A Conversation with Johnny Hunt and Mark Hoover about Longevity in the Pastorate*

Dr. Allen: It is a joy to host, in the Spurgeon Room today, Dr. Johnny Hunt and Dr. Mark Hoover. They are friends of mine and friends of Midwestern Seminary, and they are two men who know much about pastoral ministry. Dr. Hunt pastors the First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Ga. He is one who is known throughout the Southern Baptist Convention, and beyond, for his leadership within the church and his leadership within the denomination. Mark Hoover serves as senior pastor of NewSpring Church in the Wichita area. I’ve gotten to know him recently as I have been president of Midwestern Seminary.

It is a joy to have the two of you on campus today. These are two men who love the local church. Anyone who knows much of anything about Midwestern Seminary or my heart knows we are giving ourselves to serving the local church. That is what a seminary is to be about. We find kindred spirits in the room today and a conversation worth having.

Particularly today, I want to talk about tenure in pastoral ministry. Each one of you have been at your churches about 28 years, serving as pastor, senior pastor, and perhaps titles or iterations of the job. You have basically been leading the same congregation—though it has grown tremendously—in the same local church for 28 years. You are two men who know much about tenure in the local church. Thank you for joining me today for the conversation.

Dr. Hunt: Good to be here.

Dr. Hoover: Thank you, Dr. Allen. It is good to be here.

Dr. Allen: I want to keep this relatively casual and practical. I am not looking for a theory of tenure, but I would like to hear more testimonially, how this has happened. What has the Lord done in your life? What has kept you fresh there and in love with your church? It is so very clear when I talk to you that you men love your church. I want to ask each of you to share a two or three minute autobiography of the Lord’s call, and how that calling to your church has remained fresh and intact. Dr. Hunt, let me start with you.

Dr. Hunt: Thank you, Dr. Allen. You started at the right place, and that is with the call. I believe the call is the commencement to the staying power. When you have what you really believe is a divine, supernatural intervention in your life for God to place you somewhere, you are reluctant to leave where he places you. Normally, when people go through difficult times in their life, they find themselves working backwards to say, “I doubted coming here in the first place, and now I am even more doubtful this is where I am supposed to be.” But if you solidify in your heart, in going there, that you had nothing to do with it and you can see the apparent hand of God and the move of the Spirit of God in taking you there—and it is not even necessarily somewhere you would have chosen for yourself, or it would have been descriptive of what you would like to lead–but you have this overarching, deep conviction that you are there for one reason: God placed you there. I feel like Jesus will be pleased in that he finds me faithful as a steward to what he has for me. That trumps everything else. Then, when the storms do come, you stay in the boat because you are going to the other side; you don’t know what you are going to encounter. You are aware that Christ is in the boat with you; he started the journey with you; and he is leading. It literally has been the staying power.

Dr. Allen: So, 28 years at one church. Roughly speaking, what was the size of the church then and the size of the church now? How have those dynamics changed over nearly three decades?

Dr. Hunt: We were averaging around 200 people, and the church was in trouble. They had dismissed their pastor and their minister of music. I would say to every young pastor listening, try to find the heart and will of God, and his voice in all of this instead of what it looks like, because it may not look anything like where you would think you would serve. The Lord led us there then, and now 28 years later—which, I believe it is impossible to build whatever we would consider a great work without longevity—now, on an average Sunday with our four campuses, we average about 6,800 attenders.

Dr. Allen: That is incredible. Dr. Hoover–looking to Wichita–share your story. You have been there for 28 years. Tell us about that. How did the Lord draw you there, and what have you experienced in broad terms in keeping that sense of calling fresh?

Dr. Hoover: It is still startling to hear the number of years—28 years. I was 28 when I went there, so this is an interesting year for me. Half of my life has been spent in my church. I am from the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and I remember still going to chapel one day with my then girlfriend–my wife I’ve been married to since 1977. Before we got married, we were going to chapel one day, and I said, “I will go anywhere God sends me except Kansas,” and I really meant it. It was not that I was hooraying Kansas or anything, it was just that I felt like I didn’t connect with Midwesterners. I knew kids from the Midwest, so I thought, “Well, I’m sure God is not going to take me out of Texas.” But this church would not leave me alone, so I wound up coming here in 1985. Just like what Johnny said a moment ago, it might not be our first choice, but it is God’s choice, and it is the right choice. Now, I cannot imagine being anywhere else. It has been a love affair for my wife and I for all of these years to be in Wichita at our church and to watch it grow. You say it is the same church, but at the same time, in 28 years a church goes through so many transitions, in some ways it feels like 10 different churches. Yet, it is the same church. I cannot imagine being anywhere else.

