Since January 2016, Robert Wheat has served as the director of missions for the Bi-Fork Baptist Association in Vernon, 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?
- Serving in vocational ministry for 33 years, encompassing all positions within the church.
- Senior pastor of Poetry Baptist Church, 15 years (northeast of Dallas)
- Associate pastor / education at Acton Baptist Church, three years (Granbury, Texas)
- Minister of education and youth at Oates Drive Baptist Church, five years (Mesquite, Texas)
- Minister of youth and music and youth at various churches previously: Valwood Park Baptist Church; Brock Baptist Church; FBC Lavon; Ridgecrest Baptist Church; Williams Creek Baptist Church.
Where did you grow up?
Dallas and Garland, Texas
How did you come to faith in Christ?
I like to tell folks, “I’ve been going to church nine months before I was born.”
My father and mother were actively serving local churches throughout my growing years, and, truly, the church became a second home for me. However, even though I spent years in children’s choir, VBS and even camps, it was not until I was 13 years of age that I confessed Christ Jesus as Lord of my life.
I knew a lot of Sunday School answers and even portrayed the “good-kid” syndrome to my friends. The blessing of being raised in a church background was foundational to the reality of faith I would one day profess.
On October 7, 1979, I visited with my youth minister about truly knowing Christ as Lord, and his gracious visit with me led toward an eternal difference in the lives of many. At the age of 13, I became a believer and follower of Christ, but, at the age of 16, I became a servant of the Lord.
I knew he had bigger plans than I did, so I buckled up and let him take me on this fantastic journey of faith.
Where were you educated, and what degrees did you receive?
I graduated from the University of Texas in Dallas with a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration, knowing full well that I would be attending seminary for a more specific calling.
In January of 1990, I began the journey toward a Master of Arts in religious education with a youth concentration, only to drop the youth concentration one semester prior to graduation. The fuller scope of ministry was being laid out before me prior to graduation giving me a broader field of ministry.
I graduated from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in December of 1996. I was certainly hungry for more beyond this point, but I needed some debriefing from all the challenges in classwork.
In 2002, after accepting the call to serve as pastor of Poetry Baptist Church, I began my doctoral work through Master’s International School of Divinity in Evansville, Indiana. I loved their foundational scope of discipline: Christ-centered, Bible-based.
From 2002 till 2008, I studied, researched and performed seminars and classwork to accomplish a Doctorate of Bible Studies in pastoral ministry. I knew I had much education on education, but I wanted to pursue pastoral ministry and the disciplines proper for successful ministry. In August of 2008, I completed my coursework, paper and orals for graduation.
Why do you feel called to your particular vocation?
I learned a long time ago that I am called to God, and the joy of serving him in these various positions has been the channel by which I can be faithful to him. I absolutely love encouraging folk and praying for staff, churches and especially minister’s families.
The various positions I have served gave me prime knowledge to serve in this position at Bi-Fork. I have the opportunity to branch across all ministries and make connections with all types, kinds and sizes of churches.
No matter the size, the hearts make these connections a blessing … for me as well as my recipients … all for the glory of God.
Please tell us about your association—where it’s located, the key focus of its work and ministry, etc.
Bi-Fork Baptist Association is located within 8,300 square miles of nine counties just past Wichita Falls, Texas, and prior to Amarillo in the Panhandle. We utilized an office in Vernon, Texas, for several years, but the demands of ministry and the dollars of ministry have given us the blessing of being mobile. I have the joy of driving (a lot) and meeting pastors and staff where they are. The distance between the two farthest churches is about 180 miles, or about three hours.
The functionality of getting these churches to gather together regularly is difficult. The blessing of meeting regionally is far more beneficial. We serve around 40 churches which are more rurally contextualized and therefore in need of fellowship, resource and relationships which will strengthen their mission as a Great Commission church making Great Commandment disciples. Serving others is our main focus.
What do you like best about leading your association? Why?
I absolutely love visiting with pastors and praying for them. I have a list of all my churches, their staff and their families for which I pray for on a daily basis. When I pray for a pastor and his family, I feel deeply connected to their work and service to the community they serve.
