Tom Billings: ‘No one church can reach a city by itself’

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In 1998, Tom Billings became the interim executive director of Union Baptist Association in Houston, Texas. The following year, he became its full-time executive director, a position he still holds today. 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 else have you worked, and what were your positions?

Prior to coming to Houston, I served as the pastor of Brookside Baptist Church (Nashville, Tenn.), Valley View Baptist Church (Nashville, Tenn.), First Baptist Church (Siloam Springs, Ark.) and First Baptist Church (North Augusta, S.C.).

Since coming to Houston in 1988, I have served on the staff of the UBA Center for Counseling (therapist and executive director) and as the associate director for UBA.

I have also served as the interim pastor of several churches in the Houston area: Garden Oaks, First Baptist (Porter), Parkway, Jersey Village and Bear Creek.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Nashville but grew up in the St. Louis area, near Hazelwood, Miss.

How did you come to faith in Christ?

I came to faith in Christ during a revival service at Hazelwood Baptist Church in 1962.

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

I received a bachelor of arts in psychology from Belmont College (now Belmont University) in Nashville in 1972, a masters of divinity from Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary in 1975 and a doctorate of ministry from SWBTS in 1985. I have also done graduate study in clinical psychology at the University of Houston/Clear Lake.

Ministry/Profession

Why do you feel called to your particular vocation?

Working in the association was never something I aspired to, but, once here, it became obvious that it was a good fit for me.

I enjoyed being a pastor, but, even as a pastor, I realized my framework for thinking about the church was larger than the local congregation. As the executive director, my focus is on reaching a city, not just growing a congregation.

Once, when considering a call to another congregation, a mentor (Jim Henry) encouraged me to pray, and if I felt God leading me to that city, then I could consider whether or not to serve through that congregation. When we came to Houston, I clearly felt called to a city.

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

Started in 1840, Union Baptist Association was the first, and, for many years, the only association in the state of Texas. In the beginning, it was known simply as “the association.” Over time, they settled on the name Union.

Through the years, UBA has been instrumental in starting Baylor University, other associations, state conventions, Houston Baptist University and Memorial Hospital.

Approximately 600 churches are affiliated with UBA. One-third of them are predominantly Anglo, one-third are predominantly African American and one-third speak a language other than English when they worship. Houston is the most ethnically and culturally diverse major metropolitan region in the US, and UBA reflects that diversity.

Houston, like all of Texas, is a mission field. As such, we see UBA as the primary mission agency for reaching Houston with the gospel. Unlike traditional mission agencies, who see their job as training and sending out missionaries, we see our work being done in and through the local church. Therefore, we believe the mission of UBA is to mobilize our congregations to take on lostness.

We do many of the things other associations do. We focus on leadership development, church planting and strengthening the work of our local churches.

Beyond that, we help churches learn and do the things necessary to reach the least reached among us with the gospel. We have pioneered work in the US in orality, people group research, organic churches and prison ministry. We specialize in demographic and ethnographic research, strategic planning, scenario development, trend assessment and organizational change.

We have an especially strong emphasis on developing Hispanic church leaders.

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

I love the diversity in our city and the challenge of working with multiple cultures.

I love the entrepreneurial spirit in our city and the freedom to experiment and try new things.

I love the challenge of thinking creatively and finding new or better ways to do things.

I love the challenge of leading churches to adapt and minister in our ever-changing cultural context while retaining a clear commitment to biblical authority and teaching.

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

An association is not an institution. It is a strategy of cooperation and collaboration. The biblical metaphor of the body of Christ in which all the parts work together perfectly fits the association.

No one church, no matter how large and well-resourced, can reach a city by itself. The scope of the work is too large and the diversity of the unreached communities too complex for any one congregation to believe it can reach them while working alone. Only when churches join forces (and resources) and work collectively do we have any hope of reaching our cities for Christ.

The local association, comprised of staff and congregational leaders, is best suited to develop strategies and initiatives that will reach a city for Christ.

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

When I began work at UBA, we were transitioning from a period in which the primary focus of the association was to “make better Baptists.” The association was structured much like a large church. We had an educational division, a youth division and black and Hispanic work. We taught church leaders how to do Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, deacon ministry, January Bible study, etc.

In the early ‘90s, UBA transitioned to a consultant model that focused on healthy churches. We framed our work this way: the mission of UBA is to develop healthy congregations that transform their communities, Houston and the world. We studied congregational systems, strategic planning and change management. We wanted to help churches become healthier and help pastors learn how to lead in an ever-changing, highly complex, rapidly diversifying metropolitan environment.

