Joe McKeever is a funny guy — and he takes his humor seriously.
A longtime pastor, missions leader and storyteller, McKeever is known across Southern Baptist life for his insightful and witty cartoons and spot-on caricature portraits.
Recounting a vivid memory as a 5-year-old, he said his mother put him and his younger sister at the kitchen table with pencils and paper and told them to “sit there and draw.”
“What she meant was, stay busy and out of my way,” he reflected. “I took her literally and discovered that day I loved to draw. I kept drawing and stayed with it.”
As a youngster, McKeever’s father “would often sit in front of the radio at night after supper, and he would sometimes tell me to get my pencil and paper and draw him because he knew I loved to do this.”
His dad, a coal miner, “was not an artist, but he had a good eye,” McKeever recalled. As he offered suggestions to improve the sketches, the younger McKeever worked diligently to hone his budding artistic skills.
At 16 he signed up for a cartooning correspondence course advertised in a magazine. His older sister “had just finished high school and got a job as a telephone operator,” he remembered. “She said, ‘If you want to take that course, I’ll pay for it, but you have to stay with it.’ It was $10 a month, like for three years.”
As a result of his sister’s generous investment, McKeever said he has been drawing cartoons “pretty much all my life.”
Ministry is top priority
While he values the privilege of sharing his cartoons as a creative ministry tool, McKeever is clear that his primary call is to pastoral ministry.
“Even as a child it seems that I had an awareness that I was supposed to be a preacher,” he recalled. In fact, “Preacher” was his nickname as he was growing up.
Singing in the choir during a church revival service at age 21, McKeever said, “During the invitation, it was like the Lord pulled the curtains back and said, ‘I want you in the ministry.’
“I am a preacher, pastor — six churches for 42 years, director of missions for five years,” he said. “And this being 2022, it means that this December I will have been ordained 60 years to the ministry.”
A proud graduate of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary with both master’s and doctoral degrees, McKeever’s ministry roles have included serving as the pastor of churches in Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Louisiana as well as a five-year stint as director of missions for New Orleans Baptist Association.
Although “I started drawing before I did anything else,” McKeever said, “I’m mostly a pastor. I want people to know, ‘You don’t have a comedian as your pastor. You’ve got a God-called, heaven-anointed man of God as your spiritual leader. Along the way, as a secondary ministry, I will be drawing people.’”
Building personal relationships
Describing himself as a sketch artist, McKeever has mastered the technique of drawing quick, cartoon-style caricatures as mementos in a variety of settings, from convention exhibit halls to school assemblies to wedding receptions.
“As a pastor, wherever I went — hospital rooms, sick rooms, children’s classrooms — I drew people,” he said. “Sometimes I gave lessons in drawing.”
When speaking to students and other groups, McKeever often uses caricatures to build rapport with his audience. After he spends time drawing people and briefly connecting with them, “when I get up to speak, I have their undivided attention,” he said.
McKeever’s “big break” came in the 1970s when The Alabama Baptist started publishing his cartoons. Since then his work has appeared in most state Baptist papers across the nation as well as The Baptist Paper, Baptist Press, denominational magazines and other publications. He also has had several volumes of cartoons and ministry books published.
Another highlight for McKeever was when the International Mission Board invited him to travel to Singapore to work with missionaries and draw an evangelistic comic book for teens. More than 10,000 copies were printed and distributed by churches in Singapore as they sought to lead young people to faith in Christ.
Among many recognitions, McKeever was honored with a distinguished service award by New Orleans Seminary in appreciation for his ministry to the storm-ravaged region in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He also recently donated his extensive archive of cartoons, sermons and other writings to the seminary library.
Living happily ever after
Officially retired since 2009, McKeever remains actively involved in ministry while “living happily ever after” with his wife, Bertha. They met several months after each of their spouses died and got married the following year. They have authored two books together, one on grief recovery and the other titled, “Sixty and Better! Making the Most of Our Golden Years.”
Pondering why he keeps sketching people wherever he goes, McKeever wrote a few years ago on his website, joemckeever.com: “It’s a wonderful little gift I can give to people. It’s just using what I have to glorify the Lord.
“I’m not a cartoonist who preaches. I’m a preacher who sketches and draws cartoons,” McKeever asserted. “The priority is always on God’s call to preach the Word.”
On that point, Joe McKeever definitely is serious.