Leadership · MISSIONS · Evangelism

A Conversation with Neal Hughes

This conversation is a transcript from One Mission Podcast. If you would like to listen to this episode, visit ALSBOM Podcasts.

Rick Lance:

Hello listeners, and welcome to One Mission, the podcast. We’re glad you’ve joined us. Today we have another very special guest and one who’s a dear friend. And that would be Neal Hughes, who is the associational missional strategist for the Montgomery Association, which involves not only Montgomery County, but Lowndes County has churches there. He’s been doing an outstanding job and that’s an understatement. We have a lot to talk about today, Neal, but I wanna begin, the listeners who do not know you well, just talk briefly about your conversion, your call, and then we’ll advance toward the topics which are ministry related.

Neal Hughes:

Well, thank you, Dr. Lance, for the privilege to come in and be with you today. And always a joy to see you and to fellowship with you and all of our associational and our Alabama Baptist family. I was, nine months before I was born, I was a Southern Baptist. I was raised in the Southern Baptist family. My mother and daddy were very, very active in the local Southern Baptist Church. We grew up in Macon, Georgia. I was born in Birmingham, but raised in Macon, so I tease that I have dual citizenship. But there in Macon, the Shurlington Baptist Church played a major, major role in my upbringing, too.

We were very engaged. My dad was a deacon, later on, a Sunday school director. My mother taught Sunday school to young people. She was the WMU leader. She was the Mission Friends, at that time we called it Sunbeams, leader. She was the GA leader, I often tease that I became a GA because I got in trouble, and she made me come in the GA area. So I was a GA, an RA, a Sunbeam – all of that was an integral part of my life as a Southern Baptist.

But at nine years of age, I had warmed to the fact of what my parents had been saying from the day that I can remember that Jesus loved me and had a wonderful plan for my life, and that He died on the cross to save me from all of my sins. So at nine years of age, I made a public profession of faith there at the Shurlington Baptist Church. I often say that I gave my hand to the preacher, my heart to God.

Shortly thereafter, I was baptized, raised in that church with Sunday School, and then later on with the youth choirs. I had a wonderful mentor of mine who was our minister of music and youth. You know, in those days, they combined it all. Larry Walker just played a very, very strong role of helping me to grow in love with the Lord, grow in love, and discipling others. Then at age 15, I felt a real sense of calling that God had called me. In that day and time, we called it full-time vocational service. Well, I just knew that God had His hand and His heart on me and that I wanted to preach the gospel for the rest of my life. And that began to orchestrate direction vocationally for me and also in my academics.

I was planning on going to the University of Georgia. I was a journalist with our high school. I was a sports editor and also the editor of our yearbook in my high school, and I had a scholarship ready to go to the University of Georgia – full ride scholarship on a journalism scholarship. And my dad died very suddenly. And my grandparents in Birmingham said, “Neal, we want you to think about coming to Birmingham and just be near us and us near you. We need each other in this season of grief and sorrow in response to dad’s sudden passing.” And so we considered Samford University. My granddaddy arranged a full ride there. So I had an opportunity to go to Samford. I just felt, as I came on the campus, that God was leading me there.

There that really began to be a formal shaping of my career- loving Samford University, meeting friends that are now lifelong friends at Samford. Later on I met my sweetheart Mary, who became my wife in 1981 and we graduated from Samford that year. We got married that June, and we were off to Southwestern Seminary, in Fort Worth and did our seminary there. Then returned back to Alabama; was pastor in Birmingham for a while. In 1987, we moved to Montgomery, stayed there for 18 years as pastor in this area. Then the North American Mission Board summoned me to come to Atlanta and we spent a long time there. Officially retired from the North American Mission Board, and then returned in 2016 to be Montgomery Baptist Association’s Director of Missions.

Rick Lance:

Well, what a wonderful story and we have some similarities, of course, in that particular era. I too had a real conversion experience, very close, similar to yours, a calling at age 15, almost 16. Then of course, this, you began Samford, your father died right before you did, and that happened to me as well. So I share that with you, and a lot of the same kind of pilgrimages, except I went to New Orleans after Samford and enjoyed my time there.

Neal, you are one of the more creative missional leaders in Alabama, and we really do appreciate the fact that you give that kind of energy and creativity. The people in the Montgomery area, the association, the pastors love you dearly. That is something that should never be taken for granted. You’re well respected across the state. Being a member of the SBC Executive Committee, I know is a challenge and sometimes a burden. But you bear it well, and we are grateful for your leadership there as well.

