Jim Turnbo: ‘We need each other’

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Since 2013, Jim Turnbo has served as the associational missionary for the Bowie Baptist Association in Texarkana, Texas. 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 else have you worked, and what were your positions?

I served for 23 years as pastor of congregations in Texas, Louisiana and Nebraska before serving with the North American Mission Board in New Mexico as a church planting catalyst from 2008–2012.

Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Houston, Texas.

How did you come to faith in Christ?

Interesting story. I was raised in the Mormon church, attending with my grandparents. When my mom and stepdad trusted Christ, they said I could spend weekends with my grandparents and remain a Mormon, but, when I was home, “We worship as a family.”

That decision placed me in a position to hear God’s word for the first time. Two years later, when I was 15, I embraced the gospel, trusting my life to Jesus Christ.

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

I received a Bachelor of Arts in Christian ministry from East Texas Baptist University in Marshall, Texas (1987); the Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (1991); and the Doctor of Ministry from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, Missouri (2006).


Why do you feel called to your particular vocation?

Since 1996, I knew that my ministry calling would eventually turn to serving the church by serving pastors and ministry leaders. As a young pastor, the Lord blessed me through directors of mission and convention leaders. They encouraged me when I was down, sharpened me for greater influence and provided correction when I occasionally veered off course. I believe pastors and ministry leaders need such a confidant and coach.

As my pastoral ministry progressed, I found opportunities to consult with neighboring congregations through the association and state conventions. Through these experiences, God confirmed my call, which he fulfilled in 2008 when NAMB appointed Karen and me for service in New Mexico.

Please tell us about your association—where it’s located, the key focus of its work and ministry, etc.

Our association is in deep East Texas, bordering Oklahoma and Arkansas. Most of our congregations are rural or small-town, the exception being our population center in Texarkana.

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Our association exists to help churches find and fill their place in God’s kingdom plan. We do this in three ways.

First, we foster connections with pastors and church leaders. In my experience, an association has little influence with congregations if their leaders doubt the missionary’s support for them. I tell our pastors, “You are my mission field.”

Second, we work to strengthen member congregations. Through our ministry support team, we provide customized coaching, helping congregations to identify and overcome ministry obstacles and orient themselves for effective ministry in a changing cultural landscape.

Third, we network congregations for cooperative ministry, realizing that many ministry needs are best met through a collaborative response. These include church planting, ministry training, and BSM.

What do you like best about leading your association? Why?

The people.

I love working with the faithful men and women who serve the Lord through his church. I love investing in them, helping them to grow personally and in their ministry effectiveness.

One reason, I suppose, is that everything I do in preparation for my work with them sharpens me as well. Even more so, though, is that they bless me. Our relationships are mutual, so that they stretch me as a man of God even as I seek to stretch them.

What aspect(s) of associational ministry and/or its mission do you wish more people understood?

There is always a tension between church autonomy and cooperation. When I started in ministry, I believe it was easier to maintain this balance. Today, however, as institutions fall out of favor and Baptist practice becomes more diverse, I find churches become silos unto themselves. Cooperation, when it occurs, is driven largely by pastors and staff, based on their affinity and preference.

That said, I wish more people knew this: we need each other. We cannot limit our cooperation to narrow affinity groups. Our younger staff and elder staff need each other. Our Calvinists and Traditionalists need one another (Yes, you really do). Our small and bivocational staff need our fully funded and larger church leaders.

And, as the nearest level of Baptist cooperation to the church, I believe we are best positioned to facilitate these relationships and leverage them for the Lord’s purposes.

How has your association and its mission changed since you began your career?

When I began in ministry, back in the middle ’80s, the association was the branch office for all things Baptist. The agenda for my predecessors, therefore, was largely set by denominational calendars and emphases.

Today, advances in communication being what they are, denominational entities relate directly to member congregations. With little need for the branch office, the Bowie Association needed to redefine itself.

In the process, we concluded that our proximity to partnering churches and ability to walk with them through matters over time was our greatest asset. So now, the agenda is set primarily by the needs of cooperating churches and those of our rapidly changing mission field.

How do you expect your association and/or its mission to change in the next 10 to 20 years?

Sometimes I feel as if our area is the last remaining vestige of the Bible Belt, with cultural Christianity still dominant. But I know that, even in deep East Texas, the culture is increasingly post-Christian. I expect this trend to continue at an increasing pace.

As it does, churches locked into traditional ministry models will experience declines in membership, giving and ministry strength. Many will close. As a generation of generous givers ages and a younger generation emerges, which many congregations have difficulty reaching, even healthy congregations will experience financial stress. As a result, many ministry roles currently fully funded will become bivocational or volunteer.

Still, I see the best days for our churches ahead of us, provided we help them to prepare for ministry in the new reality. This will involve developing more homegrown leaders to serve in ministries formerly led by vocational staff. It will involve helping our strongest congregations to better read our communities and adjust their ministries accordingly. And it will involve planting new congregations more suited to our developing mission field and leveraging the resources of declining congregations through replanting.

In this, I don’t really see our mission changing but our tactics certainly will, along with our community.

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

  • Changes in our community, from Bible-Belt to post-Christian.
  • Leading our association to reflect the increasing diversity of our communities.
  • Maintaining financial strength when so many congregations struggle.

What one aspect of your job gives you the greatest joy or fulfillment?

That would be seeing God work through the people I have helped to disciple. That God would use me to sharpen any one of his servants for his purpose is humbling but most gratifying.

