Gene Wilkes: ‘The church must see itself as a mission outpost’

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Since 2013, Gene Wilkes has served as president of the B. H. Carroll Theological Institute in Irving, Texas. Prior to that, Wilkes was the senior pastor of Legacy Church in Plano, Texas, for 26 years. From deep in the heart of one Texan, he shares his background and thoughts on church and ministry. 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 did you grow up?

I grew up in Beaumont, Texas, and I was a member of First Baptist Church.

How did you come to faith in Christ?

I was nine years old at a revival in our church in Milton, Fla.

I vividly remember the evangelist telling the story of the sinking of the Titanic and how some people refused to get on lifeboats because they were still convinced the ship could not sink. He asked if we were clinging on to our lives that would sink from sin and refusing to get into the lifeboat God provided in Jesus’ death and resurrection because we were convinced our lives would not sink.

That image clicked in my heart as a young boy. I looked at my father during the invitation and said that I wanted to trust Jesus. He nodded okay, and I walked down the aisle by myself and told our pastor I wanted to trust Jesus. I was baptized not long after.

Where were you educated, and what degrees did you receive?

I received my bachelor of arts in religion and Greek from Baylor University (1975) and my master of divinity (1979) and doctor of ministry (New Testament) from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (1985).

Ministry life

Why do you feel called into ministry?

My call to ministry was as vivid a call as my salvation.

While on a mission trip with FBC Beaumont between my junior and senior years in high school, on a Navajo Indian reservation, standing outside the tent of meeting one evening, I sensed the Lord asking me, “What do you want to do?” (He knew the answer.)

I said, “This,” meaning a week with brothers and sisters in Christ serving others in the name of Jesus in a mission field.

And the Spirit said, “Go do that.”

I went home, told the church God was calling me to “full-time vocational ministry,” changed my college plans, and never looked back.

I still love serving others in the name of Jesus with my brothers and sisters in Christ whatever that mission field may be.

What is your favorite aspect of ministry? Why?

I am a pastor-teacher, and exercising my spiritual gifts and education to teach the word of God is my favorite part of ministry.

What one aspect of ministry gives you the greatest joy?

Changed lives.

No other enterprise on the planet is the context for a person’s changed heart and life. Nothing compares to seeing a person respond to the love of Christ and then rearrange his or her life to live for the One who loved him or her first.

What one aspect of ministry would you like to change?


How do you expect ministry to change in the next 10 to 20 years?

Ministry is less and less about maintaining an institution and more and more about mobilizing God’s people to serve others in the name of Jesus.

The church’s mission is to equip and send those who trust and follow Jesus, “baptizing” and “teaching” them to follow Jesus where they live, learn, work and serve. The church must see itself as a mission outpost in a mission field, and the followers of Jesus must see themselves as missionaries where God has planted them in their community. You staff and train differently in this model than you do for an institution.

Ministry will become more about serving others in the name of Jesus in the community in smaller groups than inviting people to see and hear what’s going on in a building. Equipping servant leaders in this changing context is our challenge.

Name the three most significant challenges and/or influences facing your ministry.

The most significant challenge to equipping men and women called to serve Christ and his church is the proliferation of opportunities and methodologies to train them. Fewer and fewer church leaders embrace the discipline of an accredited degree program for training. Internships, conferences, seminars and training by a single pastor in the local church suffice as training for many.

At B. H. Carroll, we have built a seminary that delivers accredited theological education to Christ-centered leaders where they live, work and serve. We partner with local churches (domestically and globally) to make theological training available to all their members.

I still believe in graduate-level training for those who serve in the local church. A degree signals one has completed a disciplined course of training to be prepared for ministry.

If things stay on the path they are on, we will lose a generation of church leaders to the trends and pragmatism of both culture and local church ministry, and our churches will grow shallow in their knowledge of the things of God.

What do you wish more laypeople knew about ministry or, specifically, your ministry?

I want them to know that theological education is accessible in the local church through B. H. Carroll. Other seminaries are bringing theological education to local churches, and I hope laypeople will take advantage of those opportunities.

Through a Carroll Teaching Church, a layperson can audit a masters- or diploma-level course and be exposed to the same training as their pastor and staff.

About Gene

Who were/are your mentors, and how did/do they influence you?

Many have modeled and encouraged me in my ministry. My most recent mentor is Dr. Bruce Corley, B. H. Carroll’s first president, whom I followed. Dr. Corley was my Ph.D. supervisor in seminary, and he has influenced me as I am learning to be a seminary president. His pastor’s heart, world-class scholarship and visionary servant leadership have been inspiring examples to me during my studies and since coming to Carroll.

What did you learn on the job you wish you learned in seminary?

Managing a “denominational franchise” is different than leading people on mission. Caring for and providing programs for those who show up are different than leading people into their mission fields.

How to lead people as a servant of Christ is what I wished I had learned, but ministry is different then than it is now.

What is your favorite Bible verse or passage? Why?

My life verse is Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

As Jesus taught his disciples the nature of leadership in his kingdom, he gave them an example of what that looked like by washing their feet and willingly going to the cross. I learned the hard way what this kind of leadership tastes like, and Jesus’ example and the Holy Spirit’s presence aid me as I continue to learn to lead as an apprentice of Jesus.

Who is your favorite Bible character, other than Jesus? Why?

Paul the Apostle, because, like me, he was trained to serve in a time-honored religious institution and God called him into a global mission field to tell all people about Jesus.

He had to make huge shifts in every area of his life, ministry and how and where he lived out the mission God gave him. The resistance to his message and methods are common today to those who risk following God’s call out of a religious institution to live a mission-driven, vision-drawn life.

I have experienced both the trauma and joys of such changes in order to live out God’s call in my life and ministry.

If you could get one “do over” in ministry, what would it be, and why?

My only “do over” would be to learn what God wanted to teach me in my mistakes and successes. I know I missed hearing God in my haste to either recover from a misstep or climb the next hill.

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