My personal mission with these fellowships is: engage, encourage, equip, empower … as Christ gave the example: serve. The many times I get to travel and simply share the journey with them refreshes my own soul as much as theirs. One pastor even said, “It’s so good to know I have another friend.”
What aspect(s) of associational ministry and/or its mission do you wish more people understood?
Family. Not necessarily our own biological family, but our spiritual family as well. We have so many brothers and sisters who work and serve just around the corner for which we must give an account as to “seeing a brother in need” and helping or not helping.
When we see our own Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria ministry reach, we collectively are able to meet our “utmost” reach as well.
Bi-Fork is primarily about regional missions and ministry. State work is effectively managed by the state convention. National work is primarily channeled through NAMB, and certainly international work processes with IMB. Together, we can accomplish more.
No single church exists unto itself; no single pastor is capable on their own. However, when we do see a broader, bigger picture, we meet the woman at the well, the man in a tree, the hurt and wounded by the roadside and the field white unto harvest … all looking for Jesus. Will they see Jesus in me?
The two largest ministries we supply and provide for are Vernon College Baptist Student Ministry and Camp Chaparral. These two ministries are reaching another generation for Christ while connecting our churches with a much-needed ministry arm. No matter how big or small the church, we are all a part of seeing Christ transform lives through these two ministries.
How has your association and its mission changed since you began your career?
Bi-Fork began in 1978 as an area which serviced two main associations, both of which had several decades of history already.
In 2015, the one area became one association, versus two. Although the association has been instituted to serve one area, their mindset still seems to be diverse and segregated by miles of fence and farmland. I have seen in my short term (1 ½ years) the necessity to work regionally larger. We may be one association, but we are in need of closer connections with those we can reach locally.
Our association almost tends to work best when we see ourselves regionally and associationally. There are moments when we can share the journey with resources within a more confined space geographically. There are moments when we see the need to share a larger geographical footprint. However, we are discharging a local office in order to be more proactive with our churches where they exist. Our 8,300 square miles minister better when we divide and conquer.
Our association also works best with our new online fingerprint, which enhances our executive board meetings. We are currently hosting our executive board meetings online. We have several who can meet at our local BSM building in Vernon, but we also have those one hour away and 1 ½ hours away connecting at a local church online to be a part of discussions and information processed. It has truly added to the number of participants able to make decisions for our association. It also gives us a greater image of compassion for one another.
I envision our association utilizing resources in a much more responsible manner by truly sharing with one another the blessing of cooperation. We recently developed a Life Trailer, which is a cargo trailer filled with a bounce house, popcorn machine, snow-cone machine and sound system, with chairs and tables, to be utilized by all our churches in reaching families. Whether they choose to use it for VBS, retreats, backyard Bible club, mission trip, community presence or simply a fellowship for their church, we want families to be connected to the churches in their communities so they can become connected to Christ. This resource has only recently been added to our association, and it is getting the wheels rotating from one end to the other with use.
Our association has combined to disperse in order to bring together and send out for the purpose of Christ. Our mission has been evolving from programming to relationships. We are deeply more concerned about building relationships rather than resources. We are truly more concerned about seeing Christ increase while seeing ourselves decrease. Our mission: serve local churches in accomplishing the Great Commission while developing Great Commandment disciples — nothing new, just refreshed vision.
How do you expect your association and/or its mission to change in the next 10 to 20 years?
In reality, over the past 30 years of participating in association life through a local church staff, I see it decreasing. From IMB, NAMB, state and even local associational work, the numbers and dollars continue to decrease. We are facing a challenge today of many churches moving to bivocational ministry without ever truly planning for that change. It is happening quickly and broadly across our regions.
Directors of Mission who see the changes coming on the horizon will be able to adjust the vision of their association to meet the local ministry without too many hiccups. Branching beyond the usual and common definitions of what has been to see what can be will be a challenge for everyone — churches included.
However, I still see the need for regional churches to cooperate in their local communities to push back the darkness which is encroaching. We cannot stay within our typical walls of history to shine brightly in the darkness. For Bi-Fork Association churches, we see the future with great anticipation of more regionally focused energy while not detracting from international focus.
Numerous agencies are in place today to offer all sorts of experiences, and numerous personalities are authored to share their own experiences, but local connections must remain strong in order to “see a brother in need” (1 John 3:17). If we are to “go and do likewise,” according to Christ’s command, then we must be more compassionate to those who are not like us and those who differ from us to see eternal transformation (Luke 10:37).
