WRIGHT, Wyo. (BP)–Clay Alexander always planned on ministering somewhere near his hometown of Atlanta after graduating from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
What he got was not what he had planned.
Today, Alexander is pastor of Wright Baptist Church in Wright, Wyo., a small town of about 1,300 people. More than 1,600 miles –- and several months of snowfall — separate Wright and Atlanta. For these and many other reasons, he understatedly calls his hometown and his ministry field “a good bit different.”
“Our plans were to be somewhere in the Southeast, closer to Mom and Dad,” said Alexander, who along with his wife Mary Beth packed up everything they owned and moved westward in May 2002.
That is, in fact, the trend. Southeastern evangelism professor Bill Brown, who leads the North American church planting efforts from Southeastern’s campus in North Carolina, said the vast majority of seminary graduates in 2004 will minister within 150 miles of their hometown.
So what was it that made this young couple go against the trend in ministry?
“A lot of it was just through the Lord’s work in my life,” Alexander said. “I guess through openness in our lives, we went where the Lord wanted us to be. Really, it was just being obedient and realizing there are places out here where the Lord is at work.”
Alexander said he came to a realization of God’s work in other parts of the nation and the world during his coursework.
“I think it probably all started when I came to Southeastern,” he said. “In Dr. [Keith] Eitel’s missions class we learned to look outside the box, so to speak. I thought I’d always go back to somewhere in Georgia, but just through different classes, professors and chapel messages, there is this broadening of what the Lord wants you to do. There are places out there that are not so steeped in church. The Lord’s at work in other places besides Georgia.”
One of those places just happened to be Wright, Wyo., a blue-collar town in what natives like to call America’s “mineral belt.” Wright is filled with coal mines, oil fields and — as the Alexanders discovered — opportunities for ministry.
Serving in a pioneer mission field state is challenging, as its ministers will attest. Towns have a largely unchurched population and few, if any, Bible-believing churches — an altogether different context from the church-plentiful South.
In addition to Wyoming’s cultural differences, the work there is hard. About 85 percent of pioneer pastors are required to work bivocationally in order to support their families and make their ministries possible. This involves taking a second job, one that shows the true humility of these men. Many drive a school bus, pump gas or flip hamburgers at a local restaurant in order to make ends meet. Nevertheless, to these men, faithfulness to God’s calling takes precedence over comfort.
According to Brown, many find such an adjustment unappealing and opt instead to return to a ministry setting in or relatively near their hometown in the South. The problem, he observed, is that if every pastor does so, the rest of North America is left with a paucity of ministers.
“I know God calls some to return home,” Brown said, “but I can’t believe that the percentage is as high as it is. Our church planting mission trips and the summer ministry partnerships allow our students to see a lost America. It is a shock to many of them to spend time in an area with an unchurched culture. It is a life-changing experience.”
The Alexanders agree, with certainty, that their lives have been changed since moving to Wyoming. After almost two full years of ministry in Wright, Clay avows that any sacrifices he has made along the way have been worth the rewards.
“The people we’ve met, the things we’ve experienced,” Alexander said with passion in his voice, “far overshadow the inconveniences. Families who come to our church sense an excitement at this place. In a lot of different areas, our church is growing.”
“Exploding” is perhaps a better word to describe the growth in Alexander’s church right now, as evidenced by the size of their contribution to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions. The church’s resident membership of 97 gave $12,488.84 –- a record sum for any Baptist church in the history of Wyoming.
So, how did Alexander convince a church of 97 to give so generously to missions? He didn’t.
“It’s definitely something I think the Lord has done,” Alexander said. “I just challenged our folks that we are a global priority church and that we need to be serious about our giving. I also told them that the church would match their giving. That was something I think the people responded to. We still have gifts coming in to Lottie Moon and to the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering [for North American Missions].”
Alexander’s church is just one of many in a pioneer region that has grown as a result of faithful service. Like other ministers in small churches in the area, Alexander came with a heart for the people of Wyoming and a vision to bring them the truth of God’s Word. Today, there is “a crying need” for others to pour their lives into the places of North America that have not heard the truth, said Mike McKinney, Wyoming Baptists’ state director of missions.
“It’s a long way from the Bible belt. It’s a long way from family. The weather is cold in the winter and real harsh. Some guys want to come up to see the scenery. That’s not what we need. We need men who will say, ‘I want to plant my life in ministry in a pioneer area.’
“If the Lord should call you to a pioneer mission field state,” McKinney added, “you’re in for the time of your life. It’s great, great fun. We are praying that the Lord of the harvest will send us more workers for His harvest. We’re looking for men that will come and stay in a beautiful part of our nation, but the work is hard. The men who are successful are the ones who have not come for a year or two to see the mountains, but the ones who will stay for a lifetime and pour and plant their life here.”
As each mountain sunset signals the close of another day’s work for both miners and ministers, Clay Alexander can hold his head high, knowing that his labor, though difficult, has not been in vain.