Leadership · MISSIONS · Evangelism

A Conversation with Paul Chitwood

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

Rick Lance:

Hello. I’m Rick Lance, State Missionary of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, and welcome to One Mission the podcast. This is an opportunity for us to be able to discuss ministries through the local church with church leaders and also leaders beyond the local church who focus on the Great Commission. And today we’re delighted to have a dear friend and a premier leader, our President of the International Mission Board. And as I say, he is a friend, but he’s also the kind of statesmanlike leader we need at this particular time. He’s a once in a generation type leader, and I’ve been able to see through the years, leaders come and go. But we’re so glad that Paul Chitwood is the president of the International Mission Board. Paul, welcome to One Mission the podcast.

Paul Chitwood:

Well, thank you Dr. Lance. Great to be on with you. I appreciate those incredibly kind comments and even more appreciate your friendship. You’ve been just a tremendous source of encouragement to me for many, many years. Whatever role I was in, you’ve been a dear friend and a great encourager to me. I’m thankful for you, thankful for Alabama Baptists, for the incredible generosity, that we’re able and blessed to receive, and your advocacy of the work of the IMB across Alabama. And I know you have deep experience with the IMB as a former board member, and have just really championed the work of what God is doing around the world through Southern Baptists, through the IMB. And we are grateful.

Rick Lance:
Well, thank you, Paul. And really what we try to do in this podcast is informal and casual. We’re not doing a, what you would call a formal interview, but our listeners would like to know about our leaders, and this is an opportunity for them, perhaps to hear, learn more about you. And let’s begin basically where we all like to begin. Tell us something about your conversion experience, your call to ministry, and then we’ll follow up some other questions that will help us have a better reflection of who Dr. Paul Chitwood is.

Paul Chitwood:
Well, thank you for that opportunity that the Lord’s kindness and all of our lives is beyond measure. And it’s certainly true in my life. I say often no matter where you are, the Lord can find you if he wants to. And he found me in a rental house at 210 Province Street in a little town in the mountains on the Tennessee-Kentucky line. When I was a boy being raised by a single dead, had a couple brothers. Our father had raised us since, I guess we were ages one, two, and four, had raised us on his own. And I was the two year old, the middle son. But about I guess 1978, 1979, there was, well, let me back up from there, but about 1974, there was a knock on our door in that little rental house, and it was a couple of deacons from the little First Baptist Church there in the town of Jellico, Tennessee, who were out door to door visiting and inviting people to church.

And they invited dad to church. He took us and we began to go consistently there at the little church and found a church that was welcoming to us. Then fast forward, 1978, 1979, another knock at that door, where we were still renting. And it was our pastor, Dr. Allen Herd, who incidentally just passed away recently after the long and faithful life of pastoral ministry. But at the time, he was a young pastor. And dad had invited our young pastor to come and talk to my older brother who had been asking questions about the gospel. And so my brother Allen came in, sat in the green chair in the corner of our living room, and he shared the gospel with my older brother, uh, my younger brother. And I listened in and soon the three of us had made our profession of faith and we were baptized together there at the First Baptist Church in Jellico. And just again, the Lord finding us and our situation, the church that had reached out to us, that welcomed us, loved us, looking back on it, helped to raise us in just about every way. His kindness is, is just hard to even fathom as I reflect upon it.

Rick Lance:
That’s great. Your call to ministry. Let’s hear a little bit about that.

Paul Chitwood:
Well, there again, at First Baptist Church, I was attending a revival service and our pastor, I guess I was probably 18 years old, our pastor had asked if I would read the Bible passage that the visiting evangelist was gonna be preaching from that night, just a weeknight revival service. It was a former pastor who was there as the evangelist. When our current pastor asked me to do that, I said, no, I can’t do that. And the reason I couldn’t is because my greatest challenge in life at that time was any sort of public attention, recognition, certainly public speaking. I would have panic attacks, just go to pieces, very self-conscious. And I didn’t want to embarrass myself cause I typically did in a situation like that. But our pastor was very persuasive.

