That was 14 years ago. Wheless retires this month from the association, which has grown to seven full-time employees.
It’s not just a difference in numbers. The jobs represent new priorities in outreach, missions and service, Wheless said.
“We hired a campus minister, a full-time director at the Broad Street Ministry Center, a full-time director for our dental clinic,” he said. “All of those people are involved in ministry.
“When I came here, the association was a program-driven association. We changed that. We’re a ministry- and missions-driven association today.”
Wheless, who turns 68 in January, will have spent 15 years with the association as of May. At the end of December, he will step into a part-time role until a new director of missions is found in the spring.
“I’m healthy,” he said. “I’d like to retire when I can still enjoy life a little bit.”
Before Augusta, Wheless was minister of education and administration at First Baptist Church of Statesboro, Ga., for 15 years. He grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., and attended New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Wheless says he plans to stay in Augusta. He’ll continue to preach in local churches, as he has from time to time as director of the association. He’ll also likely accept a job at one of the association’s smaller churches, but says no decision has been made yet.
“My wife told me I can’t retire ‘from.’ She said, ‘You’ve got to retire ‘to’ something,’ ” Wheless said with a laugh. “I want to do something with my time.”
A seven-person committee is tasked with finding the association’s new director of missions. After training by the Georgia Baptist Convention, the team will gather résumés, pray over the group and divide candidates into groups. The team chooses five names from the top group to investigate and pray over. Once the group has been narrowed to a single candidate, the selection is presented to the association. Wheless says 300 to 400 people will attend and vote on the candidate.
“It’s a very intense process,” he said. “They ask you a lot of questions. You have to be neutral politically, but solid in your theology.”
In his time with the association, Wheless said he saw himself as a resource for other pastors. The association provides training, counseling and conflict mediation and starts new ministries and churches.
“Don has done a phenomenal job,” said Bill Marlette, the associate pastor for education at Curtis Baptist and the moderator of the association. “He’s a great guy and I hate to see him leave.
“The fact that he’s been here for 14 years, in ministry that’s quite an accomplishment in itself. It tells you a lot about his character.”
Under Wheless’ leadership, four black churches entered the association. Previously there was none.
In his years with the association, Wheless has seen 11 new churches start.
Some took risks. The Church at Greenbrier opened in a movie theater. Iglesia Bautista Cristo Vive holds its services entirely in Spanish. Hope International was recently launched inside the Broad Street Ministry Center, which was itself a ministry created under Wheless’ leadership.
“Don has always been focused on ministry, especially joint ministry efforts,” Marlette said. “He believed in working together.”
The ministry center was launched seven years ago and offers Bible study, a food pantry, coats and blankets, adult literacy training, Vacation Bible Schools, Thanksgiving meals and Christmas assistance to families in need.
It also houses the Hope Dental Clinic, which offers dental care to uninsured adults.
It’s a powerful example of what happens when churches work toward a common goal, Wheless said.
“It gives us a chance to work together to have a greater impact on our community,” he said. “There is strength in numbers. We can do things together that we can’t do individually. The association taught me that.”