Dr. Gina M. Stewart: Navigating the Path To Greatness Through Serving
The path to greatness is a journey riddled with many complex twists, bends, and turns. In fact, it is one that if carefully followed according to God's plan, its end will result in fulfilling God's perfect will for our lives. However, often times, the mistake that most of us make along the way is that we forget that we are not on the path alone. There are many people and situations that we will encounter that are strategically designed to help us get to the next level along the course. How we respond to each of them will determine the length of the journey towards our personal greatness in God.
Accordingly, one of the essential ways in which God intends for us to respond is by serving others. Serving has a way of humbling the soul while helping us excavate the seeds of greatness that He has placed on the inside of us. Someone once said that "greatness is not found in possession, power, position, or prestige. It is discovered in service, goodness, humility and character."
Having been elected as the first African American female pastor in an established African American Baptist congregation in Memphis and Shelby County, Dr. Stewart is an exuberant, down-to-earth woman of God committed to serving God and His people with excellence. Under her leadership as Senior Pastor of the Christ Missionary Baptist Church, more than 4,000 persons have united to experience the Word of God delivered with high-impact and power, leading to transformed lives.
Along with earning several academic degrees, being featured in a plethora of magazines and publications, Dr. Stewart has received numerous honors and awards for her outstanding service to the church and the community. She has been featured on the cover of Gospel Today Magazine (December 2010); Soul Sanctuary Desktop Documentary of African American Worship Experiences; She has also received: Outstanding Citizen of the Year from Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority (2000); The Community Service Award from Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority (2000); the O'landa Draper Humanitarian Award; the Pastor of the Year Award (medium size church) from the Gospel Bridge Awards (June 2004); and the Women of Wisdom award from the Women's Foundation of Greater Memphis (April 2007). Furthermore, she recently received the Pastor of the Year award from Citizens for Better Service (2012).
In addition to pastoring, coupled with her community and social justice endeavors, Dr. Stewart stands as a strong advocate of spiritual education, especially for women in ministry. She deems education to be an essential sphere of influence that offers invaluable tools and resources that help effectively prepare one to serve God and His people in excellence. Having received her Doctor of Ministry degree from the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC), Atlanta, Georgia, on May 5, 2007, Dr. Stewart serves as an Adjunct Professor for Memphis Theological Seminary and as a Visiting Professor of Practical Theology for the Samuel D. Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University. Additionally, she also functions as a Faculty Mentor in the Doctoral Studies Program of United Theological Seminary.
Having committed her life to the proliferation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Dr. Stewart (GS) truly demonstrates the evidences of having a servant's heart. Accordingly, PreachingWoman.com's founder, Reverend Nichelle Early (NE), enjoyed the opportunity to speak with her as she offered spectacular insight on the role of serving and how God uses the it in every area of our lives to prepare us towards fulfilling His purpose for His glory! So, please enjoy this interview as it will certainly bless you!
NE: Dr. Stewart, thank you for accepting our invitation to be featured on PreachingWoman.com, I am so honored to be speaking with you!
GS: Rev. Early, thank you for asking me, I'm so honored that you all have chosen me to be featured!
NE: Likewise, we too are honored!
Dr. Stewart, God has placed you in the wonderful assignment as Sr. Pastor of Christ Missionary Baptist Church since 1995. Please share with us, how you received this assignment?
GS: Well, it's quite unique because Christ Missionary Baptist Church is my home church; it's the church where I was raised and have attended since I was seven years old. In fact, the church is only about 45 years old, and my Aunt is one of its founders. As you can imagine, being a part of the church from such a young age, I've probably held every role in that church. I attended and taught Sunday School; I was in the youth choir; I was an usher; the announcement clerk; and just served wherever, and at whatever my hands found to do...So, it was around the time that I was 18, that we had a Youth Day Celebration and I was asked to do the welcome. And, when I did the welcome, the Lord just blessed and that welcome almost turned into a mini-sermonette. And, so my Pastor told me that for the following year, I would be the evening Youth Day Speaker, and from that point, it just sort of took off from there...
NE: Wow, that is amazing...
GS: Well Rev. Early, I guess part of the novelty was, that at that point, I never really saw myself going into the ministry, although I was really doing the work of the ministry and being asked to speak and emcee at youth day, women's day, and other types of services. That continued on for about 10 years. At that time, I just figured that I would be a speaker, do the work of an evangelist, and pursue my career goals. I didn't even consider that I would be a pastor.