Dr. Allen: I would love to hear any reflections on the different phases of those nearly three decades. As I talk to pastors who have been in the same church for many years, they will speak of sweeter seasons or phases, challenging phases–maybe because of the different growth dynamics of the church–where you hit certain thresholds of people, and it becomes more challenging to lead and manage. I would love to hear your hearts on the different phases of that ministry—what would seem to be the sweeter, easier phases, if I can use that word, and what different thresholds appeared more challenging. Dr. Hunt, you go first.

Dr. Hunt: They say you teach what you know, and you reproduce what you are. It is easy to teach and talk about what it is going to take, as Jesus said, “To sit down and count the cost before you go to war or build a tower.” We did a relocation process, and we built a building in 1991. I thought I would never need to commit the church to raise so much money again, only to see 15 us go 10 times beyond that number 15 years later. There have been growth times, and there have been growth times in my life.

As I seek to listen to Christ and to oversee and lead this congregation, it is a frightening thing to think that sometimes the only thing they may not embrace in the will of God is what I have been fearful to lead them to embrace. There are people ready to go.

There came a stage in our life where there was a transition, and they allowed it to become a pastor-led church. I did not demand that. I became a respected feature of the ministry that, by the grace of God—and I don’t know a magical line we crossed—instead of the guys coming and speaking to me about what we ought to do, there was a change where they would say, “We know, as our leader, you have decisions to make, and we are committing days to pray and fast as you make the decision to lead us.” You cannot demand that. That is something that has to be granted, given, and it has to be earned. I am not sure exactly how. I wrote some leadership lessons on the stewardship of influence, and I do know this, if God gives me influence, it is a platform that he gives me to help others succeed. It is not about me. If I can display that it is not about what I hope to get through this, but it is only through joining with the body of Christ to distribute that gift for the profit of all, what a marvelous difference it makes.

Mark made a good statement when he said it seems like he has really pastored 10 different churches but the same one. There are transitions where staff grows. This may encourage a young pastor or staff member. There was a great transition—I am a pastor at my core being—there was a day that I did all of my hospital visiting. I did not have staff. I led the youth ministry, and my wife worked with the children’s choir. She would just listen to music and then teach them. We built the nursery because we were the only ones with children. We have been through those phases. It was a difficult day when I had to hire a hospital pastor because the church was so large and hospitals were so spread out. I still want to be there. I had a young pastor with me recently, and a text message went out to my deacons and to the staff that someone had been in a serious accident. I found myself saying, even though I had a pastor with me, “Hey, guys, stand down, I want to take this.” I looked over at the pastor with me and I said, “I am still a pastor.” He said, “Say what?” And I said, “I am going to do this, not because I have to. This is who I am.” I have never changed in that sense. I still have the heart to do things.

Here is what I hope in my heart—there are some things that I do not have to do as much of as I used to, but I pray I will never get to the place that I am not willing to do those things, but that I desire to do them. Dr. Allen, when we came on your property, you said, “I wanted to be on the campus.” That is how I feel. I really want to be with the people. I love the people I lead. I think that if I love Jesus, I will love the people. “Simon, do you love me?” Then Jesus pushed it away from himself and said, “Feed my sheep.” I think if I get to the point where I am not feeding and caring for the sheep, it has more to do with my relationship with my Savior. I love ministry. It is large, but the larger it grows, the smaller we must become.

Dr. Allen: That is good. Dr. Hoover, speak to the different phases at NewSpring.

Dr. Hoover: One of the best aspects of longevity is that your church lets you grow up. I have grown so much in the 28 years, and they have given me the elasticity to grow as a leader and as a Christian. I really like that part of it.

We were in an eight-year relocation process where we moved 12 miles, bought land, and built. I always joke and say it was impossible for seven years and 51 weeks. That is absolutely true. That was a great season of time for us to grow our faith.