And he eventually got me to agree to do it and I did it. I was attending church that night, one of my best friends, and we’d grown up together, most of our classes through school been together. He knew about my challenges in just reading out loud in Sunday School or High School literature class. And so when I sat back down and I had read the passage without missing a beat, without my voice cracking and losing my breath, he looked at me. He said, wow. How did you do that? And I had just asked the Lord, help me to get, to survive this, to get through it. But as I sat there and the preacher preached, the Lord spoke very clearly to me.

It wasn’t an audible voice as Dr. Rogers used to say. It was much louder than that. That’s right. But the Lord spoke to me very clearly, as I was sitting there watching the preacher preach, that Paul, that’s what I want you to do. I want to use you to share My word with others. Had no idea what, you know, what that would look like if I would be a pastor, professor or youth minister or missionary. I just had no idea. But I did tell the Lord, Lord, if You want to use me, I’m willing to be used. And over time, the Lord gave clarity to the different roles that He wanted me in, and even to the role I’m currently in.

Rick Lance:
Well, that’s outstanding. And Paul, I want to commend you on sharing that it humanizes our leaders, because sometimes I’m afraid, those who are in the grassroots, Alabama Baptist lives, the larger Southern Baptist family, they almost see us like AI, artificial intelligence, or automatons. We’re just kinda wired to get up and do what we do. Of course, I know that much, I know that far differently in your case and others, because you have really been, the hand of God has been upon you. The divine sculptor has shaped your life. To bring you to such a time as this, as we often say in leadership at the International Mission Board, your past experience is very broad in a sense. And from my perspective, you’ve been not only an outstanding student in terms of educational pursuits. You’ve been one who’s been a faithful pastor and known you as a colleague in state convention life as you served as the Executive Director for Kentucky Baptists. And prior to that, President of the State Convention, therefore, you had executive experience leading something and pastoral experience, educational experience. You have been very missional in your life in terms of serving on the International Mission Board. And furthermore, you’ve been hands-on, engaged in mission opportunities around the world. So from that standpoint, I see you as one who has a wealth of experience. How has that helped you as you have taken the helms of leadership at the International Mission Board?

Paul Chitwood:
Well, it is been a tremendous help. I look back and just see the Lord’s kindness in the different places. He directed me over the course of my life and opportunities He gave me. Other leaders who poured into me and gave me an opportunity to lead in different roles; for the most part before I was ready for them. But even as a young man stretching me, growing me, teaching me humility to whatever degree I’ve learned it, teaching me to depend upon Him, to listen to the wise counsel of others. But those roles, this role, this role was so far beyond me, my capacity. I think it’s beyond the capacity of any human being. But I do look back and see just the very specific ways God was preparing me and me being totally unaware of that preparation at the time, or certainly what he would ultimately want to do with that.

But looking back and being able to see how much my 18 years as a pastor helps me do the job that I do at the IMB every day. How much my time as IMB trustee and board chairman helps me do my job that I do every day. That mission experiences overseas, state convention life, just no way to calculate how important that has been and what that meant for molding me and shaping me as a leader and preparing me to lead. Certainly that executive level of leadership stretched me greatly. I learned so much from it. And this one continues to do that. But were it not for those, you know, seven, eight years and state convention, I have no way I would be prepared, have been in any way prepared, to lead at the International Mission Board. So that along, as you reference, educational experiences, I just see so many who poured into me, so many opportunities God gave me that brought me to this point. That opportunities that sometimes come along that we’re not ready for, and we ought not even consider even if the opportunity were in front of us.

Cause we just simply have no preparation. But as experiences build and learning builds over the course of years in life and ministry, we do have the preparation we need always being stretched. But the preparation we need to assume a greater responsibility and greater stewardship. And I see that so clearly as I look back over the course of my life and the way that God has guided it, and those who have given me opportunities to serve and to lead along the way.