In 10 years, I believe we will be more mobile and less management. We will be more relational and less bureau (officed). We will be personal and less personnel. We will likely be less to be more. That statement in and of itself is pregnant with meaning. Decreasing office, office resource, office personnel and even office investment must be our trail for a higher trail of treasure. We cannot collect things, but rather hearts, which will not rust or be destroyed eternally in Christ.
In 20 years, I believe there will be a different picture of the association. If numbers continue to change, relationships continue to change, beliefs and ideals continue to change, regardless of the same director, we will need to adjust to the demands of our time to promote an eternal message: God desires all to come to repentance; therefore, we must “Go!” How we go, where we go and with whom do we go will change in time, but we must go. Relationships will still be the key.
Name the three most significant challenges and/or influences facing your association.
Selling our associational office presently to rejoin the work of the association where it resides … regionally.
Improving the relationships of pastoral connectivity within the region without becoming a coffee club. We are in need of seeing real relationships develop and continue to develop for these servants to “bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
Being responsible with all the social and media connections which churches use for promotion. We realize that internet is here to stay; therefore, using the internet must be a means of use, not a means of abuse. We desire to make greater connections across the region and miles of service for which we serve.
Investment in lasting resource, relationships and region are the main focal points for us.
What one aspect of your job gives you the greatest joy or fulfillment?
Meeting pastors where they serve. Hearing their stories, joys, pains and celebrating alongside them in this journey of calling. When I get to fill their pulpits on any given Sunday, I know they are on retreat while I give them and their folks a blessing. I do have the greatest pastors in the state of Texas.
What are the key issues—opportunities and/or challenges—facing Baptist churches?
Identity: the lack of church context influencing our culture these days and the rise of a non-moral compass means the church is losing its relevance. Add to that “Baptist” and the many new church plants divulging themselves of the name “Baptist” and we have a community of churches or fellowships which have organic definitions. I find it humorous when you ask a “nondenominational” church-named staff what they really believe and they say, “Well, we’re really Baptist at heart.”
Baptists need to identify themselves with more relational compassion than historical agency if they are to gain the attentive ear of a new generation. We must show ourselves doers of the Word rather than merely hearers only. We must shine in the darkness rather than spotlight the darkness. We must empathize with the hurting rather than add to the hurt. We can be Christlike without being critique-like. We really should be more like John the Baptist — “He must increase; I must decrease” — if we are to make him known.
I also believe that staff in our Baptist churches need to be healthy. If a pastor is not healthy, their church will become unhealthy. A pastor is healthy only so far as his own walk and family are healthy. If the family of the pastor is healthy, the church can be healthier. If the church is healthy, the community can be healthier. If the community is healthy, then the region can be even more so and so on.
I still believe that Baptists do cooperation better than any other. I’m still a believer in the agents of change than the agency of change. I believe those who have gone before are truly cheering us onward but without self-gratifying measures and more noble-minded standards. “A noble man will make noble plans, and by noble plans, he stands” (Isaiah 32:8). But, most importantly, Micah 6:8 gives us a game plan for which we must meet all challenges: “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
We must find channels to cooperate in our mission and invest in the greater kingdom of God through missions. We cannot lose the missionaries in foreign soil as well as lose the mission in our own foreign soil. If we do, we’ve lost the soul of what it means to be Baptist.
What are the key issues facing Baptists as a people or denomination?
I believe as the Baptist churches go, so goes the denomination. We are not an island. We are a community of brothers and sisters; therefore, the individual churches will have a great deal of influence on the denomination. See above.
What would you change about the Baptist denomination—state, nation or local?
There is probably a slew of ideas about “change” which can be implemented. To be honest, giving the defense of hope we must present must be done with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).
I think the rhetoric has become so antagonistic across our nation for Baptist life that trying to change our identity or influence now would be like catching up to the speedboat long departed in our floaty. How we regain a positive influence in a world going downhill is a contemplative exercise in itself — perhaps too numerous to mention, without much influence to give.
Who were/are your mentors, and how did/do they influence you?
