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Mentoring the key to growth at New Mexico church

First Baptist Church in Las Vegas, N.M. was organized in January 1880.

LAS VEGAS, N.M. (BP) – A big part of First Baptist Church’s rebirth can be attributed to one man’s willingness to share and another’s willingness to listen. On Aug. 29, it also included the former walking away.

Michael Dean

Mike Dean had served as the church’s interim pastor for more than a year when he made it known last spring that Zac Teston, 30, would be his successor. Although unconventional, it wasn’t controversial, as the mentoring relationship between the two had become well known. Since September, Dean hasn’t been back as Teston has taken the reins in his first pastorate.

At the beginning of 2020, Dean was living in Glorieta, N.M. He had experienced a long life in ministry, most of it as pastor for 28 years at Travis Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. Now retired, he was helping fill pulpits at his leisure. However, his friend and then-New Mexico Baptist Convention Executive Director Joseph Bunce had a favor to ask of the 65-year-old Dean.

First Baptist Church in Las Vegas, about 45 minutes north of Glorieta, was struggling. No one wanted to see the state convention’s oldest church go under. Could Dean help?

“They were wanting to get the church stable,” Dean said. “At that point it was down to just a few people who were committed to the church. Young families who were attending didn’t want to just walk away.”

A series of pastors with brief tenures had left the church on shaky ground. Dean determined consistency would be key, but how are you supposed to establish it with an interim pastor? And how can you do it in an area that, like so many, had proven difficult for holding onto ministers long-term?

Zac Teston, pastor of First Baptist Church in Las Vegas, N.M., delivers a recent sermon.

The answer came not long after his arrival. Teston grew up in the Milnesand community in the southeastern part of the state, about 10 miles from the Texas border. His wife, Sara, is from Farwell, Texas, an hour’s drive northeast and sharing the state line with Texico, N.M. The two met as students and were involved in the Baptist Student Union at Eastern New Mexico State University in Portales.

After serving as collegiate ministry missionaries in Houston, the couple felt led back to their home state – specifically, Las Vegas – in 2017. There, they would be part of Christian Challenge/Baptist Collegiate Ministries at New Mexico Highlands University as well as First Baptist Church.

There was no lack of willingness or opportunity for ministry in the area, Teston said. But for whatever reason, the results didn’t come.

“The people were faithful and continued to serve,” he said. “We tried community groups with some success and efforts like door-to-door witnessing and gathering food and clothing items for people. But we didn’t see a lot of fruit.”

Things changed after Dean’s arrival, but also with the COVID-19 shutdown. Schedules opened up, which he suspects allowed people to be more involved through the church. Teston also believes a stronger desire for community played a factor.

About a year ago Rick Brittain, the state convention’s regional missionary for northern New Mexico, met with the church and shared some history associated with First Baptist’s founding. In early 1880, he said, members from a Baptist church in Trinidad, Colo., had discussed the need for a church in Las Vegas, a town which at that time a town had a reputation for lawlessness.

The Las Vegas Shootout on Jan. 22, 1880, led to the shooting deaths of two men and the lynching deaths of three more two weeks later. It’s one of the more notorious Wild West gunfights in the state’s history.

Rick Brittain

“The people starting this church back then saw the needs and worked toward meeting those needs,” Brittain told church members. “They thought about what this place should look like, their vision. What is your vision for First Baptist reaching the community today?”

The separation of 120 years didn’t change the needs that much, he said. Then and now, there was a broken community. There were spiritual people, but little Gospel witness.

Teston had been filling the pulpit before Dean’s arrival and continued to do so once or twice a month. Now, though, he had the added benefit of a veteran pastor’s experience. Over lunch at a restaurant or brown-bagging it at the church, the benefits of gray hair mentioned in Proverbs 16:31 became apparent in their meetings and thus, in their relationship.

“He’s a very encouraging guy,” Teston said. “He’s been doing this so long and is humble about it.

“One of the biggest things I took away is the role of the pastor. We may think it’s just about the sermon. But the pastor leads, cares for and teaches the church. We must see the needs and meet them.”

In addition to Dean and Brittain, leadership at First Baptist has also come through Jonathan Bull, a church member who directs campus ministries at New Mexico Highlands. Collegians have been instrumental in the church’s growth from 17 in worship a few years ago to the 50-60 on any given Sunday now. Teston estimated that 300-400 people in the community came to a festival hosted at the church Oct. 31.

Sunday evenings have become home to First Baptist’s youth ministry, which sees 10-20 students each week. The number of younger siblings tagging along prompted a new children’s ministry last spring.

Soon after arriving, Dean said, he recognized Teston’s potential as a pastor.

“Pastor work is people work,” he said. “You build and develop relationships, live alongside them and walk with them through seasons of life.”

Teston, he added, has been developing those relationships and will continue to do so. He anticipates the “Christlike leadership” he has observed in the congregation will continue in that direction as well. Dean, for his part, has moved on to another interim at a church in Rio Bravo, outside of Albuquerque.

Brittain believes more mentoring relationships could help in passing along experience and wisdom to young pastors.

“Here, you had a young guy who came to Las Vegas at his own expense to minister,” he said. “You have an older guy with a lot of experience. It was a perfect match.

“The younger guy wants to grow. The older guy wants to pass the torch.”

That desire in both of them is the building block, Brittain said.