In 2004, we began a pretty serious transition. I know we use these words a lot, and they mean different things to different people, but I would say we really went from being an internally focused church to an externally focused church. We went through a difficult period of four years as we wrestled through the various transitions of that, but coming out of it we have experienced explosive growth the last few years. Most of our growth has come from new believers. That has just been a great season for me. Looking back on these 28 years, they have all been wonderful. Every time I get to be with the people or get to step before the people and communicate God’s message, it is all wonderful, but there have been special seasons, and those are a couple of them.

Dr. Allen: As I was looking at the statistics, many churches turn over a new pastor every two, three, or four years. A pastor leaves, and they are looking for a new pastor. Some of the reason behind that is that certain guys just run out of stuff to preach. They become stale, and they are preaching old sermons. If they run through their “stuff,” they look for a new post to repackage their previously packaged sermons.

You preached through your “stuff”; you have been there a long time; your people know you two men. That requires a certain freshness and returning to God’s Word. I would love to hear you two speak to how your preaching ministry over the years keeps you fresh, and at the same time how you know you must be fresh and encounter God’s Word daily and weekly in ways that impact you. Before I would ask you to respond, I know the two of you are in your churches a lot. Both of you preach there. You are there 45–48 Sundays per year preaching. So, you are not like many individuals who pastor large churches, and they are out every other week so to speak. You guys are there laboring in it. I would love to hear you speak to how the ministry of the Word has channeled and paralleled your tenure in the local church, Dr. Hunt.

Dr. Hunt: When you stay there long enough, you are able to behold what you have grown. We give God the glory, but you begin to see if the ministry has worked. Have we produced genuine disciples? Again, we want to be so careful to give God the glory, but I told our people one time, “Pound for pound, I would put y’all against any people.” The men appreciated that. The women said, “Can you come up with a word better than ‘pound’?” We are working on that.

One of the things about staying and loving your people is that you really get to know them better. You begin to listen to them. They say, “If you listen to your people, they will tell you what is important.” I began hearing more and more of my people in the last couple of years say, “I really love God, but I feel like I am in a dry season.” I heard that enough that I began to research and write in that area, so I came back and wrote six biblical messages on restoring spiritual vitality. Now all of the research out there is saying that our people have so many stops in their lives where they are regressing and stopping. I want to address that and help our people see that we can continue this process, and it really is a day-by-day growing with the Lord, surrendering, periods of brokenness and embracing more—growing from glory to glory, just as much as sin leads from lawlessness to lawlessness. Sin is never satisfied with the amount of us it possesses; it always wants more, and it takes more. I think it is the same thing on the opposite end of the spectrum with Christ.

With that in mind, I really want to help my people. I want to help them realize our mandate to the nations and to this nation—to making Christ known to their neighbors and the nations. It is just so much to do. Sometimes I will dive in and do a two-year study through the book of Acts and change it up every now and then so I do not bore them. Then, I will be in the season like I introduced today, where God is continuing to change our heart. Our hearts are evil, and in the humanness of our lives we will struggle with them. I want them to understand that we are all struggling, and there is no temptation but such is common to all. To me, that would mean if I am struggling with it, there is another million. So, all I’ve got to do is preach out of my own struggles, and they are out there struggling with me. Almost every week someone picks up on a statement and says, “Thanks for sharing that. I am struggling too and it helped me to realize that you are a sojourner with me in this thing.”

I like to remind myself that the greatest call in my life was not to be a pastor and it was not to pastor Woodstock. It was to be a Christian. We were talking about Pilgrim’s Progress. I have read Pilgrim’s Progress in Old English, new English. I’ve read the children’s version, and I even have the children’s video series. Some may say, “What are you doing?” When I became a Christian, that was the number two best read book in the world. We have gotten away from it, but it has so helped me because it is so real with the different characters that he encountered on his way to the Celestial City and the things that caused him to regress or be detoured, then get back on the road. I feel at times like I was in the dungeon with him when he was writing that allegory. There is probably not a month that goes by that I do not use one of the illustrations out of that book in my sermon. Life is real and as long as we keep it real with the people, it helps.

One other thing I will say about preaching—if you preach and God helps you to communicate, and you will be honest with the text and your life, you will connect with your people, and they will desire to connect with you. When you are off the platform, if you are not there to connect, I think it does something that is going to keep you from being as effective as you can be. I really like to connect with the people, find out what is going on in their life, and hear from them and their journey. If you spend enough time with them, just like I do with pastors, you learn which subjects are the hottest on their hearts to speak to.

