By Brian Koonce
VIENNA – If anyone has ever earned retirement, it’s Cellis Crum. But don’t tell him that.
“A winner never quits and a quitter never wins,” he said. “I believe that. Well, the Lord called me to preach, he didn’t tell me I was to one day retire. It makes me sick when I hear people talking about retiring from the ministry.”
At 83 years old, Crum has been preaching for 65 years – longer than many pastors have been alive. Crum has been the pastor of Spring Valley Baptist Church in Henley for 35 years, but his health makes the hour-long drive from his home in Vienna difficult.
He was diagnosed with cancer in 1985, and told he had two to three years to live. Twenty-four years later, he is battling a new round of prostate cancer that is taking more of a toll on him. Over the past three years, he’s had 42 radiation treatments.
Various preachers have been filling in for Crum at Spring Valley, but when he learned the pastor of Little Flock Baptist in Vienna was going to be gone Dec. 13, he was eager to step behind the pulpit less than three miles from his home, even though he was feeling a little bit dizzy that morning and asked two deacons to sit behind him just in case.
Little Flock is Crum’s home church. It was here that Crum preached his first sermon in 1943 at 17 years old. It was at Little Flock that his alcoholic father came to Jesus. He was saved at 12 years old at a brush arbor meeting not far from here and was called to preach at 13, but said he ran from that call.
When he finally relented and stepped behind the pulpit for the first time at Little Flock, his first sermon was from Luke 15, the prodigal son.
“I ran from God until I was 17,” Crum said. “I wasn’t really bad or nothing. I was a good boy, but I was still running from the Lord. Then one day I was plowing the fields and felt God speaking to me. I stopped the team, sat down on the plow beam and started reading the New Testament. I knew I’d never be happy unless I obeyed. You can preach and preach and preach on the prodigal son.”
From there, he sold a few cattle to get some money, then hitchhiked around Missouri preaching wherever he could.
Crum met his future wife, Edith, a school teacher, in Bolivar at an association meeting. As of Dec. 22, they have been married 64 years. Together they’ve ministered in several churches throughout Missouri. They have two daughters and a son who pastors in Virginia. Crum worked for Union Electric at Bagnell Dam for 33 years running jackhammer and climbing polls, which would make him a bi-vocational pastor, a title he didn’t even know he had until someone told him 12 years ago.
“I don’t need a fancy title. I’m just doing what God told me to do,” he said. “Hard work never hurt anybody.”
“He just a good old country preacher,” said Dennis Manley, director of missions for Miller County Baptist Association. “Folks love him, and he loves them. You just can’t help but love him. Give him some bib overalls and a Bible and he’s all set.”
What’s his secret? Besides “quitters never win”? Crum said it’s keeping the message simple.
“Too many people have programs going but they just don’t get out there and tell people about Jesus,” he said. “My message is always going to be Jesus. He’s the same Jesus that saved me back then that He is today. If the church forgets its mission, it’s just like the leaves falling off of a tree. It’ll just wither away to nothing.”
“He shares Jesus with everyone he meets,” said Carl Shelton, a member at Spring Valley. “Most of all, he shows a lot of love toward everyone he meets. Both he and Edith do that. He tells everyone he meets about God and His love. Even when he’s at the doctor’s office, he’s sharing about Jesus. That’s the way he’d like to die.”
Back at Little Flock, the pianist asked Cellis if he had any particular hymn he’d like the congregation to sing before preaching.
“We’ll Work ‘Til Jesus Comes” was his immediate reply.
“I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be living,” he said. “But I’m going to be working ‘til Jesus comes.”