Keith Bruce: ‘It’s all about relationships and transparent, collaborative leadership’

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Until 2010, Keith Bruce served Texas Baptists for almost 14 years as director of institutional relations. 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.

Background

Where did you grow up?

I was born in the small Texas panhandle town of Memphis. However, my family moved to Amarillo when I was about three years old. Other than a brief period when we lived in Longview, Texas, and Tupelo, Miss., that is where I grew up.

How did you come to faith in Christ?

When we moved back to Amarillo, my parents joined Paramount Baptist Church, a wonderful and nurturing congregation. When I was about nine years old, there was a revival at the church, though I have no idea who the evangelist was for the week.

On the last Sunday of the revival, there was a special emphasis for children, and the evangelist explained the gospel in simple terms. It seemed that all of those things I had learned in Sunday School came together, and I told my mom that I wanted to “go down front.”

She was wise enough to delay me until our pastor, Chester O’Brien, could come by to visit with me. He did so in a few days, and I prayed in my living room, accepting Jesus as my savior.

Why did you feel called into ministry?

As I moved into my teen years, God led some friends into my life who had a closer personal walk with the Lord than I had ever understood to be possible. Their influence, along with the influence of lay and staff leaders at Paramount, caused me to begin to grow in my understanding of God’s work in my life.

As an aside, I would note that at this time Paramount was a place where many young people were being called to ministry under the passion of the church’s second pastor, C. N. “Shad” Rue.

I became very involved in the youth ministry and choir program, and, when a junior in high school, I felt a very distinct leading of the Lord into vocational ministry. At first, I thought that God’s call might be to youth or music ministry, but, through my college years at Baylor, my sense of call was clearly defined as that of Pastor / Leader.

In addition to your most-noted position, where else did you serve in ministry?

My first paid ministry position was as a student at Baylor when I served Connally Heights Baptist Church as youth / music minister.

During seminary and beyond, I had the opportunity to serve as minister of youth and recreation at First Baptist Grand Prairie.

My first pastorate was at First Baptist of Duke, Oklahoma, followed by pastorates at First Baptist Wellington and Shearer Hills Baptist in San Antonio.

When did you leave your most-noted position and/or retire from full-time ministry? How have you occupied yourself since then?

In 2010, the position I held at the BGCT was eliminated in a time of restructuring.

I then had the great privilege of serving for about three years as executive director of Breckenridge Village of Tyler, a residential campus for adults with developmental disabilities that is part of BCFS Health and Human Services, a Texas Baptist agency.

Then, somewhat unexpectedly, I was offered my current position as vice president of mission and ministry for Baptist Health System in San Antonio.

Where do you live now, and where do you go to church?

My wife, Janet, and I currently reside in San Antonio and are active members at First Baptist Church of San Antonio.

Ministry/life

What was your favorite or most joyful aspect of ministry? Why? What part of ministry delivered the greatest heartache or headache?

The answer to both of these questions is the same: the people!

I love the relationships of ministry: giving counsel and encouragement, seeking with others God’s direction and vision, helping children understand about Jesus, weddings, baptisms — even illnesses and funerals as you walk with people through fearful and sad times.

But, of course, people can also disappoint. As a pastor, you grieve with them in personal failures and yes, even in our churches there are those people who can be petty, mean-spirited, judgmental and who create turmoil and angst, not only for ministers but sometimes for the entire congregation.

Thankfully, in my experiences, those people who were a joy to walk with far outnumbered those who created heartaches and headaches!

What would you tell the young you, just starting out in ministry?

“It’s all about relationships and transparent, collaborative leadership.”

Part of this perhaps was my personal background, but I entered ministry with somewhat of a “career” or “executive” mindset, where I had to be the leader and also took full responsibility for all that happened. But that mindset puts undue and unintended pressure on the pastor and denies opportunity for all believers to exercise their gifts and abilities.

When I learned to build relationships, to listen to the hearts of the people and to encourage people to serve in accordance with their passions and giftedness, I discovered a new freedom personally and observed renewed energy within the congregation.

About Baptists

What were the key issues facing Baptists during the heart of your ministry?

Without doubt, fundamentalism and the denominational battles that began in the 1970s were the foundational issues during the heart of my ministry. As a result of this conflict, churches I served as pastor were struggling with their identity as Baptists.

In fact, that controversy and those congregational struggles were the reason I developed my doctoral project around Baptist distinctives in the local church. It was not long into my tenure at the BGCT when the second Baptist convention was formed in Texas.

Several of our Texas Baptist institutions that I worked with in my position as director of institutional relations found themselves struggling with how to best navigate this denominational upheaval. Therefore, a lot of creative energy had to be given, even at the institutional level, to understand our Baptist identity and how institutions and the denomination best work together.

About Keith

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

I would have to begin with the two men who were my pastors growing up at Paramount Baptist Church in Amarillo.

As mentioned, Chester O’Brien was the pastor who led me to the Lord and, through the years, he has remained an encourager and advisor. Though now in his 90s, Dr. O’Brien still sends occasional notes of blessing and encouragement.

Then, C. Nelson “Shad” Rue was pastor during my formative high school years. “Brother Shad,” as we called him, was used by God in a special way to “call out the called.” He was so affirming, would give of his time to mentor young people who felt called to ministry and allowed us opportunities to preach, lead music and serve in other ways. I do hope any tapes of those first sermons have been destroyed, but Brother Shad’s blessing on those called to ministry was very meaningful.

Finally, I would have to mention former BGCT executive director Dr. Bill Pinson. As a pastor, I was involved in the ministries of the BGCT, and I observed his careful and prayerful leadership. But, especially when I very surprisingly was called to work for Texas Baptists, he was so affirming, patient and a true model / mentor to me for denominational leadership.

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

As is true for many people, the writings of C. S. Lewis were very meaningful, especially during my college years.

But, in addition to those works, Calvin Miller is probably my favorite. Somewhat like Lewis, he touches on so many genres in his writings. My favorites include his wonderful gospel trilogy, “The Singer,” “The Song,” and “The Finale,” and his classic parody of the modern church, “The Philippian Fragments.”

What is your favorite Bible verse or passage? Why?

I often say that my “life passage” is Philippians 4:4–7, where Paul encourages the Philippians and guides them in how to experience God’s joy and peace in all situations.

It has taught me that I can be very transparent and honest with God about anything and that even if my circumstances do not change, there is genuine peace in leaving things in his hands. This passage also instructs us to think about the good things and so I am reminded that no matter what is going on, there are good things all around me that I need to focus on with gratitude.

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

I have a real affinity for Nehemiah in the Old Testament. In my understanding of spiritual gifts, I see encouragement as a foundational grace that God has given to me, and I see Nehemiah being an encourager over and over as he led the people to rebuild the city.

He also is an example in his simple trust of God, his patient evaluation of all of the circumstances, and his inclusive collaboration with other leaders and the people. One church that I was privileged to serve was in a situation of rebuilding after a very difficult time and in that place particularly I found a lot of guidance in Nehemiah’s experience.

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

I think most people see me as friendly, outgoing and even gregarious. But, in reality, I am a fairly shy and timid. The Lord has had to help me mature in being confident and learning how to engage with people in what I hope is a cheerful and encouraging way.

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

It is not unusual to hear this from many professions, but I wish I had taken more time for family, friends and the pursuit of recreational outlets (like golf!).

Ministry is a career that never reaches a point of finality or conclusion. While particular projects or efforts might end, such as an outreach event or a building project, there is always the tension of one more call that could be made or one more hour that could be spent in sermon preparation.

Some of those hours I should have spent on family, friends and fun.

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