He mostly smiles. His hands move to emphasize syllables, maybe touching his chest when he says the word heart while always talking from it.
It’s how Tracy Cook comes across one-on-one and behind the pulpit, something the congregation at First Assembly of God might say if you ask about him, their senior pastor. He’s genuine, right down to the “God bless you” after a sneeze.
Continue to ask more about Cook and members might share something else: He was the first baby to be diapered inside the new nursery at the church on North Seventh Street, where members proudly talk of the roughly 26 ministers and 17 spouses of ministers who have come from their church, a fact that has earned it the nickname “the pastor factory.”
This fact from church history is small next to the decades that Cook has been part of the church, so rather than it turning his face red when somebody makes it fodder for jokes, he does the same.
You never know whose diapers you’re going to be changing, he’ll tell them. “If you like what I’m doing, you raised me right, and if you don’t you should have done a better job,” he sometimes tells them.
Much truth is said in jest, but he’s doing much more than an average job. How he interacts with the members and the way his emotional sermons lead the congregation erases any doubts about his sincerity. Especially how he knows people and the way people know him.
If churches are often compared to families, the shared jokes and memories make the comparison more than abstract. Most certainly, the long-standing relationships make the pastor-member bond more intimate.
Just like some of the nearly 40 others around his age, Harvey Maupin, can remember Cook’s youth when the community was raising him on God. “I’m just like his father. I love him just as much, always have, since he was a baby,” said Maupin, who works as a board member with Cook.
For Cook, it was the same way with Maupin and with others. “When they were part of your spiritual fabric and upbringing, you have a connection there that just supersedes even a lot of your own family relationships. I felt very close to a lot of them, very close,” Cook said.
Especially with one couple who attend Cook’s services each week, just like he used to watch their services. Charles and Mona Parker founded the church in 1944, led it for 40 years and provided a strong example of church leadership for Cook.
Charles Parker recalled that Cook was “spiritually minded” from the beginning.
Cook became involved in church leadership as a teenager, even delivering messages at some Friday night services, Parker said.
Mona Parker saw it as a pattern. “We always knew that God had his hand on him and was going to call him into the ministry,” she said.
After finishing Bible college, Cook worked as a youth pastor for 11 years at two different churches. The experiences were important, Cook said, to seeing different things and developing his ideas of how he should be as a pastor.
Church members strongly believe that God brought Cook back under their roof. Maupin puts Cook’s position into their church’s perspective. To begin with, he explained, this church finds direction through prayer and that God provides them with what they need.
“God spoke to me and said we need Tracy, that he was the person we needed to build this church back up,” Maupin said.
Gerald Burns, who came to First Assembly right around the time Cook did, noticed how the church is growing.
“Pastor Tracy came here and it’s like God wants us all back here,” Burns said.
They don’t deify him, as one member phrased it, but the congregation does feel strongly that he is the man for the hour at their church. They did vote unanimously for him to become the senior pastor.
Being the spiritual leader carries a great weight of responsibility for Cook, and there’s a lot of stress to create sermons week after week and to make them relevant to God’s work.
“For this time and this place, this is where I am supposed to be and I think I’d be miserable if I wasn’t,” Cook said.
Convinced as Cook is now, from the moment he heard about First Assembly losing its senior pastor in the spring of 2002, it was a difficult decision. At the time he was the associate pastor at Christian Chapel and had been so for nearly four years. He had strong relationships with the congregation and deep loyalties to the leadership.
But, Cook said, he never lost a heart for his childhood church. The rumors about the church’s decline were made real for Cook when he delivered a sermon in April 2002. What haunted him the most was the quiet and depressed atmosphere after a stream of pastors had left. He counted 45 among the pews – a stark contrast to the 250 of yesteryear.
The fulcrum for decision-making was the heat of the summer, as he painted the outside of his new house. With every brush stroke, he said, he thought of the decision: Should he take the job? Was he ready to be a senior pastor? Would leaving even be ethical? Should he leave?
Well ... yes, yes and yes. Cook got the support of everyone from Christian Chapel and returned to First Assembly.
Ever since, he’s been busy. With friendships and a homegrown perspective, he was able to accomplish more than other ministers could have done. Knowing the ins and outs of church business and its strengths and weaknesses, has helped him to establish a plan for the church.
Not wanting to be stereotyped as “an eight-track church in a CD world,” Cook has also led projects to refurbish the church. Renovation has been ongoing since he got here, just as e-mail, Web site and video systems have been proposed.
This summer, service numbers have averaged around 150, and it’s not uncommon for a couple of members to join at one time. The church is reopening ministries they haven’t had for a while, such as missionary trips. A new sound system is being installed this month, just in time for the church’s 60th anniversary on the first weekend in September.
Cook has been planning and talking about the event for some time. His eyes light up at the thought of a celebration that will bring together the old and the new of the church, just another way to see his passion for the church.