Could you just tell us a couple of experiences you’ve had in ministry, which shaped your ministry? Just some experiences that happened that, you know were turning points that helped you become the person that you are now and where you are in ministry?

Neal Hughes:

Well, Dr. Lance, I think a lot of it began missionally. My heart is always endeared to missions – to international missions, to North American missions. I have a bad physical heart. I had open heart surgery at nine and nineteen, and as I was coming into my career, Dr. Cal Guy at Southwestern played such a role in inspiring me to international missions. And somehow he and I felt like that maybe that should be a part of my trajectory, to go that way. So as we came, in that day and time, you had to be in the pastorate for a good while post-seminary before they would allow you to make application. So we did, after being in Birmingham for a couple of years, we, Mary and I, made application to then the Foreign Mission Board. But because of my physical heart, they just would not allow that to happen. And that was okay. At that time, we were raising our children and so forth.

But in Montgomery, I had just another real sense of just tears in my eyes calling me to international missions and, from that, God just burdened my heart for lost souls in the international world. So we tried again and they once again said, “No, don’t call again. We’re not going to let you go overseas as an international career missionary.” So at that time, I thought, okay, well, I’m going to pastor and raise missionaries; and we did. God just blessed us at McGhee Road Baptist Church. He filled our hearts and filled our church with a lot of future pastors, future missionaries, and others.

I really had settled that maybe I was the raiser of missions. I was the raiser of mission funds and the champion of that cause, and I had settled into that. At about the same time, the Lord began to inspire upon my heart, from experiences in our own backyard, that there were a number of lost people, that I didn’t necessarily have to cross the Atlantic, just the Alabama river, to impact a lost community.

From that began the birthing of the Community of Hope. Project Hope it was first known to be. We started the Hope Community Church and this was an outreach effort of going into apartment communities all over our city. 53 sites that we had in the late 1900s, the early part of the 21st century, and we began to see a lot of lives change. And the Lord just began to shape me with, at the same time, the Montgomery Baptists, the Alabama Baptists, and the North American Mission Board were all intersecting in my life partnering together, helping me to see the bigger picture, not just Montgomery, Alabama.

NAMB called me to come and be their director for multi-housing church planting. And that began that journey of taking what we had done in Montgomery and planting it all over the continent. So, the first year or two, that’s what I did. Then later on, I had the privilege of really, you know as I say, to pastor missionaries. They had allowed me to be the ambassador, first to the vice president, then later to the president to go and to be mobilizers and to connect with our missionaries and with our state convention families.

So all of that really shaped my heart for missions. Then, to come back now to be an associational mission strategist with all of this information, all of this inspiration, all of these experiences; and now to take that into Montgomery, into this mission field here, and just to unpack it, has been really a wonderful fruition dream. You can see God’s hand, both upon my heart, upon our Montgomery Baptist life, and our churches, because we have been friends for so long. So we’re enjoying doing missions together.

Rick Lance:

Well, you’re doing an excellent job. And listeners, you cannot tell, but when he was talking about some of those experiences related to international missions, his eyes actually teared up. And, you know, they’re genuine, because Neal is that kind of genuine person. You’re right about the International Mission Board and the Foreign Mission Board. They’re real strict on health matters and we can understand why about being in distant lands and having to deal with health concerns of not only the lead people, that it would be the parents, but also the children, some of them having health problems.

But I must add that, and from an observation of someone who’s a partner in ministry, you’ve been able to take all the experiences you’ve had of the past, and you’ve just got a laser focus on meeting the needs of people. Those of you who don’t know Neal, there’s not a person that he meets that he’s not trying to hug and show the love of God in person.

When he talked about giving his hand to the preacher and his heart to God, he really did that. He gave his heart to God. In the heart of God, his physical heart may be weak, but his spiritual heart is strong. It is very strong. And he has that missional circulation going on in his heart that I think is really exemplary. And I want to tell you that. I appreciate all you do, and I appreciate the friendship that we’ve had through the years.

Now, let’s talk a moment very briefly, not going into detail. Tell our listeners what the Southern Baptist Executive Committee does?

Neal Hughes:

Well, the Southern Baptist Executive Committee, in really one short sentence, they’re like the Finance Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention. They are responsible for the fiduciary of the SBC. They do business when the Southern Baptist Convention is not in session. So we respond to motions that may have been made that have been referred to us. We are the, like I said, the finance committee. We’re kind of the holder of those original Cooperative Program funds, and then the allocation of that. We distribute those out to a pie chart that has been accepted and adopted and approved by Southern Baptists at that annual meeting. So, we have that responsibility.

