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Simpson steps down from First Christian of Middlesboro, Kearns to take the lead

From Sandy Brown -

Astor Simpson / Brian Kerns

Astor Simpson officially stepped down as full-time pastor at First Christian Church of Middlesboro at the end of 2023 – but that doesn't mean he has stopped serving the community.

Simpson sees himself as a servant – not only to God, but to area churches and residents of all ages. He served in a variety of roles before beginning his ministry: Sunday school teacher, assistant pastor and youth leader, as well as bus driver and maintenance man (“janitor, actually,” he says). Before taking on the role of pastor at First Christian, he served as pastor at Northside Baptist in Middlesboro and Mill Creek Baptist in Pineville and as interim pastor at East Cumberland Avenue Baptist, Old Yellow-Creek Baptist and First Presbyterian in Middlesboro, as well as Hossman Baptist and Jenson Baptist churches in Pineville.

Astor, along with his wife, Sally, (high school sweethearts who wed in 1968) began their Christian service in February of 1977. “In 1983 I began to sense the leadership of the Holy Spirit in my life beyond the ministries I had performed for a number of years.”

While teaching a class for elderly women he realized that God had more extensive plans for him. “It was during my work with these beautiful sisters that I knew God had called me into a wider preaching and teaching ministry. Like all young men my presumption was it would be as a pastor of a church. I prayed earnestly but the call never came.”

However, another type of call did come that led to a 35-year career at University of Kentucky's Southeast Community College in Bell County. His teaching career began with a call from an old friend and coincidentally a Church of God minister, Jim Blair, who had previously worked with Astor. The college was searching for a sociology teacher and Blair felt an urge to seek out Astor for the position.

Simpson said “He (Jim Blair), nor anyone else on that committee who knew me, was aware I had a master's degree in the subject. Thus began my teaching career – and at a secular college! I taught both sociology and psychology, returning to receive a master's degree in that as well. It was a glorious 35 years!”

In addition he taught adjunct courses at Lincoln Memorial University and Clear Creek Baptist Bible College where he also served as a student counselor. He also served as campus minister at Southeast for more than 25 years and led the Fellowship of Christian Students for most of that time.

However, this stage of his career didn't begin with a concentrated effort but with acquiescence. “Having prayed for years for a church pastorate, I surrendered. I accepted God's will for my life. In a prayer I exclaimed that I was 'willing to do anything He asked me to do' in ministry.” Blair's call came that very day, an event that Astor characterizes as “quite miraculous!”

Astor, a native of Pineville, spent much of his younger years in Wallins, Harlan County, and up Happy Holler. “The mountains and fields were my joy,” he says. These days he feels most relaxed while working on his farm in Virginia.

Later on the family moved to Detroit, Michigan, where his father worked for Ford Motor Co. Mostly due to layoffs by Ford, the family moved frequently (11 times by the time Astor entered sixth grade). Detroit was a “scary place,” Astor says, and he grew used to being the “new kid.” He graduated from Redford High School in 1967 and from Eastern Michigan University in 1971.

He first worked for the Michigan Department of Education in Research and Development and traveled extensively in the state. Through a grant with the Upper Great Lakes Regional Planning Commission his duties were expanded to include northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. Tiring of the constant travel, he took the position of Grants Coordinator for the Ingham County, Mich., government. The longing to return to Bell County caused him to start a seven-year career with the first Health Maintenance Organization in Kentucky. His next move was to Southeast Community College.

Astor served as pastor for the local church from 2018-2023. “Pastor Astor's passion for proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been demonstrated over the decades as he has touched lives and impacted individuals,” says church elder Mark Woods. “His service to our fellowship has touched many lives and families beyond the walls of the building. For that we are grateful.”

Elder Jane Shaeffer echoes Woods' feelings. “Astor has a passion to help anyone with a need in their life. He has the love of Christ in his heart. He has a pastor's heart.” Shaeffer notes that he helped a lot of students during his time at Southeast Community College.