Rick Lance:
Yes, we always have people who pour their lives into us, and sometimes they don’t even know it oftentimes. That’s right. It is intentional. But I can sense as you’ve been the beneficiary of that and the Lord is blessed, I also realize that as you have taken upon this role, there had to be maybe some welcome surprises and some maybe not as much. Tell us something that maybe surprised you as you assumed the leadership of the presidency at the International Mission Board.

Paul Chitwood:
You know, not to be in any way negative, but I had a question asked of me from a long tenured leader at the IMB, who’s been a great help to me in my role. I was in the role, you know, five, six months. And he asked me the question, he asked, he said, what is the greatest surprise, Paul, that has come your way, at this point in your leadership? And I answered him very candidly, and I said sir, it’s the death of the dysfunction of this organization at this point in time. I had no idea. I had been trustee from 2002 to 2010, chair of the board for a couple of years. And then had sort of stepped away. Obviously, you roll off the board, your involvement, right.

We continue to have partnerships with the IMB and do some unique things in our relationship at Kentucky Baptist Convention with International Mission Board. But you’re not part of the internal workings or in any way, you know, aware of most of what’s going on in an organization. But certainly having a picture of the organization back then, and then seeing the organization that I came back to when I began the role in 2018, late 2018, it was shocking. The way the organization had changed. The struggles the organization was facing. And so that really was my biggest surprise. I was surprised at how low things were, you know, from missionary morale to missionary headcount to revenue streams, systems broken down. It was a bit shocking.

However, also see how God used that to position the organization to begin to dream again, begin to move forward, to rebuild. A lot of those broken down systems have been removed, really, essentially cleared the way, right, cleared the way to rebuild and without having to make a lot of changes just to, or let me put it this way, without having to move the old out of the way because the old had already been moved out of the way. But there was almost a clean slate to start from. Right.

So it turned out to be a blessing in so many ways, giving us a clean slate to build from, to restart from. And the Lord has been so kind and helping us get reestablished, giving us momentum, giving us support, renewing relationships. We’re just so grateful for where He has us today, and really just feel like we’re only scratching the surface of where we can be as the missionary sending arm of Southern Baptist churches.

Rick Lance:
Well, that’s a good segue into the future. What do you see the vision for the International Mission Board as you look to the future? I know you’re a visionary in your own way, and in fact, all of us have to be some of that, but some are blessed more than others, and you are in that point of blessing. So give us an idea of how, not trying to be Iron Cloud about it, but just a general abbreviated vision of what you see for the future.

Paul Chitwood:
Yeah. So we certainly, the bigger vision for the organization is the vision God has given to His church that someday those who belong to Christ will be gathered around the throne, standing before the throne and the Lamb. And we’ll see that great multitude from every nation and from all tribes and peoples and languages. So that literally is our vision statement as an organization. That’s what drives the organization every day. We’re working towards that vision, helping Southern Baptists as they work towards the fulfillment of that vision.

Our mission as an organization, our mission statement, which we rewrote after I became president, is to serve Southern Baptists in carrying out the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations. So we have tried to reposition the organization as a servant of the local church, a servant of our mission partners, like the Alabama Baptist Convention, other state conventions, local associations, and individual Southern Baptists.

We want to serve as each person and each other entity or board seeks to steward. They’re part of Great Commission work. So for us that mission and vision always in front of us keeps us focused on the work that God has set before us. You know, some of, in very practical ways, some of the ways this is playing out for us as an organization is a significant focus on relationships with pastors and churches and other missions partners. The IMB can sometimes tend to exist as kind of its own entity doing its own thing and expecting the funding to come from generous Southern Baptists to that end. But that’s not healthy. I don’t think that’s a, I don’t even think that’s a biblical missiology. It’s certainly not where we want to be.

So we are investing heavily in serving local churches, rebuilding those relationships, and we’re going to continue to do that. As we’ve been doing that, what we’ve seen is that our revenues have skyrocketed. We’ve seen our sending pipeline begin to grow again. We talk about sending pipeline, those are missionary candidates who have applied and are working through the system towards appointment. When I came into my role, we had about 300 who were applicants in the pipeline. As of today, they’re 1,129.

