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Utah/Idaho’s exec multiplies his ministry

DRAPER, Utah (BP)–Rob Lee knew what he was getting into when he was called as executive director for the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention.

He’s been ministering in Utah since 1987 and on the state staff since 1991.

“God reminded me of a passage this spring,” Lee said. “‘Deny yourself; take up your cross and follow me.’ That’s in Luke. I know what the executive director has to deal with; it’s not a position a person aspires to. It’s a very challenging position and in our [Utah-Idaho] convention it’s hard to do. If it wasn’t for God telling me this -– that’s the only reason I’d do it.”

Lee, who assumed the post Sept. 5, is responsible for coordinating the ministry of Southern Baptists among 4 million people who live in Utah and Idaho’s nearly 170,000 square miles, stretching more than 1,000 miles from the Canadian border to the Arizona state line.

“It’s a beautiful place, but very dark spiritually,” Lee said. “Evangelism is our most critical need. We have many communities in our states that don’t have one evangelical working in them.”

In addition to evangelism and church planting, the Utah-Idaho convention’s work includes strengthening churches; partnering with Vancouver, B.C., Canada, for the 2010 Winter Olympics and with Oklahoma Baptists in disaster relief and other ministries; and a myriad of other duties related to the administration of ministry across the region.

“Rob is a trusted friend to many and fellow minister with all,” said Paul Thompson, UISBC president and pastor of Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho. “I think the fact he’s been here in our state convention for 17 years makes him a very trusted person in our convention.”

Progress has taken place since he was called in 1987 as a campus minister at Utah State University in Logan, north of Salt Lake City, Lee said.

“I had a great experience doing that, restarting that ministry,” Lee said. “I saw a number of students come to know the Lord and go on mission trips and get excited about serving the Lord. It was a wonderful three years.”

During that time he met and in 1990 married JeQuita Burch, who studied at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and was the state Baptist Student Union [now BCM] president. The couple today has two sons: Hunter, 11, and Tanner, 7.

“We live just a block from a public school, and that has become our mission field,” Lee said. “Our boys go there; JeQuita substitute teaches there as a way of being involved with the school as well as with the boys’ classes.”

JeQuita Lee was responsible during the 2002 Winter Olympics for coordinating all the creative arts outreach by various evangelical groups. These days, at Holladay Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, she coordinates the Hands of Praise sign language and creative movement team, which performs across the West, and a children’s dance ministry that’s a community outreach.

“We’ve developed some really good friendships with teachers and [other] parents at the school,” Rob Lee said. “We helped one teacher rededicate her life to Christ…. It gives us the opportunity to be a witness to nonbelievers. Otherwise, I’m in the ministry and never am around unbelievers. It’s hard to let your light shine when you’re not around unbelievers.”

The outdoors is another way Lee connects with non-Christians. Even as a BCM director, he took students camping and fishing.

“We’d always bring non-Christian students with us, and at night we’d have campfire devotions and singing,” Lee recalled. In recent years he started a Christian Bowhunters club in northern Utah, and in January 2007 that organization partnered with the Salt Lake Baptist Association for a sportsmen’s banquet that drew 200 men -– seven of whom made professions of faith.

“When I go hunting, I usually go with a group of guys,” Lee said. “We always try to make sure at least one guy with us is a non-Christian…. You can’t help but talk about God when you’re looking at His beautiful creation. It opens even a non-Christian’s mind.”

One of the students Lee discipled at Utah State University, Glen McKean, took his place when Lee was called in 1991 as state convention director of student ministries, which included children and youth as well as college students. Four years later, when the state religious education director -– Jim Harding –- was called as executive director, Lee also took on the religious education role on an interim basis.

A year later Lee was elected religious education consultant, as the first of what became a staff shift from directing programs to consulting with churches.

“In addition to getting away from being program-driven, the other benefit was that in consultation with churches, we were really seeing the need for churches to have conferences that better met their individualized needs, so the conferences became more effective,” Lee said.

That led to the development of volunteer trainers across the two states.

“In effect, I multiplied myself,” Lee said. “Counting campus ministers, we had more than 50 volunteers helping, some of the years. Some Saturdays we’d have four events in four places, all different people. That helped the churches, and it helped them [the volunteers] develop in their ministries.

“These volunteers are experts who are involved in the ministry of their local church,” Lee continued. “They give of their free time to help fellow Christians, and without them many needs across the two states would go unfilled each year.”

About three years ago Lee developed 10 people across Utah and Idaho to serve as church health consultants for churches wanting to explore various areas of improvement. The consultants go out in teams of three or four people, one of whom initially is the designated “mystery guest” to gauge the way first-time visitors might view the church.

“We look at their records, interview members, do a demographic study and a church health survey…. We look back 10 years,” Lee said. “We put all this information together to develop a report to help a church strengthen its ministries -– it’s about a 150-page report and requires from 80 to 100 hours of work to prepare.”

