Gerry Lewis has been executive director and lead mission strategist of Harvest Baptist Association in Decatur since 2008. From deep in the heart of one Texan, he shares his background and thoughts on associational ministry and the church. 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 worked, and what were your positions?
• Eagle Mountain Baptist Church, Fort Worth, senior pastor, 1991–2008
• Trinity Baptist Church, Tucumcari, N.M., senior pastor, 1988–1991
• Eagle Mountain Baptist Church, Fort Worth, associate pastor of music and youth, 1984–1988
• Immanuel Baptist Church, Monahans, music director, 1977–1980
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Monahans, Texas.
How did you come to faith in Christ?
My parents divorced when I was 7. For a few months, we lived with my grandparents. My grandmother shared Jesus with me and prayed with me every night. During a visit to Colorado, where my uncle was a pastor, I trusted Jesus and was baptized.
Where were you educated, and what degrees did you receive?
• West Texas State University (now West Texas A&M), Bachelor of Music Education, 1984
• Southwestern Seminary, Master of Divinity, 1988
• Golden Gate Seminary (now Gateway), Doctor of Ministry, 1996
Why do you feel called to your particular vocation?
I probably approach the whole idea of “calling” and “vocation” a little differently. I think there really is only one “call” and that is to what I refer to as the “Christ-life.” As a Christ-follower—or disciple—I am on mission to live out the Christ-life. That means I love who he loves, obey what he says, display his character and extend his influence.
“Vocation” is not “position” so much as it is constant realignment to the unfolding clarity of purpose he brings as I follow him. His unfolding purpose led me first to music ministry at the age of 19, to preach and pastor at the age of 23, and to invest in pastors and churches through association ministry at the age of 46. I don’t think he’s finished unfolding his purpose for me yet.
Please tell us about your association—where it’s located, the key focus of its work and ministry, etc.
Harvest Baptist Association comprises three counties: Wise, Montague and Jack. Our mission center is in Decatur. Our focus is on cultivating a kingdom-focused culture of engaging churches through leadership cultivation, community engagement and kingdom partnerships.
What do you like best about leading your association? Why?
I love investing in the personal development of pastors and leaders. If I can help them find their “why” and identify and optimize their strengths to move toward a compelling vision, I am in my sweet spot.
What aspect(s) of associational ministry and/or its mission do you wish more people understood?
I wish more people understood the unique role the association has in Baptist life. There is only one entity whose sole focus is the churches in their geographic region and who is planted directly in that region. We have boots on the ground. We are not spread across a whole state like the state conventions or across a whole country like the Southern Baptist Convention. Our responsibility and focus are right here.
The other thing I wish churches could understand is that the primary partnership they have within the association is not with the association office and staff but is with all the other churches in the association. The office and staff are a resource the churches make available equally to each other, and every decision a church makes regarding its participation affects every other church.
How has your association and its mission changed since you began your career?
I think I came in at a time of transition between the idea of “this is what associations do” and “this is what our association is supposed to be.” Instead of being centered around association programs, events and supplies, we have to develop a robust toolbox of skills and kingdom connections that can be customized for the needs of individual churches.
We also are faced with the reality of having to be strategic and streamlined with our structures. As churches—especially in the small town and rural context—have experienced financial struggles, we have experienced the trickle-down effect. We also have a new generation of church leadership that has not been brought up and educated with a high view of the value of the association. We have to prove ourselves constantly.
How do you expect your association and/or its mission to change in the next 10 to 20 years?
I really don’t expect our mission to change. I think our methods and structures will have to be constantly evolving and responding.
It’s hard to project 10 to 20 years into the future because we have no idea what the world will look like. What I do know is many of our churches will not be in existence 10 to 20 years from now if they don’t have a significant shift in the next two to three years. And if we and other associations don’t figure out how we can best optimize our strengths, clarify our purpose and establish our place, we won’t be here either.
Name the three most significant challenges and/or influences facing your association.
1. Financial challenges. We can no longer depend on churches contributing to the association because it’s the right thing to do. That ship has sailed.
2. Communication challenges. Telling the story of who we are, what we do and how we can make a difference—and telling it in multiple ways for multiple hearers—continues to be one of the biggest challenges we face.
3. Legacy challenges. How do we develop a consistent leadership pipeline that is scalable and sustainable?
What one aspect of your job gives you the greatest joy or fulfillment?
When I can help a pastor gain personal clarity and live into his strengths, I experience a great measure of fulfillment.
For my 10thanniversary last summer, my staff polled pastors and leaders in the association for their one-word description of me. They had a word cloud put on a plaque and gave it to me. The most prevalent words were friend, mentor and encourager. That was incredibly gratifying.
Who were/are your mentors, and how did/do they influence you?
I could probably write an essay on each mentor, but I think they all had one thing in common, so I’m going to name some and then identify that one thing.
• Ken Mills—high school choral director
• Dennis Davis––high school best friend and singing partner
• Royal Brantley and Hugh Sanders—college voice professor and choral director, respectively
• Mike Whelan—college Baptist Student Union director
• Roland Earl—seminary pastor
• Larry Rose—director of missions when I was a young pastor
What they had in common was they helped me find my voice. I don’t mean the literal ability to vocalize—even the music influences. I mean none of them tried to mold me into the ideal singer, preacher or minister—nor did they try to duplicate themselves in me. They helped me unleash my giftedness, passions and strengths and find ways to express them to the world. They gave me opportunities to grow into leadership.
What is your favorite Bible verse or passage? Why?
Galatians 2:20. It is from this verse that I came to understand God is not particularly interested in anything I want to do for him, but he is abundantly interested in living his life through mine.
This passage inspired my description of discipleship as being on mission to live out the “Christ-life.” Inspired by this verse and some thoughts from Dallas Willard, I’ve come to describe the Christ-life as Jesus living his life through me as me.
Name something about you that would surprise people who know you well.
I live a pretty vulnerable and open life, so there’s not much. I have a fun answer and a serious one.
The fun answer is I spent a season as a professional dancer. By professional, I mean I got paid for it, not that I was good at it. I spent a summer performing in the musical drama “Texas” in Palo Duro Canyon. I was hired as a singer but had to learn and perform some dance. I did it in a very tall, gangly and awkward Baptist way, but I did get paid.
Fun fact: My wife and son also have spent summers performing in “Texas.”
The serious answer is I have suffered from depression and have been on a mild anti-depressant for the better part of the last dozen years or so. I don’t lead with that when I’m getting to know people, but I’m happy to address it when it seems appropriate.
I think it is vitally important now that the church address the very real issues of the psychological, mental and emotional nuances of health, rather than simplifying everything into either physical or spiritual. I think, in many ways, we have failed our culture and weakened our message by giving the simplistic answer of “pray harder, read your Bible more and have more faith” when the ailment doesn’t show obvious physical symptoms.
If you could get one “do over” in your career, what would it be, and why?
I wrote an essay a few months ago on what I would do differently if I were ever a pastor again. Of the several things I mentioned, the one that stands out most is I would never “do ministry” by myself. I would always take someone with me into whose life and ministry I was investing. I would make “discipling” a priority rather than trying to implement a discipleship program.