As the city continued to grow and diversify, our focus shifted again. Houston is one of the faster growing major metropolitan areas in the country. The population increases by approximately 100,000 to 150,000 people annually. Those moving to the city come from all over the world. (Since the last census, Houston is considered the most ethnically and culturally diverse metropolitan region in the US.) So, we shifted our focus to leading churches to develop a missionary mindset, to think more like missionaries though in our home context.

The Great Commission has always been our focus. Today we say our mission is to mobilize churches to take on lostness.

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

The mission should never change. Our strategies for fulfilling our mission must, however, be fluid. As our context changes, the association (and churches) must adapt in order to find the most effective ways to fulfill the Great Commission.

It’s hard to generalize what the association of the future will be like because context greatly influences strategy and structure.

That said, there are trends that I believe will affect the association.

  • Diversity — ethnic, generational, cultural, linguistic — will make our work more complex, layered and nuanced.
  • Technology will continue to change the way we communicate and relate to one another, the way we understand presence, the amount of time we have available for work and the kind of work we do (among other things).
  • Secularization will marginalize the church more and more.
  • Religious pluralism and the demand for tolerance will make it harder and harder for conservative Baptist ideas and beliefs to be welcomed in social conversation.
  • Reduced funds for conventions and convention agencies (as well as associations) have encouraged greater competition for funds in the fight to survive. The genius of Southern Baptist life — the Cooperative Program — is in jeopardy, and we may revert to a more societal structure.
  • The rise of the mega-church: Where once the large churches were invested in the work of the association, today they tend to focus on their own missions efforts. (Fortunately, in Houston we still enjoy the support of our largest congregations, but I know this is not true everywhere.)
  • Fluidity of Baptist identity: When I began, what it meant to be a Baptist church was clear and relatively uncontested. What it means to be a Baptist today is in flux. For example, with the cross-pollination of various church traditions, now you can be a Baptist church and be led by a pastor and staff working with committees or led by a plurality of elders that make all the decisions for the church. You can be affiliated with a Baptist association/state convention without having Baptist in your church name and without the congregation knowing they are part of the Baptist church tradition. Some states, like Texas, have two Baptist conventions because they cannot agree on what it means to be Southern Baptists today.

I’m sure there are others, but those come quickly to mind.

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

  • Funding
  • Competition from other networks (e.g., Leadership Network, Acts 29)
  • Tendency among many church planters not to identify as Baptist
  • The challenge to change without compromising biblical teaching. It’s been said that doing the same thing over and over will produce the same results. I don’t think that will be true for the association in the future. I think doing the same thing over and over will more likely produce diminished results. We must change with our context while holding firmly to the teachings of Scripture.

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

At this junction in my life, seeing the next generation of leaders rise up, assume responsibility and continue the work I’ve done throughout my career.

About Baptists

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

Challenges

  • Theology: particularly the growing influence of Calvinism
  • Denominational cross-pollination: blending of church traditions, loss of Baptist identity
  • Secularization and the marginalization of the church
  • Sexuality, gender identity
  • Ethnic diversity: mission field moving to America

Opportunities

  • Ethnic diversity: mission field moving to America
  • Boomers: retired, well-resourced, healthy, able to serve for many years

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

See above

About Tom

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

  • Parents and grandparents, too many ways to mention
  • Ben Rogers, pastor when I was first called to ministry
  • Jim Henry, mentor, example
  • Jim Slack, missiologist, helped me learn to think like a missionary
  • Jim Herrington, friend, co-worker, influenced my thinking about associational work
  • the authors mentioned below

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

These books influenced my thinking about leading an organization

  • “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey
  • “The Fifth Discipline,” Peter Senge
  • “Leading Change,” John Kotter

These authors helped shape my faith and understanding of the church: Philip Yancey, Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, D. Elton Trueblood, C. S. Lewis, Lesslie Newbigin and John R. W. Stott

What is your favorite Bible verse or passage? Why?

I don’t know that I would call this a favorite Bible passage but rather something I have tried to pattern my life after.

Jesus told a parable about guests who picked the places of honor at a banquet (Luke 14:7–14). He encouraged his followers not to seek the places of honor, but to “take the lowest place … For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” On another occasion, he told the parable of the servant who did everything he was told and opined that the attitude of his followers should be “we are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty” (Luke 17:10).

I am not a self-promoter. I have not sought leadership positions, but I have accepted them as they have come and tried to do my best with each responsibility I have been given.

If there is any passage I use in prayer over and over again, it would be James 1:5: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given him.”

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

Moses. He was a reluctant change agent. Self-deprecating (humble), meek, intelligent, willing to learn from others, knew he could not do the work God called him to do alone, imperfect yet effective, intimate with God, obedient to God and God’s purpose for his life, thought strategically, developed systems (e.g., codes of conduct, systems for worship) and possessed the qualities of an entrepreneur/innovator/inventor.

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

I doubt there is anything about me that would surprise people who knew me well.

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