Rick Lance:
Amen. Good. Yes.

Paul Chitwood:
Yes. So we’re very excited about those things. But, for us, it always comes back to keeping the, as you’ve said, the vision in front of us. Keeping clarity in terms of our mission, our commitment to that mission, and okay, what does it mean to live that out on a daily basis as an organization? We’ve got to be connected to local churches. We have to have our missionaries connecting and reconnecting and rebuilding relationships with local churches. Cause that, that is our role to serve Southern Baptists.

Rick Lance:
Oh, that’s so eloquent and so comprehensive. Even in a brief statement, I’d like to just make a couple of observations that I think just are highlighted from what you said recently. I was thinking about unity in terms of trying to keep churches unified, because they’re not unified. They’re not going to be on mission, mission organizations, including State Board missions here in Alabama, whether we’re talking about the North American Mission Board or International Mission Board, or any other kind of faith oriented gospel sharing organization. There is a little statement I came up with, and it’s probably not anything but a practical statement, but I keep telling myself this: if you have clarity in what you’re supposed to do, it can lead the stability. And if you have clarity and stability, you can have unity. It’s not promised necessarily, but there’s hardly any other way to get there without unity, which brings stability.

That gives you an opportunity to have unity. You’ve done that well at the International Mission Board. And may your tribe increase as we, Southern Baptists, try to work together, Paul, in our remaining time. Let me simply say something that is a bit on the personal side. You talk about my tenure at the International Mission Board, and there have been other times of which the International Mission Board wasn’t fully functional. And I, during my tenure, we had some ups and downs, some bumps in the road. But there’s one thing I’ve noticed at the hand of God, if we’re pliable and dependable, depending upon Him, the hand of God uses us, despite ourselves. And I often describe Southern Baptists this way and times of difficulty. We may be in a room with the lights out looking for the light switch, but we finally find it. We come out at the right place. And it is people like you who help us to find a light switch and come out at the right way.

If we can understand that the Great Commission is our mission, if you wanna put it just biblically and state it very simply, if we all can come together and come around that, then the primary matters are settled, and the secondary and tertiary matters become secondary and tertiary. So I, I appreciate you as being that kind of leader, discerning leader. One other quick thing, and I know we don’t have much time to dwell on it. I have, during the, well, early part of the two thousands, spent a lot of time in Ukraine. I’ve been all over the country, and my heart has been hurting and bleeding over the fact that we have seen so many innocent people killed, and a nation totally disrupted.

And I realize no nation’s perfect. There was corruption there, but they had an opportunity in previous days, and I think perhaps with this president to have had democracy work much more effectively. But now with the war, we don’t know how that’s going to come out. But I want to say thank you to the International Mission Board for helping so much in this rescue of people who, and relief of people who are, in a sense, refugees from their country. Alabama Baptists were a small part of that, and our disaster relief areas. And it just shows how that all the moving parts of our SBC family can come together at a time of need. Yes. And see how we can give a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name. And I wanna thank you for that.

Paul Chitwood:
Well, that’s kind. Alabama Baptists have been no small part of that. The generosity of Alabama Baptists and the hands-on involvement in many of the projects that we’ve undertaken there is just such a blessing. And Southern Baptists in general, we’re now, as a recent update, over $15 million has been given to the relief efforts in and around Ukraine. And that’s allowed us to do tremendous work.

You know, you’re talking about different times of life of organizations. This organization is about to begin its 178th year. Amen. And there’s been ups and downs, but God’s grace has guided us through it. One of the things that history allows us to do in a situation like Ukraine, you talked about your involvement there. Alabama Baptist involvement. Over the course of decades, Southern Baptists have been investing in gospel advance in Ukraine.

