South Carolina Baptists will consider Arkansas pastor as next executive director-treasurer

Gwen Hollingsworth was watering flowers during a moment of September quiet time with the Lord. She knew a South Carolina Baptist Convention (SCBC) Search Team had approached her husband, Gary, about his possible candidacy for the open executive director-treasurer position.

Earlier in the search process, Rick Lance, executive director of the State Board of Missions and treasurer of the Alabama Baptist Convention, had contacted the Search Team and recommended Hollingsworth. A Skype interview occurred with the Search Team, and Gary says, “I didn’t have a real call at that point. Gwen and I prayed about it; I was happy in my church.”

A few months had passed, and the Lord began to whisper.

As Gwen watered her flowers and prayed, she says she told the Lord, “We just want to be where you want us to be and to clearly hear your voice.” I said, “If it is South Carolina, I just need to know clearly.”

As Gwen prayed in Arkansas, Gary was on a mission trip to San Diego, where Immanuel Baptist was involved with a church plant. “The Lord spoke to me. He spoke to me and told me to ‘Get ready.’ Back at home, the Hollingsworths talked and prayed with one another and within a month heard from the Search Team again. Marshall Blalock, chairman of the Search Team, asked, “Has anything changed?”

On Thursday, January 14, messengers to a special called meeting of the South Carolina Baptist Convention (SCBC) will consider Hollingsworth, senior pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church, in Little Rock, AR, as its next executive director-treasurer. The SCBC, organized in 1821, is the oldest state convention in the Southern Baptist Convention, which was organized in 1845. The meeting will be from 1:30-3 p.m. at Shandon Baptist Church in Columbia.

Gary Hollingsworth, 58, was raised in a Christian home, he says. His father, a civil servant, was an orphan at 11 and did not grow up as a Christian but came to know Jesus when he got married. Gary’s mother, a homemaker, was a Methodist. The young couple went to a Baptist church because they didn’t own a car and could walk to Northside Baptist Church in Anniston, AL.

“I believe strongly that discipleship begins in the home,” Gary says. “Parents are the primary disciple-makers of their children, and I am a blessed beneficiary of that. My parents loved Jesus, and my two sisters and I knew it. We were a ‘Leave It To Beaver’ kind of middle class family.” It was through that family commitment to faith that Gary says, “At 7 years old, I came to understand Jesus, that I was a sinner, and I was led to Christ by my parents in our home.” He was baptized at Northside Baptist Church.

When Gary was in the ninth grade, his dad was transferred to Huntsville, AL and worked at Redstone Arsenal, a U.S. Army post. The family joined Highlands Baptist Church, and at 17 Gary sensed the call to full-time ministry.

“I knew God was calling me to something,” he says. “The church was very active in ministry and gave me an opportunity to serve. John Bob Riddle came to preach a revival, gave the invitation, and said he knew there were people wanting to give their life to full-time service. I responded to that call at 17.”

It was at the church that he also met Gwen, who was a year younger in school. They carpooled together to high school, sang together in an ensemble, and were in youth choir together. Their first date was her junior high school prom in April 1975.

Gwen says, “I started praying as an eighth-grader that God would send me a Godly man to marry, and that I wouldn’t miss him when he came.” The two were married in December 1978. Gary was ordained to the Gospel Ministry at Carrollton Baptist Church in Carrollton, AL in 1979.

He graduated from the University of Alabama in 1979 with a bachelor of science degree in recreation administration and served as minister of students at Dauphin Way Baptist Church in Mobile from 1979-1981. After graduating with a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, in 1984, Gary served as minister of students at Rehoboth Baptist Church in Atlanta from 1984-1987. He then served as associate pastor/administration at Central Baptist Church, Oak Ridge, TN, from 1987-1989.

His pastorates include Shively Baptist Church, Louisville, KY, 1989-1991; First Baptist Church, Alexandria, VA, 1991-1995; First Baptist Church, Trussville, AL, 1995-2005, and Immanuel Baptist Church, Little Rock, AR since 2007. He received his Doctor of Ministry from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, in 1996. From 2005-2007, he served as senior director, cultural evangelism for the North American Mission Board (NAMB) in Atlanta.

Reviewing his resume stops, Gary and Gwen both laugh when considering the 2016 NCAA Football Championship Game between the University of Alabama, his Alma Mater, and Clemson University, and the timing of the game in the same week South Carolina Baptists will vote on his candidacy for the executive director-treasurer position.

“I am for the Crimson Tide, and Gwen is a big-time college football fan,” he says. “But, when I was serving at First Baptist Trussville, AL, I got to know and respect Dabo Swinney. At the time, he was an assistant coach at Alabama, and Trussville was part of his recruiting territory. When he was in town, he always worshipped with us and always took time to visit with me. I’m so proud of the success that he is having at Clemson.”

