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Montana’s new exec aims to help churches

BILLINGS, Mont. (BP)–Fred Hewett, whose background stretches from the corporate world to the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, is the new executive director of the Montana Southern Baptist Convention.

“We are excited about having Fred here and look forward to what he brings to Montana and the ministries we want to see grow here,” said William Johnson, church planter/pastor of Gallatin Valley Fellowship in Manhattan, Mont., vice president of the state convention and a member of the executive board search committee.

“It’s a great benefit for Montana that the executive director has the skills and background Fred has,” Johnson continued. “He’s expressed a passion for having healthy churches in Montana and that those healthy churches reproduce and start new churches, which will help our effectiveness in reaching the lost in Montana. And he’s just a very personable guy, which goes along with the relational atmosphere that’s needed in Montana.”

The landscape of Montana is changing, Hewett said, referring to the landscape of its people, not the Big Sky Country’s undulating wheat fields in the eastern part of the state or the craggy mountains to the west. The number of hardworking cowboys, lumberjacks and copper miners are decreasing and the number of early retirees intent on enjoying a life of ease is increasing, the new executive director said.

“There’s coming a day when we’ll need to intersect our church planting strategy with many of our churches that are in decline and want to start again or experience renewal,” Hewett said while sitting at the desk that has been his since mid-February.

Hewett has a background in starting and strengthening churches, coming to Montana from the North American Mission Board, where he was a church planting coordinator for nearly four years in a 10-state/two-nation region stretching from Texas and Louisiana to Canada.

Hewett, a Florida native, previously had led in revitalizing the urban Morningside Baptist Church in Atlanta and in starting Church in the Farms in a West Palm Beach, Fla., equestrian suburb.

Morningside, where he had to clean cobwebs out of the baptistery, grew during the two years he was there from 50 senior adults to 165 people of all ages, Hewett said. In the last of his eight years at Church in the Farms, 650 people were attending Sunday morning worship and 92 people were baptized.

Reared in a nominal Christian home, Hewett made a profession of faith at 19. During a revival meeting, he recounted, “the oldest man in the church turned around and pointed his bony finger at me and told me I needed to go forward, and I did. All those seeds that had been planted in my life for all those years burst forth, and I nailed down my salvation for sure.”

That was 1973. Hewett had already enlisted in the Navy and was convinced he was going to Vietnam. Instead, he spent three years in Naval Intelligence at the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Md. Then he returned to Gainesville, Fla., where he earned a B.S. degree in agriculture and married Cherryl Sanders. Today they have two grown children and one granddaughter.

“God backed me into the ministry,” Hewett said. “It happened as I was leaving the U.S. Navy. The pastor of my home church knew I played the guitar, and the youth pastor had just left. It was the tail end of the Jesus movement and God blessed my three years there in youth ministry.”

Despite sensing a call to vocational ministry, Hewett instead “climbed the corporate ladder” for the next 12 years.

“While God allowed me to experience financial and business success, in my mid-30s I found myself very empty in my soul,” Hewett said. “Jan. 2, 1990, I got in my Jeep and drove to a little hotel on Lake Okeechobee with my Bible and a pad of paper. I said to Him, ‘God, I need to hear from You. Please show me what You want me to do with my life.’ He was calling me to leave the business world because that had become my god, and serve Him in vocational ministry.”

Hewett earned an M.Div. degree in 1992 from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary by entering its Orlando, Fla.,-based seminary extension program. He earned a D.Min. degree in 2000 from Luther Rice Seminary.

“I really have a heart for the local church and believe that if we’re going to reach North America for Jesus Christ it’s going to be done through the ministry of the local church,” said Hewett, who honed his skills in a variety of roles during his seminary years. “God has gifted me with the spiritual gifts of administration and leadership, and my background is filled with both rural blue-collar and city white-collar experiences, and the blending of those two makes me a good fit in Montana.

“Not only am I very passionate about church planting, but I’m also passionate about strengthening local churches, and I have experience in both areas,” the new executive director said.

“We are excited about Dr. Fred Hewett becoming our state exec,” said Montana native Sam Birky, director of missions in Glacier Baptist Association in western Montana. “He brings the corporate experience to help our convention mature professionally, spiritual passion to fuel the Great Commission fire among our churches, friendship to encourage our state leaders, and a team approach that inspires each of us to work harder, smarter and successfully.”

Six of the seven counties in Glacier Baptist Association are among the 10 fastest-growing counties in the state, Birky said. About 20 percent of Montana’s residents live in that picturesque Rocky Mountain region, which includes the Bitterroot Mountains and the Bob Marshall Wilderness area.

“Those moving in are early retirees from California, Oregon and Washington, mostly,” Birky said. “They are largely unchurched.”

The Montana convention, which attained that status six years ago, encompasses some 130 congregations in six regional associations. Out of every $100 in Cooperative Program giving from Montana churches, $22 is sent on to national and international missions and ministries of the Southern Baptist Convention. The remainder stays in Montana, as part of its $1.5 million annual budget. The state also remains heavily dependent on NAMB funding and on the support it receives from its partnership with Tennessee Baptist Convention, out-of-state churches and associations, Hewett said.

“We are thankful for the generous giving of those who partner with us and their generosity in other ways, through mission trips that build churches, lead in backyard Bible clubs and Vacation Bible Schools, do surveys and more,” Hewett said.

Isolation is among the challenges faced by Southern Baptist pastors in Montana, the nation’s fourth-largest state geographically, yet with the fifth-smallest population, Hewett said. Other challenges include building strong, self-supporting churches on the state’s eight Indian reservations and adapting to an economy driven by an influx of retiring Baby Boomers.

“A different kind of people are moving here,” Hewett said. “Many are Christians but … they can’t find a Southern Baptist church like they’re used to so they’re going elsewhere,” as most Southern Baptist churches in Montana are small and struggling, while some churches in other denominations are considerably larger.

“There are a few [Southern Baptist churches] that have figured out how to reach the unchurched in Montana, but by and large the overwhelming majority of our churches are still struggling,” Hewett said. “On the other hand, many of our churches have come of age and are ready to enter into the mission field, so the third priority -– helping strengthen our existing churches and starting new churches being the first two priorities -– is being Acts 1:8 in all we do, recognizing our mission field is Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the rest of the world [akin to the call voiced by Jesus in the Acts 1:8 passage].”

Yellowstone Baptist College in Billings is an excellent asset to the Montana Southern Baptist Convention, Hewett said.

“It’s a great school with a low student/teacher ratio, where a kid can get a good Christian education with practical experience and at a good price,” Hewett said. “I believe Yellowstone Baptist College is the best-kept secret of college life in the West.

“Leadership development is a top priority for us,” the executive director continued. “We’re thankful when God sends us church planters and pastors from outside Montana, but we need to develop leaders inside the state too. I believe God has brought me to Montana to put into practice a Great Commission strategy that is centered on the local church and embraces strengthening, starting and sending Montana churches into the mission field.”
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message and the Dakota Baptist newspapers.