Dr. Allen: Thank you. Dr. Hoover, speak to the ministry of the Word and enabling a protracted tenure.

Dr. Hoover: Going back to what you were talking about earlier, about ministers who preach themselves out in a short period of time—I never know what to do with that because to me, the whole process of preaching is addictive. Leadership is what I must do; preaching is what I get to do. It is like the cherry on the sundae. I do not just mean stepping before people; I love the whole process. For me, I just hope I live long enough to preach all of the things I have in the pipeline.

It is true, the Bible never changes. David kills Goliath every time, but there are all kinds of lessons and ways of presenting it. I love the idea of trying to find creative ways to come in through new avenues and to sequence the thoughts in different ways in order to reach the audience. At NewSpring, as I was talking about a few moments ago, so many of the people who walk in our doors have secular backgrounds and do not know the Bible. So, in many cases I am getting to introduce them to Bible characters for the first time.

I was doing a series called The Thing last year on David’s sin, because the Bible says, “The thing that David did displeased the Lord.” We used a monster theme, and I still remember telling the story of how David had Uriah killed. I was walking them through the aspects of the narrative, and I still remember my audience gasping at seeing David hand Uriah’s death message to Uriah. It is so exciting to have the privilege of getting to communicate God’s Truth. It still excites me, and every time I read Scripture it is like something is going to jump off the page. Before I came down here, I was reading Jonah in my private devotions. I have preached through Jonah several times, but I told my wife, “I do not think I have ever preached through Jonah before,” because there are so many wonderful things to communicate to an audience. I think one of the reasons guys get burnt out—I cannot speak to it with specificity, but just guessing—the only reason why I am pumped about preaching the message is because it has done something in my life first. Now I’m excited to communicate to other people what God’s Word has done to me. I think if I ever got to the place where the Scriptures were not impacting me personally, then I might have a hard time communicating it to others.

Dr. Allen: That is good. I have found in my own life, and as I have known and conversed with preachers about the act of preaching, some people really enjoy the proclamation and they thrive in that. Other people really enjoy the study, and they thrive in that. The great preachers usually really enjoy both. The study they enjoy, but then actually the delivery they enjoy. Would that God raise up a generation of preachers that enjoy and thrive in both contexts!

One other question before we wrap up our time together–What advice would you give a guy in his church right now who is reading or listening to this podcast and has been there three, five, or seven years? He is tired, and maybe contemplating leaving, not because the Lord has strongly called him away from where his is, but there are some misgivings in his soul and perhaps he is discouraged. What encouragement would you give him to press on and be faithful unless it is truly the Lord calling them elsewhere?

Dr. Hunt: Unless the Lord is calling them, I think first of all, guys have got to be careful about knowing what encourages them. The bottom line is there are things that discourage us–which take courage out–and there are things that encourage us. We need to do an inventory of that and find out what it is that really encourages us and make sure that we are involved.

You talked about your family a moment ago. I adore my daughters; I love my son-in-laws; I’m absolutely crazy about my grandchildren; and I’m still madly in love with my wife after 43 years. It is one thing to say you are best friends, but I am telling you, when there is an opportunity to spend the day with anyone or have someone travel with you, hands down, I want my wife. So, I really invest. I date my wife every week and try to do special, creative things for her and with her. So find things that really encourage them because a lot of times they are just too focused on the one thing in their life. If the only thing they are focused on is their church and it becomes discouraging, their whole life is discouraging. I feel like I’ve got so many different concentric circles in my life that encourage me, it is hard to get down unless the whole world falls apart. I would encourage them in that way.

They should have some pastor friends in their life. Mark Hoover and I are friends. I really would say, and I mean this with all of my heart, the guys that are listening today may not know Mark—he is new in our Southern Baptist camp, and he is there at NewSpring in Wichita. He is a genius. He really has a creative mind. I have sat under his preaching, and he has a cool way of looking at a text that is a normal text, but bringing you in a backdoor. He is very gospel-centered, and I challenge anyone to find anyone stronger on the gospel and a desire to see people come to Jesus. It is the best of both worlds. I know some creative speakers who say, “Goodbye, have a great week, see you next week.” No, when Mark spreads the table with God’s wonderful gospel delights, he invites them to come and dine and come to Christ. They are seeing a lot of adults—a lot of young men—come to Christ.