So right now, when we want to deliver food or blankets or generators, we know where to take them to, who to give them to. We have trusted partners there. We helped start a seminary there. We have lots of church planters. We’ve discipled over the years. We have trusted partners there to ensure that, you know, in a lot of relief situations, you throw money or goods at a situation with a hope and a prayer that it’s gonna get beyond the corruption and down to people who need it. Well, cause of the investment of Alabama Baptists and Southern Baptists over these decades in Ukraine, we know that what is being provided and great generosity is getting to where it needs to go to the people who need it most.

And so it’s been a beautiful thing to see, and God is using it. This is such a travesty, such a travesty, but God is using it. We’re hearing such great reports of gospel advance, people coming to faith, even new churches being started in the midst of war zones. And so the Lord is using these times for His glory, even in Ukraine.

Rick Lance:
Well, Paul, I want to tell you as one Alabama Baptist and one Southern Baptist, that I have always appreciated the International Mission Board, and I do appreciate even more of what you’re doing. And I’m glad to have been able to walk alongside you as a colleague and state convention leadership. And I’ll have to tell you, the first time I met you years ago, I said to myself, there is someone that’s going to be not only a good state convention leader, but a national leader. And I’m not a a talent hunter or someone like that for God. But I want you to know that I had my eyes upon you as being a person who could have ascend, that the Lord could use and choose to be used in the way you are. And for that, I’m grateful. And I also want to always ask anyone who’s on with us as, we just ask how we can pray for you, because we know the burden is big.

You’re a globe trotter right now. The International Mission Board is everywhere, the footprint’s wide, the days we live, we have some people in some dangerous spots around the world. Yes, we, our people are growing and their understanding of how challenging that is, we just want to know how we can pray for you, not only the International Mission Board as a mission organization, but for you as the leader.

Because leaders are lonely at the top, and only with the presence of the power of the God we know who comes in the Holy Spirit to give us direction, can we really feel at home. So how can we pray? For us Alabama Baptists, looking to you?

Paul Chitwood:
I thank you for asking it. It’s a blessing and an honor. I’d mentioned three things very quickly and specifically. Dr. Lance pray for wisdom. Leading the IMB is beyond me. It’s beyond, we have great leadership team God has given us. That’s beyond any of those team members or that team as a whole. We need the Lord’s wisdom to do the Lord’s work. So pray on our behalf that God will give us His wisdom.

Secondly, one of their greatest needs right now, are more missionaries and more missionary candidates. That pipeline has grown. It’s not where we want it to be yet. And in the generosity of Southern Baptist giving, the funds are there to send more missionaries. The need of those missionaries is greater than ever before in the history of the world.

There is greater lostness today in our world than at any time in human history. And we’re here together addressing the world, addressing the world’s greatest problem. That problem of lostness. God has given us a solution. He’s given us the gospel. How does the gospel get to the lost? Through a missionary presence. And so we wanna see more missionaries go. Pray with us, that the Lord would call out, and that Southern Baptist pastors and preachers will be faithful to call out the called, and that, those called, many of them would come to serve through the International Mission Board.

Then third, do remember our missionaries around the world. Indeed, just getting back from a trip to South Asia and seeing the circumstances many of them live and minister in, it’s incredibly, incredibly hard. Spiritual warfare is real every second of every day. So I ask that Southern Baptists pray for missionaries that God will keep them healthy spiritually, physically, emotionally, and God will give them fruit. That they have the joy of seeing many come to faith as the Lord uses them. And I appreciate, again, the faithfulness of the prayers of Alabama Baptists. And thank you for your kind words and your prayers, Dr. Lance.

Rick Lance:
Oh. It is been a delight to be able to have you today. We’re blessed listeners to be able to hear the heart of our leader at the International Mission Board, Dr. Paul Chitwood. Now, when you pray, pray for him. Pray for his family, pray that he’ll have the wisdom and discernment. Pray also, that our missionaries around the world will know they’re not alone, that we’re in this together. Thank you Alabama Baptists for being huge supporters of missions and all aspects of Southern Baptist life, but especially as we think about today through the ministry of the International Mission Board. Thank you Dr. Chitwood for being with us today and listen again out in the future. We will have another podcast with an opportunity to talk to God’s servants.

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