As for his next step – no surprise – he plans on finding new ways to serve while expanding old ones. One of his plans is for a prayer ministry and though he doesn't have concrete steps yet, he sees the need. “I do feel led of the Lord into prayer more. I am not certain precisely how this might be expressed in the church collectively or if it is simply a calling to my heart personally. All I know is I am looking eagerly for the next steps.” He credits God's leadership in the implementation of several of the church's current ministries: Grief Share, Youth, Chaplaincy program at Bell County Detention Center and the National Parks (summer worship services at Cumberland Gap).

Simpson remains convinced that the goal of the Christian walk with God is service. “Our Lord and Savior declares He has come to serve. We who follow him – how can we possibly be or do anything else? We are to serve Him – and in serving Him to serve others.”

“We achieve success when we follow and serve as He leads. We fail when we do not.”

Brian Kearns officially took over the reins of First Christian Church in Middlesboro at the start of the year and says he is ready for the challenges that come with the job.

“Our leaders are working diligently to make sure we are all pulling in the same direction to identify needs and to minister as the hands of Jesus,” he says. “We purchased our Youth Center building last year where we hope to expand our youth and children’s ministry. We hope to establish a reading program to keep kids reading over the summer while school is out. We are working on upgrades to our main building which makes for a more positive worship experience.”

Brian's dedication to the church began early. “I grew up at the Indian Creek Christian Church in Harrison County, the church my father grew up in. I came to faith and was baptized during a revival at Indian Creek when I was 11. I never dreamed that I would go into the ministry, but God had other plans.”

Brian was born and raised in Cynthiana, Ky., and earned an accounting degree from the University of Tennessee. “After working at a couple of different jobs in Kentucky and Tennessee, I realized my work in the churches we attended was what we enjoyed most and that was making a difference in peoples’ lives. I had no idea of the wonderful people God would allow me to play a part in their lives. What an adventure!”

Brian's decision to enter the ministry also meant a busy time for the couple. “My late wife, Paula, was working on her PhD at the University of Kentucky when I decided to go to Cincinnati Christian University for seminary work. We lived in Danville, I led a youth ministry in Springfield, took seminary classes in Cincinnati, and Paula drove to Lexington every day. We left a lot of notes on the refrigerator door!”

After earning their degrees they ended up in East Lansing, Mich. There they planted the Meridian Christian Church (now 242 Lansing Campus) while Paula was a professor in political science at Michigan State University.

The couple soon expanded their family. “After a few years we adopted our son, Ethan, from Korea. Then, two years later welcomed our daughter, Hannah, into our family. We moved back south to Knoxville to plant Lighthouse Christian Church in Powell.”

"After I concluded my ministry at Lighthouse, I dusted off my accounting degree and worked as a Special Agent for the Tennessee Department of Revenue while I continued preaching on occasion. Neil and Tunie Barry heard me speak and contacted me the next week.

“Neil said their pastor at First Christian had moved to another church. He asked if I would consider filling the pulpit for a few weeks. I agreed and spoke for six weeks. Little did I know that I would be called back to serve as interim pastor another four times before I accepted the role of pastor as Astor Simpson retired at the end of 2023.”

His enthusiasm for his new role is based on part on his history with the local church. “My relationship with the congregation for the past 12 years has been great, as I expect my next 12 years to be!”

Elders Mark Woods and Jane Shaeffer feel that Kearns is a good fit for the church and the community. Shaeffer says that Kearns and former pastor Astor Simpson complement each other. Woods says, “Brian brings a passion for leading others to Christ. His excitement and energy are contagious. He has a focus on praising God through Christ and serving others, as well as helping individuals become disciples of Christ. The tri-state area is most fortunate Brian chose to make Middlesboro his home after relocating from the Knoxville area.”

Kearns recently put his home in Powell up for sale and is in the process of moving to the area. “Middlesboro has many similarities to Cynthiana, so I am very comfortable here,” he says, adding that he is encouraged by the positive mood and reactions he receives from the congregation.

“I feel like I am back home and ready to hit the ground running,” he says. “I can’t wait to see what exciting adventures await. I invite you to come and see with me.”

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