CommonCall: Ministry of Grace

Mark Grace, who recently retired as chief mission and ministry office at Baylor Scott & White Health, visits with Santhosh Podimala, triage chaplain at Baylor University Medical Center. (Photo courtesy of Baylor Scott & White)

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When Mark Grace retired at the end of January as chief mission and ministry officer at Baylor Scott & White Health, it marked the end of a career in institutional chaplaincy. But it doesn’t mean Grace will stop serving in what he calls “ministry on the boundaries.”

Growing up as a preacher’s kid, Grace felt a call to ministry early in life and started preaching at age 13. He followed the typical path to the pastorate, earning an undergraduate degree in religion at Howard Payne University and a Master of Divinity degree from Southwestern Seminary.

As a college student, Grace spent three summers on the Rio Grande, working as a student missionary with Texas Baptists’ River Ministry. He points to Elmin Howell, founding director of River Ministry, as a major influence in his life.

“A lot of what shaped my approach to ministry I learned on the River,” he said. “I learned that you meet people where they are, and you go serve them.”

‘Where I needed to be’

With his Spanish skills and educational background, Grace assumed he likely would serve as pastor of a Hispanic Baptist church after graduating from seminary in 1983. But near the end of his time at seminary, personal involvement with the Azle Pastoral Counseling Center pointed him in a different direction.

“I went to Baylor University Medical Center,” he recalled. “I lacked a lot of skills. But I learned the difference between ham-fisted helping and real helping. … After three weeks, I just knew it was where I needed to be.”

Grace felt more comfortable in a setting where he ministered among people of all faiths and no faith and trained others to do so, rather than “moderating a business meeting in a Baptist church.”

“Chaplaincy is ministry on the boundaries,” he said. “Hospital chaplaincy is on the boundaries of science and faith, of the church and the world. I’m not necessarily interested in just doing ministry that’s limited to within the church walls.”

After several years working as a chaplain and as coordinator of chaplaincy ministry, Grace became director of pastoral care and counseling at Baylor. He worked in that role 16 years.

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“I was free to make it up as I was going along,” he said.

‘We can do better’

Along the way, Joel Allison—then CEO of the Baylor Health Care System—talked to him about how the hospital system could do more in terms of its Christian ministry of healing.

“Joel said, ‘Mark, I think we can do better,’” Grace recalled.

That led to the creation of the office of mission and ministry at the health care system and Grace’s appointment as vice president overseeing it. The office coordinates three components—spiritual care to patients, their families and hospital staff; pastoral education programs for ministers and seminary students; and Faith in Action initiatives.

When it launched, Allison outlined a four-fold purpose for the office of mission and ministry:

  • Re-envision ways to strengthen and streamline the health care system’s Christian ministry of healing.
  • Explore new ways to engage and support employees as they live out their faith and values in service to others.
  • Embed mission and ministry across the entire health care system.
  • Partner with other Christian agencies to help meet medical missions needs locally and globally.

Don Sewell, who had worked with the Baptist General Convention of Texas as its director of Partnership Missions, joined the staff to lead the Faith in Action initiatives. Among other ministries, Faith in Action has enabled the hospital system to direct outdated but perfectly good equipment and supplies to medical and humanitarian missions causes around the world.

As Sewell said after the health care system sent a 40-foot container filled with examining tables, hospital beds, stretchers and other supplies to an overseas hospital: “It’s old to us, but it’s gold to some hospitals in other countries.”

Helped shape institutional culture

In his role as chief mission and ministry officer, Grace has helped shape the culture throughout Baylor Scott & White Health.

Mark Grace retired at the end of January as chief mission and ministry officer at Baylor Scott & White Health. (Photo courtesy of Baylor Scott & White)

“Our core commitment is advocating for genuine whole-person care, which I believe is at the heart of the ministry of a Christian healing institution,” he said.

“Sometimes I hear people say (about the health care system), ‘We need to be uncompromisingly Christian,’” Grace said. “I understand what they are saying, but I think we need to be uncompromisingly caring and compassionate.”

Looking at the statistics, he noted, a rising percentage in the general population either claim no religious affiliation or have walked away from the religious traditions they once followed.

“The nones and the dones show up in the hospital every day,” Grace said.

Those individuals are unlikely to respond to someone preaching to them, but they are receptive to loving actions, he noted.

“If the gospel is not there at the worst moments of life for a person, it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on,” Grace said.

Innovation and creativity

During the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing the gospel message of hope to people in crisis has demanded creativity. Fortunately, prior to the pandemic, the health care system already was exploring the potential for telecare and video-based chaplaincy.

Grace has felt comfortable in an environment that embraces innovation.

Mark Grace, recently retired chief mission and ministry office at Baylor Scott & White Health, visits with Karla Ramberger, chief nursing officer for Baylor University Medical Center. (Photo courtesy of Baylor Scott & White)

“You’ve heard of a calf looking at a new gate? I never saw a new gate I didn’t like,” he said.

In addition to ministering to patients and their families, the hospital chaplains have offered spiritual support to physicians and nurses during a time of exceptional stress, anxiety and uncertainty.

“I’ve been amazed at their courage and their willingness to throw themselves into the breach,” Grace said.

Early in his retirement, he plans to take three months off for rest and renewal—and spend time with grandchildren.

After that, he wants to minister among the residents of West Dallas through Iglesia Bill Harrod, where he and his wife Linda were senior pastors eight years before transitioning to pastor emeritus status.

“I love West Dallas,” Grace said of the neighborhood served by Iglesia Bill Harrod—located in one of the region’s poorest ZIP Codes.

He also hopes to do more writing, particularly on the subject of prayer.

“I’ve grown to have a deeper and deeper understanding of the importance of prayer,” he said. “I want to help people understand especially the power of prayer in their lives.”

Read more articles like this in CommonCall magazine. CommonCall explores issues important to Christians and features inspiring stories about disciples of Jesus living out their faith. An annual subscription is only $24. To subscribe to CommonCallclick here.


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