GAFFNEY, S.C. (AP) - Veteran South Carolina Highway Patrol trooper Billy Elder traded in his gun and patrol car for a Bible, pulpit and new church family when he became the full-time pastor of Silica Springs Baptist Church.
Lance Cpl. Elder is a third-generation officer, following in the footsteps of his father, Wayne Elder, and grandfather, Max Wallace. Until earlier this year, Elder served as the community relations officer and Highway Patrol spokesman for seven counties.
"Law enforcement tends to run in families; they say it gets in your blood," Elder said. "I have several cousins who are police officers, an uncle retired from SLED, so it tends to be a family affair. But sometimes God has other plans."
In this photo from Jan. 31, South Carolina Highway Patrol Trooper Lance Cpl. Billy Elder stands inside Silica Springs Baptist Church in Gaffney, S.C. He left his post in February to serve as the full-time minister at the church.
Elder, who was raised in a Christian family, first felt the calling to go into the ministry when he was 29 years old. In 2005, he went to his former supervisor and current Cherokee County Sheriff Steve Mueller with intentions of tendering his resignation to start seminary full time.
"The Lord was dealing with me about preaching, and I actually came in that day to resign from the Highway Patrol," Elder remembers. "My whole adult life, I had been a police officer, but I would think about the ministry before I went to sleep at night and when I would wake up, 2 Timothy 4:1-2 would hit me in the face. It would all but consume me."
The verse states, "In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage - with great patience and careful instruction."
At that time, Mueller was able to offer Elder flexible scheduling so he could attend classes at night and still perform his trooper duties. Often, Mueller said Elder would work three shifts a week to juggle his classes and shifts.
"I was going to school and working and preaching every chance I could get," Elder said. "I would preach in nursing homes, or street preaching, and as I went on, the Lord opened more and more doors."
He would fill in for pastors and started preaching in revival services.
"During that time, the Lord pressed on me that I needed to focus more on pastoring than preaching," he said.
In 2012, Elder received his Doctorate in Ministry from Andersonville Theological Seminary in Georgia and he began talking with local churches and those as far away as Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
"I was willing to go wherever the Lord opened a door," Elder said.
As it turns out, the door was only five minutes from his house - much to the delight of his wife, Kimberly, and his 10-year-old son, Seth.
In August 2013, the Silica Springs Baptist Church congregation asked Elder to serve as their interim pastor after their full-time pastor left to take a similar role at his childhood church.
"From the minute we walked in the door, we knew the Lord has sent us here to minister," Elder said. "But we never realized how quickly we would become attached to the people here."
The last Sunday in December, the church members asked Elder to become their full-time pastor, and he immediately knew he would accept the call. He then gave the Highway Patrol his notice to leave at the end of February.
"One thing I know for sure is being a trooper is a full-time job, and there's not time to do both," Elder said.
On Feb. 28, Elder left the Highway Patrol after 19 years of service. At 20 years, he could've purchased his state retirement and received benefits, but Elder said he didn't want to put the Lord on the back burner.
"The safest place in the world is in the center of God's will," Elder said. "It's a leap of faith, but it's one that I'm more than willing to take."
Mueller said the paths he and Elder have taken are similar - Mueller left the Highway Patrol to run for the sheriff's post on a leap of faith.
"This is a calling Billy has had for the last eight or nine years," Mueller said. "He has an amazing heart for
ministry, and I'm excited to see him take this leap of faith. He has a lot of years invested in the Highway Patrol, but this is God's calling and I'm proud for him and glad that he'll shepherd the flock of a local church."
Silica Springs Baptist Church on Pacolet Highway in Gaffney has more than 100 people during Sunday services, and people come from Gaffney, Pacolet, Chesnee and Union to attend, Elder said.
"You know, looking back on my ministry and the life of this church, you can see that God had it in mind all along for it to work out this way," he said.
Pastor Bob Finley, the interim pastor of White Plains Baptist Church and a close friend of Elder, said Elder is accustomed to being on-call, but now he has a higher calling.
"I'm telling you, the devil is shuddering that Billy is giving up his patrol car for the pulpit," Finley said. "Billy has a strong commitment to preach the Gospel. He loves the word and studies it and has a real desire to preach."