attended literally hundreds of graduations, weddings, sporting events, band concerts, school plays and many other activities to show his support and let these young people know how much they are valued.
Everybody who has ever known Rick has a Rick story to tell. Rick time, Lost money bags (plural) that were found, leav- ing on a ski trip with no forecast of snow and waking up to a foot of white powder the next morning; finding an old truck to use to pull a disabled boat out of the water only to learn the next day that the truck had not cranked in more than 10 years.
Rick has no immediate plans to retire, but he says when he does, he will continue in some sort of pastoral care. Whether missions or just visiting and loving on people, Rick knows where his heart is.
It was 4 p.m., so we wrapped up our interview so Rick could get back to the church.
“You know,” he said as he stood up to leave. “I’m just as excited about going to youth group tonight as I was 40 years ago.”
Rick Lane. Authentic. Genuine. In love with Jesus.