There’s 86 of us that represent all of our state conventions. We as Alabama, just really, I’m real proud to say this, that Alabama Baptists give more Cooperative Program funds than any other convention out there. So we, as our state convention, we are allowed to have five of those 86 members here, and it’s just wonderful to work with that team. But to think of it from a Southern Baptist perspective, how we can help the larger work carry forth the gospel of Jesus Christ across the street.

Rick Lance:

That’s an excellent description of the executive committee, and thank you for mentioning Alabama Baptists being the number one contributor as state conventions to Southern Baptist Convention causes. Listeners, just to remind you that approximately 10% of the SBC CP budget comes from Alabama. Now, we’re not the largest state convention. We don’t have the most population. We don’t have the biggest churches. We don’t have the wealthiest people, but I would argue we have some of the most sacrificial and generous people. And Neal, you represent that well.

Well, Neal, thank you for that explanation. People I’m sure wonder about that. But the executive committee does provide keen areas of function, like you’ve described. There are other ancillary matters that they take care of as well such as the preparation work/event planning for the SBC meeting, which could not be underestimated. It’s a lot of background work done on that, and a lot of I guess you’d call it sweat equity goes into that.

Neal, also talk about your family. Let us know you’re a grandparent now, and I know that. I’ll tell you, when you become a grandparent, those of you listeners who might identify with this and those that don’t will one day, when you become a grandparent, you become part of the silly club. Everything gets kind of goofy and silly because you, it’s a different dimension of life, different time of life. So talk about your family. Just a moment.

Neal Hughes:

Oh, I’m just super blessed to have the best bride I could ever, ever have on the face of the planet. God sent Mary Henry to me in 1981. We were married June 27th, 1981. From that journey together, we’ve been blessed with three children, Chris, Laurie, and Patrick. Chris is a financial advisor, and his wife is a doctor in central Florida, in Oviedo, Florida. And my daughter-in-love is just like our own daughter too. Laura, is such a precious one to us.

Laurie and her husband, Grant, our son-in-love, they have our one grandchild. Gianna is five years old. I write her every week and I give her 50 cents, used to give her 50 cents every week. Well, she called me up one day, she said, “Poppie, I need a raise.” So anyway, now she gets a dollar. But she’s just the light of all of our lives and they reside in Winter Springs, Florida, which is outside of Orlando.

Then our son, Patrick, is a single one, and Patrick is in Baltimore, Maryland. He’s at Fort Mead. He’s a naval officer, intelligence officer, there at Fort Mead. And he’s very fluent in languages and also a specialist with Russia and China. So we really enjoy, being a historian, I really enjoy talking with him about some of these matters.

Rick Lance:

Yeah. I know you’re a student of history and I’d love to be able to talk with him. Problem is he can’t tell us anything related to the challenges we might have with Russia and China and other adversaries out there.

Thinking about not just Montgomery Baptists, not Alabama Baptists, but Southern Baptists in general. And we both try to be positive individuals. Can you just describe, in your mind, a path forward for Southern Baptists and the days to come foreseeably and beyond? Just give some of your heart wisdom related to that.

Neal Hughes:

Well, there’s a lot of stories and a lot of opinions. And we often say where baptists are gathered together, where two Baptists are gathered together, there’s three opinions. And I would say five or six or seven opinions that are there. I want to think that God is greater than anything I could ever imagine. And I believe that, as you said earlier just about Alabama Baptists, I believe that’s also collectively Southern Baptists – there are good people, God’s people that are seeking to do missions and to do missions together and to reach this world for Jesus Christ. And the passion of that, and the Cooperative Program, which started in 1925, still lies today.

Now, you know, we don’t have to be twins to be brothers and sisters. So we will always have a diversity of opinion. And even though perhaps social media raises that and inflames that, and it’s just almost an hourly matter with us, and that certainly is something that, that burdens my heart, your heart, so many other hearts. I think we have to look at that in perspective that still, the bottom line is, though we may be passionate, I really still want to say we have one mission in mind and that’s the Great Commission. And one program in mind and that’s the Cooperative Program.

Rick Lance:

No, I appreciate you saying that. I really do. I think I’ve heard that before.

Neal Hughes:

I think you have. I think you created it.

Rick Lance:

Yeah. Well, thank you for that, really, that affirmation. And I believe that’s true. We’re better together when we, obviously the old adage, keep the main thing, the main thing. And we have an audience of One, that is we’re trying to please the Lord, but we also know that we seek the work together as laborers together for God. That is often difficult to do. Families, real, good, positive, and productive functional families, have differences of opinions from time to time and tensions.

