(T-G Photo by Tracy Simmons)
In the mid-1990s, the transportation department was actively recruiting drivers, whose rate of pay at that time was about half of what it is today. Tim Fleming was supervisor of transportation and hit upon the idea to hire local pastors as drivers.
"They were hard up for drivers," said Loyd Warren, a pastor at Victory Baptist Church. "Tim Fleming was my Sunday School teacher, and he figured with pastor's schedules they could drive as well."
Joe Thompson of Southside Baptist was another early recruit, and says one of the favorite questions he gets from students is, "Do you have a real job?"
Jimmy Williams became transportation supervisor a few years ago and appreciates the relationships the drivers build with students, "Their demeanor, their personalities -- they really get along well with kids, and the kids with them," he said.
Steve Murphree of New Beginnings Baptist Church and Jeff Smith of Southside Church of Christ are also part of the roster of minister-drivers.
Each of the men say they regard their second job as a form of ministry. Kenny Jamison of First Baptist Church drives a local route, and often ferries sports teams to and from their away games. "I think that's the best part about it. When I'm driving, when I'm with them at games or on the sidelines, I'm able to interact with them, encourage them."
Randy Williams of Lighthouse Church of God agrees. "We get to meet a lot of students, sometimes their parents too. We get to personally interact with them every day."
There's a downside to the job as well, they say.
"You can think that you are having a really bad day, then you see kids wiping tears getting on the bus -- you don't really know what kind of situation they are coming out of," said Ray Wiser of Berean Way.
"It keeps it in perspective on a daily basis how important what we are doing is."
Discipline problems on a school bus are to be expected, but Thompson says even some of the county's routes most notorious for behavior problems are calmed by the presence of a minister.
"The parents won't allow them to be disrespectful to me because they know I'm a minister," he said. "The parents are at least still teaching kids to be respectful of a preacher."
The drivers each tell stories of being greeted by their passengers while out in the community, though sometimes they aren't recognized for their faces.
Jamison tells of a visit to a local soccer field, where he walked by a group of kindergarten and first grade students from his route. He smiled and waved as he passed.
"All of a sudden all of them they started yelling, 'Mr. Kenny! Mr. Kenny!'" he said. "It's kind of funny how they recognize you from behind."
Each of the men are conscious of their roles in the school system, and are careful to avoid proselytizing the students while on the job. But that doesn't prevent them from praying privately over their fellow drivers and the children in their care.
"I pray every morning for these guys," said Wiser, referring to his fellow drivers.
"Well, I beat you to it, cause I pray every night that all of you show up to work," joked Jimmy Williams.
"We call them 'my kids," said Jamison of the students they see every day.
Thompson agreed, "You've got 90 kids that are yours, you worry about them. I don't dread getting on the bus in the morning. There are always kids on the bus that just make your day.
To these gentlemen, their work is far more than a job.
"We love your kids. We don't just take them to school," Thompson said.