Even as he has served as student pastor, associate pastor, senior pastor, and denominational staff member, Gary has also poured himself into denominational service. He served as a trustee for the Alabama State Board of Missions from 1999-2005, and as board chairman from 2002-2004. He was president of Alabama’s Pastor’s Conference in 2004. He served as a NAMB trustee from 2002-2005, and on the Southern Baptist Convention’s Committee on Committees in both 2004 and 2014. In Arkansas, he has served as a convention trustee since 2009 and was board president from 2012-2014. He is currently serving as the Arkansas Baptist State Convention president and is a trustee for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

“Denominations only exist to serve churches, especially on the state level,” Gary says. “The primary function of a state convention is to strengthen and serve churches. A state convention can’t do it for the church, but we can work to strengthen the churches.”

Demonstrated by Immanuel’s emphasis to plant churches and serve church plants, Gary says state denominations must recognize that church planting represents new life and new growth; helping churches start new ministries is equally important.

“It boils down to leadership,” he says. “How do (denominational servants) help churches, pastors, and lay leaders all have a healthy approach to ministry?”

Against that, Gary recognizes that culture is affecting Christianity today.

“We are living in a culture that has shifted and changed so dramatically,” he says. “People don’t take the Bible seriously, and Christians are seen as being out of step with culture. As Christians, we can wring our hands and say ‘Woe is me’ or we can roll up our sleeves and get to work. The last time I checked history, the Romans weren’t impressed with the Apostle Paul, but those early Christians kept at it.”

“A New Testament church sees lost people saved and saved people growing. Denominations help bring clarity and focus to it. A lot of work is to be done, but I’m optimistic that we can plant new churches and strengthen existing churches.”

If elected by messengers, Gary says he will spend ample time learning before acting.

“I will have to get my mind wrapped around the state,” he says. “I will spend a lot of time getting to know people and listening to people. Already, there are conversations about statewide listening sessions so I can get out in the state, meet pastors and leaders, and I want them to meet me. I want to hear what God is doing and hear about opportunities that are out there.

“I do love people,” he says. “Having served as a student pastor and an associate pastor, I know what it’s like to be on a staff when you aren’t in the lead chair. I also know what it’s like to be in that lead chair. I know what it’s like to be in the trenches, and I have empathy for pastors who are facing struggles and opposition.

“I have a heart for the smaller membership churches and for bivocational pastors,” he says. “I want to be a pastor to pastors. I would love that role – to personally and prayerfully be alongside pastors in ministry.”

He has studied the work of South Carolina Baptists under the year-long leadership interim executive director-treasurer Richard Harris with whom he worked alongside at NAMB. As he studied the convention’s focus on evangelism, missions, church planting, and church revitalization, he saw direct parallels with the vision of Immanuel Baptist Church.

“There won’t need to be a new vision for South Carolina Baptists,” he says. “You have four great priorities, and that’s exactly what we need to be doing.”

Because so many Southern Baptist churches still involve lay people through Sunday School, Gary was asked specifically about its role in the future of Southern Baptist churches.

“I am a Sunday School guy,” he says. “I was trained early on in my ministry about what it takes to build and keep a strong Sunday School ministry, and I believe there is great value in how we Southern Baptists do Sunday School. If Sunday School isn’t working, it’s probably because the church isn’t working at it.

“But, having said all of that, for some churches – like church plants, for example – home groups or small groups may be better suited for that church than traditional Sunday School. Sunday School is our bread and butter, but the convention should be prepared to help churches with different approaches to small groups.”

He says, “Our goal can’t be to fill up cold metal chairs, but to teach the word of God, grow and get people in small groups with one another, and break the missional code,” he says. “We need to be missionally doing and not just sitting in cold metal chairs.”

Gary says he loves an evangelistic spirit among South Carolina Baptists and knows there is an urgency among pastors today to identify the spiritual enemy, to stop fighting with other Christians, and be salt and light to the world.

“The whole nation watched South Carolina Baptists in 2015,” he says. “We watched how you responded to the shootings in Charleston, how you responded to the flooding in your state this fall, and how you gave $ 1 million to international missions. I commend South Carolina Baptists for the way you were poised and ready to be available in hard times and in response to hard times. It sends a message to the world that South Carolina Baptists are Christ followers, that you love people, and that He sent you to serve others in His name. I am excited about being a part of what’s happening.”

Gwen Hollingsworth, who teaches Bible Study at Immanuel Baptist Church, looks back on the last few months, listening and hearing from the Lord regarding the leadership opportunity within the South Carolina Baptist Convention. She knows the Lord has spoken, and any tears are not tears of sadness.

“When you love deep in a place, you hurt deep when it’s time to say good-bye,” she says. “Any tears are more for the dear friendships we have made here in Arkansas. In ministry, you sew a part of your life into a people and place, and now it’s time to begin sewing in South Carolina.”

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