William (Bill) G. Wilson, Jr., a Baptist minister from Dalton, Ga. will become President of the Center for Congregational Health, Inc. on September 21. Bill’s arrival will culminate a yearlong national search that followed a year of identity clarification by the Center.
“I am called to this job,” says Bill, who was happily leading a large local church and expecting a lengthy tenure there when he was approached about the position. The pivotal moment in the process, Bill says, came when he stopped resisting and looked at the job description. “It felt like a jolt of electricity. I saw the role here that God had been preparing me for over the past 25 years, unbeknownst to me. I couldn’t not see the fit.” The only difficult part of the decision was leaving his beloved congregation of First Baptist Dalton.
“Bill brings a clear sense of call to this place at this time,” says Sharon Engebretson, interim vice president, Division of Pastoral Care, North Carolina Baptist Hospital. “He has a depth of leadership experience and significant tenure as the pastor of a congregation as well as credentials and training in other forms of ministry. This broad background is unusual for a local pastor and makes him a wonderful fit for the position here.”
Indeed, Bill’s 33 years of ministry experience and leadership is extensive. He began his career in youth ministry in Greenville, SC, pastored a 500-member congregation in Farmville, VA, then a 1150-member church in Waynesboro, VA, before landing at First Baptist Dalton, a congregation of 1600 members, in 2003. He has served as president of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, coordinator for the Valley Region for Partnership Missions, moderator of the Southside Baptist Association, and on the governing boards of a variety of Baptist organizations, including the Associated Baptist Press, the University of Richmond, Mercer University, the Virginia Baptist Presidential Committee on Cooperation, and the Ministry Partners Study Committee.
Bill’s background as local pastor in churches large and small and leadership within the greater denomination is only part of the story. The son of a Baptist minister, his past is steeped with activities that promote health and well-being in and beyond the local congregation. He received a doctor of ministry degree from The Graduate Theological Foundation, in South Bend, Indiana, in 2007, focusing on family systems, preaching and mediation for use in the local church setting. He is a graduate of Murray State University in Murray, KY, and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. In the early 1990s, he trained as a Stephen Covey facilitator, subsequently leading workshops in Baptist and secular settings throughout Virginia. As a certified leadership coach, he has thrived in his relationships in both individual and small group settings. “I love it,” Bill says, “when people, groups and organizations grow deeper, not just wider.”
Bill has led strategic planning initiatives at his own churches and has shared the successful process with other organizations. Most recently, he headed a strategic planning exercise for First Baptist Dalton that began six months into his pastorship. What began as setting a vision and affirming core values for a fatigued congregation developed into a three-year, $15 million building and renovation project for an energized and united faith community. “It was about realigning our physical facilities with our rediscovered Biblical identity and vision for ministry,” says Bill. “It was a transformational project for our church.”
Along with the vision and buildings, came an intentional effort, he explains, “to change our congregation into a missional and teaching congregation.” The church began to re-value God’s active vocational call and “committed to raising up a new generation of leadership within the church.” It also began working with churches of varying denominations across the city for joint outreach and mission events as well as other collaborative work.
Bill says that his ministry experiences as a staff member and pastor have been healthy and redemptive – “never dark or overly discouraging, as they have been for some people.” What excites him about the Center for Congregational Health is that it “speaks to one of the most pressing needs in American life today - that our local churches be a place of inspiration and energy rather than conflict and pain.” Bill cites a rise in cynicism and distrust in congregational life today, while at the same time recognizing that churches are becoming more “missional, intentional and focused on truly becoming the body of Christ.”
Calling it a “proactive as well as responsive ministry,” he believes the Center is strategically placed to meet the Church’s needs for the twenty-first century. Bill is grateful to the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina and North Carolina Baptist Hospital for their partnership in creating the Center in 1992 and for their generous, ongoing support of what he terms “this unique and extraordinary ministry – the only one of its kind in the nation.”
Bill speaks highly of the Center for Congregational Health staff, their strong abilities and commitment, and interim president Les Robinson’s capable leadership during the past two years. “I am entering a competent and healthy organization,” he says. When Bill assumes the title of president next month, Les will resume his position as vice president and manager of interim ministry resources.
The Center for Congregational Health, Inc. provides ministry and/or training for hundreds of faith communities, lay leaders and clergy annually across the United States and in several foreign countries. It has trained thousands of interim ministers. Bill praises the Center’s own intentional interim process prior to formation of the search committee that brought him here.
During that period of identity clarification, the Center looked at its history, reassessed its mission, strengths and partnerships, and then determined the kind of leader it needed. “That process allowed us to find our strengths and then find the best leader for our ministry,” says Marinn Bengel, the board member who headed the search committee. “Bill is a visionary leader,” Marinn says, “an alliance builder who has coached pastor groups across denominations. When we talked to him, we knew he was the right person for this job.”
“The Center has a strong sense of its purpose and calling,” says Bill. “I want to bring my set of skills to help it achieve its vision. One way to do that is to engage the staff, stakeholders and partners to do what is important in new, creative ways as well as the existing ways.” Bill emphasizes the importance of collaboration and calls himself a “bridge builder, not a wall builder.” He stresses searching for commonalities among ministry partners of all faith communities, saying that the “past genius of the Baptist denomination has been that we agree on important things and allow diversity on lesser things.”
Bill grew up in Greensboro, NC where his father was the founding pastor of Lawndale Baptist Church and a leader within the denomination. Later his father was the founding pastor of Brentwood Baptist, in Nashville, TN, where Bill’s mother is still an active member. “My experience as a pastor’s son was wonderful,” Bill says. “My father loved what he did. Church was always engaging and exciting.” Bill was a high school student on a mission trip when he heard God’s call to ministry.
Carrying on the family tradition, Bill’s son, Ryan, is enrolled at McAfee School of Theology, in Atlanta, after spending a year involved in missions in South Africa. Bill’s wife, Kathy, is an elementary teacher. Besides Ryan, they have two grown children, Jennifer and Brent, both married. Bill and Kathy are the elated grandparents of Jennifer’s four-month-old daughter, Kathryn.
What aspect of ministry invigorates Bill the most? This is a man who likes to grow things – plants, people and organizations. The almost former pastor who is also a leader, coach, facilitator, bridge builder and preacher (a favorite activity) is rewarded when people tell him that he has changed them. A recent four-word email, “You changed my life,” gives Bill a world of joy.
Chuck Dobbins, who chaired the search committee that brought Bill to First Baptist Dalton in 2003, speaks with ambivalence of losing a pastor and friend who is clearly called to a broader arena. “We would not be faithful stewards if we tried to keep Bill and his talents here when we know the Lord is calling him to something else,” he says. The church is taking a healthy approach to Bill’s leaving. “In blessing our pastor as he goes,” Chuck explains, “we hope we will help many congregations find their way.”
We, too, hope to help many congregations find their way. We welcome Bill as he brings his rich experience and love for the local church to the Center for Congregational Health, Inc.