Jeff Gravens is pastor of First Baptist Church in Crawford, where he has served “a wonderful seven years.” From deep in the heart of one Texan, he shares his background and thoughts on ministry. To suggest a Baptist General Convention of Texas-affiliated minister to be featured in this column, or to apply to be featured, click here.
• Where else have you served in ministry, and what were your positions there?
While in seminary, I helped with a church plant, Brookview Baptist Church in Waco. I served as associate pastor.
• Where did you grow up?
I grew up with my father in the U.S. Army and thus our family moved around on a regular basis. I was born in Fort Knox, Kentucky, and from there went to Germany, back to Fort Knox, then to Fort Bliss, Texas, then to Fort Riley, Kansas, and then Fort Hood, Texas, where I finished high school.
• How did you come to faith in Christ?
I was baptized at First Baptist Church in Killeen during my freshman year of college. This church preached the gospel to me and showed me the love of Jesus Christ. Immediately after my decision to follow Jesus, this church provided me opportunities to serve and encouraged me into deep discipleship.
• Where were you educated, and what degrees did you receive?
Bachelor of business administration in marketing from the University of Mary Hardin–Baylor
Master of divinity from George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University
Doctorate of ministry (in progress) from Truett Seminary
• Why do you feel called into ministry?
After I graduated from college with a business degree, I did my best to make a career in marketing work. Yet the more effort I put into my career, the more my frustration and disappointment grew. During a conversation, a mentor he made the observation, “Perhaps God has been preparing you for ministry.” This thought never had occurred to me in my five years of following Jesus, but it immediately made sense. I soon quit my job and entered seminary. God has been faithful every step of the way. He routinely confirms my call to ministry.
• What is your favorite aspect of ministry? Why?
Nothing can replace the joy and honor of the task of preaching. I thoroughly enjoy the prayer and preparation that goes into every sermon. I love the opportunity to share God’s word and speak into the lives of my congregation. It is a privilege like no other.
• What qualities do you look for in a congregation?
Over the course of my time in ministry, I’ve realized the importance and power of congregational prayer. A church that prays is a church that experiences God at work.
Two years ago, a teacher in my congregation came to me with the idea of an early Monday morning prayer group. At first ,I was skeptical of the long-term viability of such an effort, but this small group has become a highlight of my week. I attribute many ministry successes and glimpses of God’s hand to this small group gathered each week kneeling before God in intercessory prayer.
If I could find one quality in a congregation? I’d want a church that prays. I recently reread Leonard Ravenhill’s classic work, Why Revival Tarries. He states: “The two prerequisites to successful Christian living are vision and passion, both of which are born in and maintained by prayer. The ministry of preaching is open to few; the ministry of prayer—the highest ministry of all human offices—is open to all.”
• Name the three most significant challenges and/or influences facing your congregation.
I don’t think these challenges are unique to First Baptist Crawford, but they provide obstacles that must be overcome. …
1. Leadership: There is always a need for more leadership. I pray every day that congregation members realize their God-given gifts and put them to use inside and outside of the church.
2. Disciples that make disciples: Jesus called disciples to follow him and fish for people. Far too many people are satisfied merely following Jesus.
3. Outreach to the community: The temptation for the church to be a social club for insiders is always present and must be fought. FBC Crawford exists to preach and demonstrate the gospel to the community around us.
• What are the key issues facing Baptists—denominationally and/or congregationally?
Baptists are facing the tension of two tightly held distinctives—voluntary cooperation and church autonomy. In coming days, this tension will continue to grow as Baptist churches voice their opinions on hot button issues.
It is my prayer that we keep a tight grip on both distinctives while also standing on the foundation of Scripture without movement.
• Who were/are your mentors, and how did/do they influence you?
Soon after my baptism, I met Dennis Parnell. He invited me into his home for Bible study, prayer and Scripture memorization every Monday night. He poured his life into mine and discipled me for the next five years. On top of that, Dennis also provided me countless opportunities to preach, teach and lead in various capacities. To this day, the influence of Dennis’ ministry has been the biggest and longest-lasting influence on me. Much of what I do in ministry I learned from the faithfulness of Dennis. I owe him a debt than can never be repaid.