Jerry Griffin was a close mentor: a DOM who took me in, shared the journey of being a pastor and gave prayerful wisdom to a young pastor.
Pastor Bill Parr was a dear friend and mentor: as a retired pastor working with Little Hope Baptist Church, he was a good friend in ministry. He had served several Baptist churches and, as well, as a DOM in one association himself. He had mileage on his ministry which was necessary for me to listen.
Clinton Bratcher was a pastoral mentor: serving with him for only three years as an associate, but I watched his ministry compassionately meet the needs of so many. He was not an educated seminarian but was a wise pastor and friend.
Dr. Mark Bumpus and Dr. David Smith are two men I have great confidence in as I serve alongside them in my current position as DOM. It is necessary to have wise friends and men of integrity to glean from.
Other than the Bible, name some of your favorite books or authors, and explain why.
- “How Now Shall We Live,” Charles Colson: great resource of worldviews and definitions.
- “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist,” Geisler and Turek: good apologetics.
- “The Circle Maker,” Mark Batterson: God doesn’t answer vague prayers.
- “Praying God’s Word,” Beth Moore: solid biblical praying
- “Intimate Moments with the Savior,” Ken Gire: powerful biblical devotion
- “Instructive Moments with the Savior,” Ken Gire: parabolic discovery
- “Incredible Moments with the Savior,” Ken Gire: miracle moments
- “My Utmost for His Highest,” Oswald Chambers: Who wouldn’t grow through this?
- “The Joshua Code,” O. S. Hawkins: we need to know God’s Word
- “The Jesus Code,” O. S. Hawkins: we should be able to answer incredible questions biblically
- “Fresh Wind Fresh Fire,” Jim Cymbala: incredible stories and quotes for igniting faith within our hearts
- “Fresh Power,” Jim Cymbala: another great movement of God’s Spirit
- “Fresh Faith,” Jim Cymbala: powerful stories of faith
- “Mere Christianity,” C. S. Lewis: historic apologetics
- “Radical,” David Platt: unsettling times call for revival of faith
What is your favorite Bible verse or passage? Why?
Isaiah 40:8: “The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of our God shall stand forever.” (Period.)
Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness [mercy], and to walk humbly with your God?” (Doer of the Word.)
Psalm 139: (Creature being humbled before our Creator.)
Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” (Practice; doer of the Word.)
Romans 8 and Romans 12: (Absolute powerful promises and passages of practice.)
Who is your favorite Bible character, other than Jesus? Why?
Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, who feared God more than man and helped rescue the people of Israel under judgment during Moses’ time. Numbers 25 has the story. He was bold and courageous to do what no other was willing to do at the moment.
God’s wrath was satisfied in a sort under this action. It speaks volumes about God’s wrath being settled because of the piercing of Christ on our behalf.
Name something about you that would surprise people who know you well.
I love to play the piano, guitar, bass and drums and certainly love great worship when people abandon their routine for the real. I am a connoisseur of all types of worship music, as well as great root beer.
If you could get one “do over” in your career, what would it be, and why?
Serving various churches as a youth minister, I certainly would love the chance to share a more intense love of Christ with teens who got lost in the entertainment of our ministry over the years. We played a lot and took up time in some instances, but to truly share the love of Christ naturally and faithfully at all times would be a great treasure to reignite.
I have the memory of one young man who was a bit more effeminate in nature than other boys, and we laughed at the zany moments of immaturity which today have led him to be fully embracing of homosexuality. His home life was difficult at times, but the youth ministry was a safe place for him, as well as a proving ground for the musty male egos to laugh off his personality. My wife and I both have revisited with him as an adult, and we wish we could have helped steer him otherwise.
Write and answer a question you wish we had asked.
What is one thing you want to be remembered for in marriage, family and ministry?
I want to be known as the one who loved my wife more than ministry, who gave all I could to cherish the relationship with my wife more than any object or item of temporary existence.
I wish to be known as the father who gave love, time and investment to his two children, cherished the moments with extended family, as well as gave all I could so others could succeed.
I want others to know that my calling was to serve God, and the blessing was to serve others in the various capacities of that calling in those seasons of life. I want others to know that my life and energy were invested in the Kingdom of God for his glory and that I desired others to join me on this journey of faith.