Gabriel Cortés is the chief of staff at Baptist University of the Américas in San Antonio and is a member of Life Church of San Antonio. From deep in the heart of one Texan, he shares his background and thoughts on Christian higher education. To suggest a Baptist General Convention of Texas-affiliated leader to be featured in this column, or to apply to be featured yourself, click here.
Where else have you served, and what were your positions there?
• Church planter in Puerto Rico.
• Pastor of Templo Bautista Emanuel in Fort Worth.
• Associate pastor of Southwayside Baptist Church in Fort Worth.
• Executive and special assistant to the president at Baptist University of the Américas.
• Director of church and alumni relations at Baptist University of the Américas.
• Hispanic ministries strategist, director of the Hispanic Education Initiative and Congreso coordinator for Texas Baptists.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Puerto Rico.
How did you come to faith in Christ?
My father was a Baptist pastor. Therefore, I grew up in the church. When I was 8 years old, I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior at a Holy Week revival. I can still remember my mom’s surprise and joy when she was counseling those who made decisions and realized I was one of them.
I didn’t take my faith seriously until I was 16. My first summer in college, I served as a summer missionary on the island, and at the end of that summer, God called me to ministry while serving at a youth camp.
Soon after, I applied to Southwestern Seminary and came to Texas in 1996, after finishing college and getting married to my wife Maria. We’ve been in Texas ever since, and we love it.
Where were you educated, and what degrees did you receive?
• Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, Bachelor of Science in airway science management, 1995.
• Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Master of Divinity in missions and evangelism, 2000.
• Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Doctor of Ministry, 2017.
Why do you feel called into education?
My mission statement is: “To resource Christian leaders for maximum potential.” The resourcing has two components: training and supporting.
In working at a Baptist institution of higher education, I can do both. I can be a part of students’ training, but I can also provide encouragement and opportunities for their growth and development.
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Everyone has been created by God with a potential to reach. I love helping others reach theirs. Only then, will I reach mine.
How does being a Christian influence your work in education?
Being a Christian totally changes why I do what I do. It provides me a spiritual and eternal perspective as I engage with students, faculty and staff, and as I have an opportunity to develop relationships with non-Christian leaders in other educational institutions.
What is your favorite aspect of education? Why?
Education opens the person’s mind and heart to things they never have considered. Those getting educated start feeling empowered to pursue their dreams and passion in life. Their self-esteem and self-worth increase, putting them in a position to reach their God-given potential.
What one aspect of education would you like to change?
Education should be more affordable and accessible to the masses, especially Christian higher education. Right now, Christian higher education is out of reach for most, including those whose life may be totally changed by it—and not only them, but also their families, communities and churches.
Tuition costs need to be lowered, and we should increase a person’s ability to pursue a Christian college education right where they are.
How do you expect education to change in the next 10 to 20 years?
In the next decade or two, education no doubt will be more online, where students can “go” to school from anywhere, anytime. The current pandemic has been accelerating this for most educational institutions, and it is preparing us for what’s to come.
Nowadays, the number of people willing to move to another town or state to pursue an education has decreased dramatically, mainly because of costs, but also because of life. Why do it, if you don’t have to?
So, for schools to survive and thrive now and in the future, we must keep student costs down and make it possible for them to pursue an education no matter where they are.
What do you wish more people knew about education?
That it’s worth it.
When I was about to finish college, an opportunity came up to go and plant churches in Pennsylvania right after graduation. It was a worthy thing, but it was not what God wanted me to do at that point in my life.
For a while, I had been planning to go to seminary, and the Lord was guiding me clearly to do that. So, I had a decision to make.
I shared my dilemma with a retired missionary the summer of 1994, and he said, “Gabriel, an ax will cut more wood if it is sharpened.”
With everything else God had been telling me up to that point, that was all I needed to hear. I finished college, got married and went to Southwestern Seminary. And in looking back 26 years later, he was right. I have been able to do a lot more and accomplish a lot more for Christ, because I decided to continue my education. It is worth it.
Why are you Baptist?
I am a Baptist because of sound doctrine, the foundational belief in the autonomy of the local church, the strong emphasis on evangelism and missions and the many opportunities networks, associations and conventions provide for collaboration in the kingdom of God. We can do more together than we can do alone.
What are the key issues facing Baptists—denominationally and/or congregationally?
I love being a Baptist. It’s a part of my identity, but we are not perfect.
Two key issues or challenges Baptists are facing are the need for more diversity in leadership and an intentional focus on the next generation.
Cities and states are changing. A quick look into current and future demographic realities proves this. Those in leadership need to look more like those we are trying to reach. This is true in local communities and at the state level. We’re making strides in this effort, but we must do all we can to accelerate this process.
The same can be said of involving and engaging the youth and young adults in our churches and communities. Without compromising Scripture, we need to be willing to be creative and do things differently in order to become relevant to those coming behind us. Our future depends on it.
Who were/are your mentors, and how did/do they influence you?
God has placed many people in my life to guide, teach and encourage me. But if I was to name some, I would say Dr. Albert Reyes and Dr. Gus Reyes. They have played and continue to play a critical role in my growth and development as a leader. Both value education tremendously and always are looking for opportunities to impact the kingdom of God as they invest in the lives of those coming behind them.
Other than the Bible, name some of your favorite books or authors, and explain why.
After the Bible, the book or study that has had the greatest impact in my life and ministry has been Experiencing Godby Henry Blackaby. The biblical principles and truths found in it revolutionized the way I understand God and the way I respond to him and what he’s doing around me. It has played a significant role in my decision-making, especially as I’ve sought to follow the Lord wherever he has led us in the last 25-plus years.
Good to Great by Jim Collins played a key role in helping me understand what’s required for an organization to excel. The concept of the “Level 5 Leader” basically is biblical servant leadership, which calls for humility, attributing success to others, accepting responsibility for failures and so on.
Collins makes two other important points. Getting “the right people on the bus” is critical for organizational success—especially when it requires making difficult decisions. Also, the “hedgehog concept” stresses the need to stay focused in pursuing your goals. An organization or ministry should find what makes it unique—its niche—and keep its eyes on the target, no matter what happens or how long it takes.
The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader by John Maxwell is very practical and teaches you a lot of things you don’t learn in seminary, at least not when I went through it. According to Maxwell, “Leadership is influence.” Anyone can lead if you know how to influence people. This can be an encouraging concept, especially for those who never have seen themselves as a leader.
Who is your favorite person in the Bible, other than Jesus? Why?
Stephen. His trial and death were so similar to Jesus’. The main reason he’s one of my favorite people in the Bible is his initial role was to serve widows, not in front of everyone preaching the gospel.
Because he was of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, God used him in ways he never dreamed of and became the first Christian martyr. I can relate to that—but not the martyr part, of course. I’m often amazed at the assignments God has given me and how he has used me in those assignments.
When I came to Texas, my plans were to return to Puerto Rico as a home missionary. That door closed, but the Lord has opened many doors in Texas to minister and to impact thousands of people for the glory of Christ. I’ve been blessed beyond measure.
What’s something about you that would surprise people who know you?
I love professional wrestling, the Dallas Mavericks and the Dallas Cowboys, but in baseball, I’m torn between the Yankees and Rangers. I live in San Antonio; so, Spurs fans give me a hard time for being a Mavericks fan, and Rangers fans get on my case for even considering cheering for the Yankees.