• What did you learn on the job you wish you learned in seminary?
We often place far too much responsibility on the shoulders of our seminaries. It is impossible for a seminary to prepare a pastor for everything that will be encountered in ministry. Some things can only be learned through experience. Unfortunately, many things can only be learned through struggle and perhaps a failure or two.
Seminary provides the opportunity to sit among world-class scholars, allows for devoted time to study the Scriptures and places you shoulder-to-shoulder with others who share the calling to ministry. The time is invaluable. Yet the learning process does not stop at graduation.
Every day in ministry, I feel poorly equipped as a counselor, conflict manager, strategic visionary, culture change agent and much more. Do I wish I had more formal training in these areas? Yes. Yet I don’t see this as the failure of my seminary. Rather, I give these things to God and seek mentors to help me through issues that come my way.
•What is the impact of ministry on your family?
I married Katie seven months prior to being called to pastor FBC Crawford. We know have a 5-year-old daughter and a 10-month-old son. Katie and I see the call to pastor FBC Crawford as a call God has placed on our entire family. Thus, we experience the ups and downs of ministry together and see the ups and downs as a part of our faithfulness to God.
My kids are really young, but at this point, they absolutely love church. It is my prayer that their excitement for the church grows as they give their life to Jesus Christ. Some might call that optimistic, but I think it’s a prayer God is willing to answer.
• Name some of your favorite books (other than the Bible) or authors, and explain why.
I’m a lover of books. Much of my free time is devoted to reading. I believe reading widely is incredibly important for a pastor. I’ll try to keep this short and provide merely a few of my favorites.
The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman. I read this book early in my ministry. It was foundational in my understanding of the need to imitate Jesus’ example of one-on-one discipleship. It provides a tremendous framework.
Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I’m sure this is a favorite of many pastors and does not need much discussion. I return to this book perhaps more than any other. Bonhoeffer’s treatment of the Sermon on the Mount is like no other.
The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene Peterson. I refer to Peterson as a mentor from a distance. He has taught me so much from the pages of his books. I recommend all of his work, but this book in particular. He provides an encouraging, challenging and thought-provoking look at his pastoral ministry. Wisdom drips off every page.
Too Great a Temptation by Joel Gregory. This book is the counter balance to Peterson’s memoir. Gregory details his brief and tumultuous time as the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas. More than anything, it is a cautionary tale of the seductive power of leadership.
The Giver by Lois Lowry. I read this book as an elementary school student. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I’ve read it countless times as an adult. It is a profound look at the human condition and provides a great lesson in theology. The story toys with the idea of the exchange between memories and true happiness. Can you enjoy peace if you don’t have a memory of war? Can you enjoy health if you don’t have a memory of sickness? I give you permission to read a children’s book. It’s worth it.
I also love presidential biographies. There are many lessons to be learned from the men that have sat in such a seat of power. A few of my favorites include Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Wilson by A. Scott Berg and Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham. Though not a president, I’ll include Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.
• What is your favorite Bible verse or passage? Why?
I wake up each morning and read Psalm 100 and Colossians 1:15-23. These passages provide the proper framework for my day. Psalm 100 provides me the opportunity to worship God with joy and thanksgiving and reminds me God created me and watches over me like a shepherd watches sheep. Colossians 1:15-23 puts the fundamental truths of Jesus Christ at the forefront of my mind. Colossians 1:15 has impacted me more than any other verse. Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God. If I ever have a question about God, it can be answered in Jesus Christ. If a congregation member comes to be with a question about God, it can be answered in Jesus Christ.
• Who is your favorite Bible character (other than Jesus)? Why?
I’ve always been fascinated with Jonah. He provides a great case study for the preacher and those seeking to be obedient to God. It is always helpful to learn from mistakes, but I don’t have to be the one to make them!
In Jonah’s story, you see God’s call and God’s care. You also see Jonah’s struggle with God’s call and God’s care. You learn a powerful lesson in the power of preaching and obedience while learning from the resistance to preaching and obedience.