When I host Timothy-Barnabas Conferences—here is my favorite story—there are five couples sitting at one table. Little do we know, but one of the couples is sitting there thinking, “This is it; unless God chooses to do something during this time of encouragement and instruction, we are out.” They are sitting there, and as they are getting acquainted—women particularly are extremely vulnerable–they will tell you more than you want to know, and guys keep everything pretty close. The girls are carrying on a conversation about how difficult it is. When the evening is over, this couple that is ready to leave goes back and says, “I am so encouraged. After hearing their problems, we really do not have any problems.” Sometimes, when you do not have camaraderie with friends in the family of God it is easy to become lonely in the ministry.

You have to be intentional with relationships. When you talk to the other brothers—Mark will tell you, we get together and talk church all the time. We will talk about some of the challenges we have and some of the blessings. Then, we will get 30 pastors together, and a lot of times we are all struggling in the same area. It sort of helps to see, “I was just thinking I was weird and that was a deficiency in my life.” Then you begin to think, “I need to leave,” and “Am I even doing the right thing?” So, they can help themselves by relationships with others. God has not called us to be a Lone Ranger. I am an American Indian, so take it from this Tonto. Have friends, show yourself friendly, network with other brothers, and find a whole lot of other things to be encouraged about.

Dr. Allen: Thank you. Dr. Hoover?

Dr. Hoover: I would just reiterate what Johnny said about friends. I was laughing because earlier this year Johnny, his wife, Janet, Mary Alice, and I had a chance to be in Mexico together. Johnny and I were sitting beside the pool preaching sermons to one another. It is one of those things that you think about all of the time. I would just say to a guy who is struggling with thinking about moving on without God directing him to move on—I know this could sound cliché, but I can just tell you—the most difficult moments of my pastorate at NewSpring, when I was most driven to think about bailing, it was right after that that we had an explosive, God-ordained blessing, whether it was growth, revival, or whatever. Again, I know that could sound cliché, like “It is darkest before dawn,” but I really do believe that the greatest seasons in church ministry is had by guys who will stay in there and stay faithful.

There are so many blessings of longevity. We could go on forever. I do not do too many weddings anymore, but I was doing a wedding a couple of years ago, and I was standing before the bride and groom. I looked at the bride and realized, “I think I was the third person to hold her.” I had gone to the hospital right after she was born. Her mom held her, then her dad, then they handed her to me, and I stood before her now marrying her. You are not going to do that if you just go somewhere in three years. I will see people in our office who work for us, and I will think, “I remember when they were three or four-years-old running around.” The first couple I visited 28 years ago, I remember holding a little two-year-old boy on my lap. That two-year-old boy is doing a phenomenal mission work in Guatemala today.

There is something about being in a place a long time, having God develop you, having God develop these people, and knitting your hearts together. Truthfully, you reach a place when you have served a church as long as Johnny and I have, that you do not know where the fabric of you as a person is and the fabric of the church begins; it is woven together. I know this is true for Janet, and it is true for Mary Alice, my wife. It has been a thing that our wives have loved too. Our wives love our churches and our ministries. I would just say, if you are thinking about bailing, unless the Holy Spirit sends angels down to pick you up and carry you away, stay there. Adrian Rogers told me one time, “When you go to a place, be ready to go there and spend the rest of your life and be ready to leave in 15 minutes.” Maybe that is still the right way to look at it.

Dr. Allen: That is good. I grew up at Cottage Hill Baptist Church in Mobile, Ala. Fred Wolfe was my pastor. He was there 25 years, and I just assumed every church was like my church. Kids just make these grand assumptions, and for me I just thought every church was like that. Now, I look back on my childhood and teenage years and see the joy and simplicity and predictability it brought into my life and my family’s life. Having the same pastor through my childhood and adolescent years brought a whole level of stability that so many do not have. I commend the two of you for standing strong. I appreciate your ministries. Dr. Hunt, I have described you to others as being a “powder keg in the pulpit,” and you are. Dr. Hoover, your joy for the church and the gospel is infectious. I appreciate your encouragement to the seminary community here at Midwestern, to me personally, and to the broader ministry that the Lord has entrusted to the two of you. Thank you for being here today.


*Recorded 25 March 2014 in the Spurgeon Room

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