But Southern Baptists, I think, are a good family. When we are at our best, we’re thinking about the mission we have, the Great Commission. When we are less than our best, we’re thinking about ancillary opinions about certain matters. We are not, in my opinion, Southern Baptists are not very good at being able to assimilate cultural issues very well. They’re usually kind of thrust upon us. And we are not separatists at all. We are in culture. We know that. We try not to be, we’re in the world, but we try not to be of the world in that regard. So there will always be some difficulties. You and I lived long enough to see, we’ve seen this movie before in regards to some difficult challenges.

Neal, also thinking about cooperation. From my standpoint, I saw the best picture perfect spirit of cooperation in what we call the Serve Tour. Working with NAMB Serve Montgomery, and it was a River Region, what we talk about being the major counties in the river region: Montgomery, Lowndes County, Elmore County, and Autauga, and that a couple weekends ago, we had that in Montgomery.

I knew it would be real good. I was able to shadow you going around to see various ministry projects and locations. I was deeply impressed by that and I think our partners at the North American Mission Board really were very much blessed by the fact that we wanted to be a part of it, that is the association and the State Board of Missions. We tried to be good partners in that regard. In my estimation, it went almost flawlessly. I’m sure some things could have been changed, and we learned from it. Just give us an appraisal you might have of it.

Neal Hughes:

Well, I totally agree with everything you’ve just said. You know, the Bible says a cord of three strands cannot quickly be broken and here was a picture of those three strands: the local area, river region we call it here in Central Alabama, and that was echoed and strengthened through three baptist associations, the Autauga, the Elmore, and the Montgomery Baptist Associations, already working collectively and heart-to-heart together; but then with our greatest partner, the Alabama Baptist family coming together and coming alongside of us, helping us, giving us wisdom, resources, everything; and then the Southern Baptist Family through the North American Mission Board and Send Relief. They call it the Serve Tour for all of us to come together, bring in the calvary and the resources to impact this area for Jesus Christ and that’s exactly what happened.

We had churches from as far away as Alaska and Philadelphia and Chicago and North Carolina, along with many churches from Alabama and the local community who led 50 projects here in the River Region area. Everything from block parties to international block parties to construction projects, just a number of community ministries where we would meet human need and plant gospel seed. And that’s exactly what happened. And everybody did it with joy in their heart and with a step in their spirit. And they just, they attacked it over that weekend, March 10 through 11. God used that and still, we have all benefited greatly from that, but it has also sparked a spirit of revival here in our River Region that we hope that we’ll be sustaining for years to come.

Rick Lance:

Good. And Neal taking that template, I’d say to the listeners, and you know this already, we’re taking at the State Board of Missions to other locations in Alabama. Now, North American Mission Board cannot finance all this; they have to look at major cities. But we’re taking the concept of “love” branding that Love Mobile, Love Gadsden, Love Tuscaloosa, and taking some of the best of that, customizing it to the area, working with the associational missionary. They will help us focus our resources that we’ll be using the money we have, the funds we have at State Board of Missions to come alongside our associational partners and they know best what needs to be done, and we’ll be there to help them. So I appreciate you giving us the opportunity to partner, and I appreciate also the fact that the North American Mission Board, that all of us, came out of there feeling like we were equal partners, and the impact was eternal.

Well, listeners, we’ve had a really a joyful time to be able to hear from our friend Neal Hughes. And Neal, we always ask before we go, how can we pray for you?

Neal Hughes:

Well, thank you for praying for me and for our associational family. We are made up of 76 churches. Pastors that love the Lord, churches that love the Lord that are committed to bring the gospel into the River Region. I would just ask that you would continue to pray for our pastors, that the Lord will give them strength. All of them are coming out of Covid seasons. And there’s been both the challenges, but also the joys that have come with the new day that’s upon them. And I pray that we’ll be wise to this new day and that all of us will come to the day when we stand before the Lord and finish well.

Rick Lance:

Well thank you, Neal, and thank you listeners to One Mission, the podcast. This is another episode in which we’re able to talk missional leaders and others, and giving us a sense of sharing of what’s going on in their lives in order that we might learn from them and also help each other. Listeners, thank you so much for being ones who are in our audience. Remember, we do have one mission, the Great Commission, one program, the Cooperative Program, and many ministries, Great Commission Ministries. God bless you.

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