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Pastor/author Gene Wilkes sees adventure in building a legacy

GLORIETA, N.M. (BP)–When Gene Wilkes was looking for an elective class to take during his college days at Baylor University, he didn’t enroll in bowling or golf or even astronomy.

He chose Greek.

That non-conventional elective was just the beginning of a ministry path characterized by the extraordinary that includes being a pastor and an author for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“I love to learn,” said Wilkes, who went on to complete a double major at Baylor in Greek and religion. But he joked that his wife, Kim, eventually got tired of his permanent student status.

Kim, however, endured his quest for knowledge long enough for Wilkes to earn his master of divinity and Ph.D. degrees in New Testament studies from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

A guilty smile crosses his face as he explains that he is probably still qualified to teach New Testament studies, but he doesn’t use that extra degree to its fullest extent. “My call is definitely to the local church,” said Wilkes, pastor of Legacy Church in Plano, Texas.

While his call may be to be a pastor, he also has a talent for writing. He wrote his first article almost 30 years ago for one of LifeWay’s magazines. Since then, he has written five books and many articles for LifeWay, including the “Jesus on Leadership” series and “Extreme Love, The Greatest Commandment,” the first in LifeWay’s 40-Day Experience line. Some titles include youth and Spanish editions.

Most recently, LifeWay released Wilkes’ “Paul on Leadership,” a study tool to help churches through times of transition using the apostle’s experiences in Antioch and his church planting endeavors.

Wilkes’ extensive study into church leadership led to an invitation to speak at LifeWay Glorieta Conference Center near Santa Fe, N.M., during Discipleship Week, June 21-25. During the opening worship service for the week, Wilkes told conference attendees he was there to be revived, for “the spark that gets me going and keeps me going.”

“We’re here because it’s a week to revitalize our relationship with God,” Wilkes told the crowd at Holcomb Auditorium.

He recognizes the benefits of conferences and speaking engagements, but Wilkes said he was once told that writing is the tugboat of the Southern Baptist Convention. He responded to that advice by more than pulling his weight. “It really is my writing that is my service to the denomination,” he said.

Wilkes said both Jesus on Leadership and Paul on Leadership are the result of the unique mission of Legacy Church, the only congregation he has served as pastor.

He said writing is an opportunity for him to tell others what he has learned throughout his ministry — and Wilkes has about 30 years of experience from which to draw. After seminary, his job opportunities included serving as a pastoral intern whose main responsibilities involved youth and working for a private foundation that helped establish youth camps. He credits his early days in youth work for drastically influencing his attitudes and strategies for his current ministry at Legacy Church.

Wilkes said he was building a ropes course in Colorado when he received the offer to become Legacy’s pastor in 1986. “When God calls you, although the call may be clear, you may not understand the implications of that [but] God does.”

So far, God’s plans have kept Wilkes at Legacy for more than 17 years, an unusually long tenure for Southern Baptist pastors.

“Everything before was preparation for the way to do church now,” Wilkes said. He added that Legacy Church services are similar to traditional camp worship.

“We risk, and I risk our reputation with the church in order to reach the unchurched.” Wilkes said he is challenging his generation to say, “Don’t get stuck taking care of what you are.”

The first-time pastor went to Plano with the goal of guiding Legacy into the mission field. “I had the rumbling of the call to reach the unchurched,” Wilkes said.

Under Wilkes’ leadership, 99 percent of the people being reached by Legacy members in the mission field are remaining in church.

“We’re all just a bunch of mess-ups who God forgave and chose,” Wilkes said.

Wilkes, who turned 51 this year, doesn’t know when or if God will call him away from Legacy Church, but he does harbor some anxiety about that possible day. “My biggest professional fear has always been that I’ll hand off a mess and not a baton,” he said, adding that right now he considers Legacy to be a baton.

“I really believe I’m leaving a legacy for this generation.”

When he came to Texas 17 years ago, Wilkes didn’t expect to remain as long as he has, but now he stays because he believes in Legacy’s mission and the work being done there.

“I have a list of people that I believe are in heaven because of Legacy,” Wilkes said. “I don’t believe they would have been there if not for Legacy.”

As he continues to serve at Legacy Church, Wilkes said he will be looking for how to “invest these first 30 years of ministry to stay effective in the Kingdom.

“For me the word is adventure,” Wilkes said. “If you’re faithful to the task at hand, that’s the platform for the next turn.”

When Wilkes comes at last to the end of life’s twists and turns, he said he hopes his tombstone can read, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

“But I’ll settle for ‘Nice try.’”

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  • Brooklyn Noel