About Baptists

What are the key issues—opportunities and/or challenges—facing Baptist churches?

One would be their response to the increasingly secular, post-Christian society. Most congregations I observe expect a return to the good ol’ days when, if you preached God’s word well enough, you loved God’s people and had an attractive enough ministry to the people around you, the church would grow.

That worked when cultural Christianity held influence and even unbelievers respected Scripture as God’s word. But, today, congregations must learn the worldviews of the peoples around them, building bridges of connection with them, then employ fresh disciple-making models for shepherding their relationship with Christ.

What IMB missionaries do overseas, and what I learned to do as a cross-cultural missionary in New Mexico, every church must now do. Unfortunately, few to date are equipped for this.

A related challenge of great significance is our failure with disciple-making. I’m not sure when, but at some point in the past couple of generations, many congregations stopped growing disciples.

It’s not that they stopped having Sunday School or Bible study but that these activities no longer developed people spiritually in a way that they practiced and passed along what they learned. I’m encouraged by some movement in this area, a move to more scripture-focused and relational discipleship. I pray this continues.

What are the key issues facing Baptists as a people or denomination?

I believe it is our increasing fragmentation. As the culture becomes more antagonistic toward our core values, rather than draw more closely together around the gospel, many Baptists are increasingly isolating themselves with those who think precisely as they do. So, the Calvinist guys meet one place, the Traditionalists in another, the politically right-leaning Baptists here, and the others meet there.

Don’t misunderstand me. I believe there are convictions we cannot compromise, for in doing so we destroy our witness. I believe in a strong confessional foundation. And I don’t oppose affinity-based networks.

But when I was a missionary serving in places an hour or more away from others in my brand of Christianity, I discovered God’s people can’t afford to turn against one another. It’s essential that we stand firm on our defining convictions while fighting the urge to elevate tertiary matters as parameters for cooperation.

What would you change about the Baptist denomination—state, nation or local?

I believe we are so concerned with our statistical decline, we seek quick solutions in sleek programs or fresh, broad initiatives. When these prove ineffective, we try even more of the same. The problem is that Christianity is a grassroots movement. It doesn’t flow from top down but from the bottom up.

While I appreciate the many tools made available to me through our denominational entities, I’m concerned that we are dispensing masses of spiritual information without the relational work to embed these truths into people’s lives.

So, I don’t need another book, curriculum line or campaign. I need a man of God who will walk with me through these truths. I need to be that for the church leaders I serve. And our leaders need to be that for their churches.

About Jim

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

Byron Banta was my pastor while in college. He went on to plant a church in Arizona, but, in our time together, he modeled for me the spiritual walk of a godly pastor. We remain in touch.

Dr. Donald Potts was my major professor at ETBU, but we remained close until his death. He taught me the nuts and bolts of pastoral ministry, helping me become a well-rounded pastor.

Dr. Stan Albright was my supervisor with NAMB. Stan is the most effective ministry leader I ever served with. Rather than pick himself up on the backs of his team, he elevated his team for greater ministry influence. He taught me more about being a servant leader than anyone I have ever served with and remains an influence on my life today.

Other than the Bible, name some of your favorite books or authors, and explain why.

God totally reoriented my walk with him through Henry Blackaby’s “Experiencing God.” Through Henry, I discovered the relationship between the Lord’s work in my life and his kingdom purposes.

Though I disagree with the author on many points, Richard Foster’s “Celebration of Discipline” showed me how, through the classic spiritual exercises, I place myself in a position for the Lord to do his work in my soul. Foster’s chapters on meditation and simplicity are especially meaningful to me.

What is your favorite Bible verse or passage? Why?

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7 ESV).

This verse reminds me that, as a teacher of God’s word, I am to live by it in a manner that God’s people can see the outcome and follow the example. That’s humbling, convicting and a bit scary. But the text says God’s people should be able to follow my example and, in doing so, grow in the Lord.

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

Barnabas. His testimony as described in Scripture most fits my calling.

When Paul was saved and the apostles too afraid of him, Barnabas brought him in. Later, when Barnabas saw God’s work at Antioch, he brought Paul to serve beside him there. Finally, when they departed for their missionary tour, as Paul’s ministry grew, Barnabas stepped aside and let Paul take the senior role.

When we look back, we think of Paul as the great missionary of the New Testament. But God worked through Barnabas in shaping Paul, and Paul carried on that practice in Timothy, Aquila, Priscila and others.

Name something about you that would surprise people who know you well.

I am a “closet introvert.” Most people perceive me as extroverted, friendly and at ease preaching, speaking and working with teams, but that has taken time. My natural inclination is to push back from the crowd or sit quietly among them.

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

There was a church I served as pastor that I left too soon. A staff relationship had soured. It was my first time supervising a full-time minister, and our relationship was not going well.

My first do-over would be in better coaching and serving my colleague rather than supervising him in a business sense.

My second would be in better managing my frustration, not letting it cloud my sense of how blessed I was in serving this particular congregation. I should not have resigned when I did.

Write and answer a question you wish we had asked.

Tell us about your family.

My wife of 32 years is Karen. She looks after senior adults and has a special interest in our ministry spouses. Our daughter, Lizz, 27, and her husband, Shane, live in Silsbee, Texas, with our grandson, Auden. Lizz is an event planner with a love for VBS. Lydia, 23, is a kindergarten teacher in Beaumont, Texas. Our son James, 17, is a senior at Hooks High School. His career goals include becoming the next Stephen Kendrick.

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