Much-loved Lexington minister Wayne B. Smith is said to have once joked that his idea of heaven would be riding around in a gold Cadillac with a bag of chocolate covered peanuts.
If God grants such wishes, Smith, 87, might now be the flashiest thing rolling past the pearly gates.
Smith, who for four decades led what is now Lexington’s largest congregation, died peacefully during the night at Sayre Christian Village, said Chuck Lees, a close friend and retired minister.
Lees said Smith attended a preachers meeting Tuesday, and he spent his last day with the people he enjoyed being around most: “his preachers.”
Smith’s son-in-law, Kenny Speakes, who also is a minister, said Smith was at Jessamine Christian Church on Tuesday, and he spoke to a group of ministers for about 15 minutes. Then he came home, went to bed and died in his sleep.
“Wayne always said he wanted to die on the pulpit, and he came about as close as he could,” Speakes said.
In recent years, Smith had some severe health scares.
“Twice, we thought he was gone,” Speakes said. “He told us the first time, ‘Do not pray for me to live; I have a reward to go to.'”
Smith never separated his ministry from his home life, Speakes said.
“The best thing I could say, he was the same in the pulpit as he was out of the pulpit,” he said. “He was a very happy man. Even in the worst of times, he could find something good.”
Smith was known for his generosity and humor, and for being a staunch conservative.
Under his leadership, Southland Christian Church grew from 152 attendees at its first service in 1956 to more than 3,700 by the time he retired at the end of 1995.
It also gave rise to two other congregations, Hill-n-Dale Christian Church and Southern Acres Christian Church.
Today, Southland has campuses on Richmond Road and in Danville and Georgetown, in addition to its main campus on Harrodsburg Road in Jessamine County. Regular attendance numbers 12,000 combined.
“He built that church on love … loving people,” said Barry Cameron, senior pastor of Crossroads Christian Church in Grand Prarie, Texas, who said Smith was a great encourager to him.
“While we mourn his passing, we also celebrate his homecoming in Heaven today,” said a statement posted on the Southland Christian Church website. “He ministered to thousands of us in Central Kentucky and all over the world. With a bucket of fried chicken and his infectious laugh, Wayne represented Jesus through his years of faithful service at Southland. We’ve all been profoundly impacted by his ministry and are grateful to have known him and loved him.”
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray called Smith “a great friend and ambassador for Lexington.”
“He was a valuable advisor and spiritual leader,” Gray said in a statement. “His way of bringing calm and humor to a situation was always appreciated. I’ll always cherish our friendship.”
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also praised Smith: “A compassionate man of God, he leaves behind thousands of friends and former congregants of Southland Christian Church who will always remember his unshakeable faith, kind heart and generous spirit. Our prayers and condolences go to the Smith family in their time of grief.”
Smith was married for 63 years to Marjorie Smith, who died in November 2014.
Smith, whom humorist Carl Hurley called “America’s funniest preacher,” was known for his quips and anecdotes and was often referred to as “the Bob Hope of the ministry.”
He had a down-to-earth, disarmingly friendly demeanor and was known for bestowing buckets of chicken and Old Kentucky chocolates on seemingly everyone who crossed paths with him.
Bob Russell, one of Smith’s dearest friends and former pastor at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, wrote in December of Smith’s generosity.
“If you measure wealth by friends, Wayne Smith is probably the richest man in Kentucky; plus he’s stored up a lot of treasure in heaven,” Russell wrote. “That’s the most secure place in the universe. And the Lord hasn’t charged him a dime for the rental space.”
Smith did not shy from taking public stances on issues: Sunday liquor sales, merchants who opened their stores on Sunday, abortion, coed dorms at the University of Kentucky and X-rated movies, among others.
In 2006, he took the Kentucky Board of Education to task for a plan to add B.C.E. and C.E. (Before Common Era and Common Era) to the traditional terms B.C. and A.D. in school curricula.
The following year, he railed against expanded Sunday alcohol sales.
Smith was asked in a 2005 biography by Rod Huron, The Ministry of Wayne B. Smith: Love, Laughter and Leadership, “If you were not a conservative, what would you be?”
Smith answered, “Ashamed!”
By the end of 1995, when Smith decided to retire, he already had undergone open-heart, back and knee surgeries. He said the church needed “a younger man” to lead it.
His congregation feted him with a going-away event that drew 7,000 people to Memorial Coliseum.
The Herald-Leader editorial board, with whom he had frequently butted heads, wished him well, saying, “Smith did something in the last 40 years that’s rare. He built a community. In a time when neighbors speak less and life has become fragmented by work and worries, Smith created a place where a large number of people found safe harbor.”
Despite enduring the health problems that limited his ability to get around, Smith remained a visible part of the community in retirement.
He was frequently asked to fill the pulpit at churches throughout the country, and he became sought-after as a motivational speaker for businesses.
He compiled books of his work, titled Treasures from My Basement and Convention Sermons.
He regularly attended water aerobics and continued to frequent his favorite haunts, including Donut Days on Southland Drive.
Smith also loved living at Sayre Christian Village, where he would ride up and down the halls on a motorized scooter.
“I said, ‘Wayne, there’s got to be a speed limit on those things,'” Speakes said. “He just laughed and kept on going.”
In September 2014, he set out to raise $89,480 for a renovation of the church of his youth, Delhi Church of Christ in Cincinnati. The response, which came mostly in the form of checks sent through the mail, was more than $130,000.
“I really feel as though I’m going to be leaving here soon,” he said at the time. “This is my last hurrah.”
Smith was born in Pennsylvania but grew up in Cincinnati.
He graduated from Cincinnati Bible Seminary, but he was always self-deprecating about his academic abilities, saying that writing sermons was the hardest part of his job.
He did not type, but instead hand-printed his sermons, sometimes getting up at 3:30 on a Sunday morning to put the finishing touches on a lesson.
Before coming to Lexington, he led churches in Grant and Harrison counties, including Robinson Christian Church, where he first met Marjorie; Stringtown Christian Church; and Unity Christian Church.
A chapel on the campus of Cincinnati Christian University and a building at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson were named for him, as is Wayne’s Boulevard, one of the main roads in the Firebrook subdivision.
In January, Lighthouse Ministries dedicated its new dining hall to Wayne and Marjorie Smith.
One of Smith’s last projects was a book of funeral sermons, which he published with the help of his good friend and fellow retired preacher, Chuck Lees.
Smith dedicated the book to Marjorie Smith, writing “I thank God for His omnipotence. He could have given Marge to another family – in another time – and another place – but He didn’t. He reserved her for me and my ministry, and I became more aware of her influence every day. I’ll see you soon in the morning.”
He is survived by two daughters, Jana Thore and her husband, Tim; Judy Speakes and her husband, Kenny; and their families.