McDONOUGH, Ga. – Ray Gentry knows first-hand the crucial role local Baptist associations play in helping churches fulfill the Great Commission.
That’s why Gentry is excited about a career shift that will allow him to devote his full attention to championing the cause of associations and the leaders who oversee them, helping them to work more closely together to spread the gospel.
“Baptist churches in America have realized that they can do more together than they can separately,” said Gentry, the longtime associational mission strategist for the Southside Baptist Network in McDonough, Ga. “No church can fulfill the Great Commission on its own. We need each other.”
With that in mind, Gentry is moving into a full-time role with the Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Leaders beginning July 1.
On that day, Gentry will turn over the reins to the Southside Baptist Network to Art Fulks, pastor at First Baptist in Lancaster, Ohio.
Fulks, a former executive pastor at First Baptist Church in Peachtree City, will begin work at the Southside Baptist Network on April 1, allowing a three-month transitional period for him to work alongside Gentry.
Gentry has been serving in a part-time role as president of the Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Leaders since 2015, growing the organization to the point that it now needs full-time leadership.
His primary responsibility will be to champion the cause of associations and associational mission strategists throughout the Southern Baptist Convention.
For Gentry, the only real change is that he will be devoting his full attention to helping associational leaders in equipping, encouraging and networking with one another whether they are volunteer, bi-vocational, or full-time.
His role also will involve providing resources, coaching, and professional development for associational leaders while helping them to build peer-to-peer networks, all for the glory of God.
“Ray has kept our organization focused on serving the local church,” said Tim Pruitt, mission strategist at Gila Valley Baptist Association Casa Grande, Arizona. “He has sought to help member associations be aware of every conceivable need of a local church or local church leader.”
Pruitt said he expects Gentry to lead the organization to higher heights because he has watched what he has been able to accomplish as the part-time president.
“I have seen a man lead with great humility and with solid conviction,” Pruitt said. “Ray has steadily led leaders to stay focused on Christ-centered and Christ-honoring ministry. Ray listens. Ray analyzes. Ray leads.”
Pruitt said the Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Leaders “has witnessed steady and significant growth in almost all measurable categories” under Gentry’s leadership.
Steve Laughman, mission strategist in the Centennial Baptist Association in Thomaston, Ga., said Gentry has led the Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Leaders productively and effectively, allowing mission strategists to draw on each other’s experiences to better help their churches.
“When people find value in something, they are willing to invest their time and energy into it,” Laughman said. “SBCAL has proven to be a place where associational leaders can network and learn from one another.”
Laughman said Gentry has provided the kind of leadership that the organization needed to expand its reach and scope.
“Ray genuinely cares about associational leaders whether they serve in a small, rural setting or in a much larger urban setting,” Laughman said. “He is uniquely gifted to cast a clear vision for the future of SBCAL and to see it to fruition. I am blessed to call him a friend and to count him as a co-laborer in this work.”
Bob Lowman Jr., executive director of the Metrolina Baptist Association in Charlotte, North Carolina, and chairman of the Executive Team of the Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Leaders, said the organization has shifted from a fellowship that met once to a year to a full-service ministry partner to the 1,100-plus Baptist associations across the nation.
“Our member numbers have steadily grown in the past few years,” Lowman said. “And with our president, Ray Gentry, moving into that leadership role with SBCAL full time on July 1, we will be able to be a constant companion to leaders who want to serve our families of churches called associations.”
For years after it was formed in 1960, the Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Leaders, simply arranged an annual banquet in conjunction with the SBC annual meeting. Gradually, it expanded its role into one of equipping, encouraging and networking.
“We try to be encouraging and inspiring and be helpful, basically to accentuate the positives around us and not the negatives,” Gentry said. “We try to be affirming and encouraging.”
That’s important, Gentry said, because associational leaders have become major influencers in Southern Baptist life.
“We really do help bridge the gap between local churches and the state and national conventions,” he said. “We help pastors understand what’s going on in the SBC.”