The report also proposes a strategy for the church to become healthier over the course of six, 12 and 24 months and suggestions for finding the necessary people and financial resources.

“It was a real interesting time in our church life when we had this done,” Thompson said. “We were off-campus [for Sunday morning worship] because of growth…. I think we were looking to see where we stood doctrinally with people in our church, and another key component was to listen to how we were actually reaching people.

“It was a little unnerving to think about what we were going to discover,” the Twin Falls pastor continued, “but at the same time it was critical for us to hear what people thought about their church.”

Lee said he plans to expand the church health consultations, as requested by the churches, because he has seen them work.

“Last year we had 12 churches that ran 100 or more in Sunday School in our convention, and now we have 17,” Lee said. “The increase came from the churches that have had church health teams work with them, so it does make a difference. It impacts the way churches connect with their communities.”

The ministry of church health consultants is effective in the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention because the region is a land of contrasts, the executive director said.

High-rise office buildings vie for air space with high-altitude mountains. Glacial lakes give way to a great salt one. Rock formations dwindle into rocky ground. And the people are just as varied.

“The Mormon church is so strong here, but there also are a lot of unchurched people here from California and New York, especially,” Lee said. “Out here there is an individualistic mindset. We can’t just use a one-size-fits-all ministry approach; that’s where a consultant approach really works.”

The 2002 Winter Olympics in greater Salt Lake City was a boon to the state convention, Lee said.

“Probably the most wonderful thing that came out of it was that we used 1,200 volunteers, and most of them were from Utah and Idaho,” said Lee, who served on the leadership team for SBC ministry during the two-week event. “That developed a volunteerism and interest in missions we had not had until that point. It was a catalyst to develop our disaster relief ministries.”

Today, the UISBC has a partnership with Southern Baptists in Vancouver, B.C., preparing for the 2010 Winter Olympics, and with Southern Baptists in Oklahoma, who are strong in disaster relief. UISBC also is in the fourth year of a partnership with a security-sensitive area of the world.

The two-state convention that was organized in 1964 -– though the first Southern Baptist church in Idaho dates to 1887 and in Utah, 1944 -– consists of about 150 congregations grouped into 11 Baptist associations that minister in nine languages. Ministry with Native Americans takes place primarily among the Navajo and Southern Ute in southwest Utah, Ute in northeast Utah and Blackfoot in southeast Idaho.

Lee, born in Eureka, Calif., was 6 when his parents became Christians while attending First Baptist Church in Burney, Calif. Four years later the family moved to the Black Hills of South Dakota, where they joined what today is known as First Baptist Church of Custer, S.D.

Lee was 12 when he made his peace with God. He was 16 and out shooting 22s with his pastor, Bill Savery of First Baptist Custer, when Savery told Lee that he thought the teen was being called by God into ministry.

“It scared me to death,” Lee said, though he’d been thinking the same thing. Nonetheless, he enrolled at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, anticipating a lucrative career as an engineer. But then he met Joe and Kareen Todd, BCM directors at the college.

“I grew in the Lord and that recultivated my calling into the ministry,” Lee said. “At Glorieta [Baptist conference center near Santa Fe, N.M.] in 1986 I listened to Henry Blackaby speak one night, and on the way back to my room I sat on a rock and asked God, ‘What are you calling me to do?’ He said, ‘Just say yes, and I’ll take care of the details.'”

Lee decided, at the suggestion of his college pastor, to get some ministry experience before going to seminary. He looked at every opportunity then available through Southern Baptists’ US-2 program of missionary service in North America.

“I decided to pray about every ministry position, but God kept saying, ‘Utah,'” Lee said. “I did that five times -– I’m a slow learner -– before I said, ‘OK, God, You’re saying Utah.'”

Lee in 1999 was the first student enrolled at the Salt Lake City campus of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, but that campus didn’t develop for lack of students and funds. Since then he has studied through GGBTS’ Rocky Mountain Campus and lacks just 10 hours from a master’s degree in theological studies.

“I’ve learned through this that I’m a lifelong learner,” Lee said. “I’ve learned from all my seminary classes and I’ve been able to apply them to my state convention work.”

Though he regularly has put in 60-80 hours a week over Utah/Idaho’s broad expanse, Lee said his family nevertheless is a priority and he does not expect that to change in his role as executive director.

“My wife and I go over our calendars first thing every year and put in family camping times and vacations,” Lee said. “Also, whenever I can, I take my family with me. The other thing is, as a family we love the outdoors. I’m into bow hunting and as I have opportunities I take Hunter with me -– just as my dad did with me -– so he and I have time together.”

Being executive director of the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention requires “great relational skills because you’re working with leaders,” Lee said. “You’ve got to connect well with them…. You’ve got to earn the respect of people in order to lead them…. The other real big thing: You have to work with folks sometimes you don’t agree with; you have to do that in a gentle, loving way and still move forward.”
Karen L. Willoughby is managing editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message.