ANCHORAGE, Alaska (BP)–Those who serve God in Alaska tend to count their years in the frontier state in terms of how many winters they’ve weathered, and for Mike Procter, the new executive director of the Alaska Baptist Convention, this is the 25th winter.
Winters in Alaska are long, cold and dark, with snow starting in October and staying on the ground through April, Procter said, but the overwhelming number of lost people and a sure call from God is what keeps him there.
Procter will succeed David Baldwin, who is retiring Dec. 31 after 10 years as executive director and 29 years of service in Alaska. Since 2002, Procter has served as the convention’s director of missions and church planting, and before that he served 10 years as director of missions for the Chugach Baptist Association in Anchorage.
About 25 years ago, Procter and his wife Rebecca were serving with the Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) at a church in northern Nevada when the board asked them to move to Alaska, where he would serve as pastor of Glacier Valley Baptist Church in Juneau.
“The work is wide open,” Procter said of the potential for evangelism and ministry in Alaska. “Everywhere you look, everywhere you go, you have great opportunities to witness and to share with people and to minister to people.
“Ninety-seven percent of our people are unchurched. We have 100 villages, communities that have no church of any type,” he told Baptist Press. “We don’t have a lot of the misconceptions or the societal expectations with regard to churches and Christians that they have in the lower 48 states.”
In a southern state, for instance, if a family stays home on Sunday morning instead of going to church, a neighbor might wonder what’s wrong, Procter said. But in Alaska, if a family goes to church on Sunday morning, neighbors ask, “What is wrong with them?”
Procter earned a doctorate and a master’s degree from International Theological Seminary in El Monte, Calif., and a bachelor’s degree from California Baptist University in Riverside. In addition to pastoral positions in Alaska, Nevada, California and Germany, Procter has served as an adjunct professor at Alaska Baptist Native School of Theology and Alaska Baptist College.
Given his experience in the state, Procter is more prepared than most for the challenges he’ll face as executive director. He already knows much of what to expect.
“Transportation in the state is a challenge. Those 100 villages, none of them are connected by road. The only way to get there is to fly or take a boat. That’s always a challenge,” he said. “The cost of living in the villages is very high. A gallon of milk can cost you anywhere from $10 to $12. A gallon of gas will cost you $7 to $10. A loaf of store brand bread will cost $3 or $3.50.
“Where I live in Anchorage, we’ve got everything. We’ve got McDonald’s and Taco Bell and Sam’s Club and Walmart. But in the villages, that’s where it’s tough,” Procter said.
Procter drafted a list of questions to present to people who think they may want to serve in Alaska, and it’s a list he felt compelled to compile because of the uniqueness of the environment.
First, the person must sense a real and strong call of God to serve in Alaska, and the spouse must sense it, too. Alaska is a long way from home in most cases, and Procter advises prospective pastors to plan to save for up to three years to afford to take their families on a vacation to the lower 48 states.
“If you are used to going to grandma’s or mom’s for Christmas, Thanksgiving or special occasions, realize that this will not happen,” Procter wrote. “If there is a death in the family, often only one person can attend the funeral.”
Also, Procter makes known that most of the congregations in the Alaska Baptist Convention average fewer than 75 people in attendance on Sunday mornings and 75 percent of the churches need a pastor with outside income either by serving as a bivocational pastor, having some type of retirement or the wife working outside the home.
It’s also important to know, Procter said, that isolation and smallness of the congregations and most communities is a significant factor. The schools are small, too, sometimes with multiple grades in one classroom and lacking the sports programs, music opportunities, computer labs and after-school programs common at larger schools.
Those who serve in Alaska also must be prepared to minister cross-culturally, Procter said, as Alaska is home to three major cultures — Eskimo, Indian and Aleut — with numerous subcultures.
The state certainly is unique. For instance:
— Alaska has more coastline that the rest of the United States combined.
— The four largest employers in the state are government, oil, fishing and tourism.
— The total state population is 670,000, with the three largest cities being Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau.
— Many communities do not yet have electricity, indoor plumbing or running water.
— Some communities can get up to 300 inches of rain and 30 feet of snow a year.
Counting constituted churches, missions, preaching points and Bible studies, the Alaska Baptist Convention has 110 congregations, Procter said, so the work is only beginning.
Among his priorities as executive director, Procter said, is an effort to reevaluate the convention’s strategies and structure in light of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force report adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in June.
“We are going to be looking at how we’re going to be able to resource, serve and partner with our churches in these areas: seeking Christ, sharing Christ, strengthening congregations, starting congregations and sending Christians,” he said. “We’re going to be developing our strategies based around those five areas.”
Procter also had a message for Southern Baptists: “Just tell them, ‘Thank you for supporting the Cooperative Program and Annie Armstrong, and keep it up.'”
Erin Roach is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.