NE: So, Dr. Stewart, what was the turning point for you? When did you decided to accept what God was apparently doing in your life from a young age?
GS: Well around 1986, I can honestly say that's when I began to feel the impression of the call to ministry...At that time, I heard God clearly say, "Quit your job and follow me!" Now, that scared me, because I was trying to follow a completely different path in my life. I was pursuing a career in sales and marketing and had desires of marrying and having children. So, I just put what I heard in the back of my mind and continued to move forward with my career... However, in December of 1989, I yielded to the Lord and accepted my call to ministry.
NE: Wow! So, how did that lead to you becoming the pastor of your home church?
GS: Well, I started serving under my pastor and helping in any way that I could; I was still speaking, emceeing programs, and doing other things. Fortunately, my pastor was very welcoming to women in ministry and created opportunities for me to serve. So, I did everything I could to be a blessing to him and the ministry.
However, in May of 1994, my Pastor died...this was very sudden, no one expected it, and the church was not prepared to look for a pastor. So when the election process finally began, many of the members came to me and asked if I had planned to submit my resume; but, I didn't take that serious, because again, I didn't really ever see myself pastoring, and I didn't think that the church would even consider a woman. I was still focused on my career and I felt, at the time, I didn't even want the stress of pastoring a church, because I had seen some of the things that my Pastor had to deal with and I wasn't sure I had the "grace" for pastoring.
Nonetheless, I began to pray and said, "Lord, I'm not sure if this is something that I want to do, or even if I'm called to do it; but, if you think you can use me, please make it abundantly clear that this is what I'm supposed to be doing..." So right before they were getting ready to close the application process, the pastoral search committee chair gave me a call and he said, "I noticed that you haven't submitted your resume for consideration. Perhaps it is because you believe that the church may not want a female pastor. However, let the church decide." So at that point, after prayerful consideration, I submitted my resume and credentials. Out of 66 applicants...the pool was narrowed from five then to three, and at the end of the process, I was elected by majority vote on March 4, 1995 as the Senior Pastor. So when I look at how it all unfolded, it was truly a God thing!
NE: Wow! That is amazing...and given the circumstances, it seems that everything happened rather quickly...
If you had three principles, in terms of preparation, to share with women who believe they are being called to the pastorate, what would those principles be?
GS: Preparation, Preparation, Preparation! The truth of the matter is yes, it all did happen rather quickly. However, I realized that everything I had experienced in my life up until the point of becoming a pastor had actually prepared me for the assignment. My spiritual, "secular," and even academic assignments played a tremendous role in my preparation.
- Spiritual Preparation: I believe my personal relationship with the Lord, the time I served my pastor and the ministry, all prepared me for my assignment as a pastor...So often, people (not exclusively women) go into ministry, but they may not have the foundation or track record, including some of the battles to be fought naturally and spiritually, to prepare them for some of the things that they will face as a minister/pastor. So, I would definitely say the main thing is spiritual preparation, not only in terms of learning to serve, but the process of spiritual formation, which includes living as a disciple; cultivating discipline; learning to submit to authority; passing the test of accountability; character formation and development; serving as unto the Lord; and realizing that your steps are ordered by the Lord...A call to ministry is a call to surrender and serve. When we read the scriptures, we see that most persons who were greatly used of God, including Jesus, submitted to a period of preparation.
Secular Preparation: Even if you feel you are called to ministry, it is important to realize that "ministry" is not just limited to "preaching." All of life is sacred, and the skills and competencies you develop prior to going into ministry are actually beneficial and will serve you well. I believe that in order to serve God and His people in excellence, we need to know how to do more than preach. We need to understand administration; know how to cast vision; know about conflict management; understand finances and budgeting, in addition to the pastoral obligations of taking care of the flock. So serving in the natural or secular arenas can be essential towards ministry preparation. God never wastes our time.
- Academic Preparation: In my opinion, academic preparation is non-negotiable. One of the first things I did after accepting my call to ministry was to enroll in seminary. Now I didn't do that because I was trying to use it as a path toward progression for pastoring, I just felt that if I was being called into ministry, I needed to be prepared so that I could acquire the tools to help me serve well. So my seminary education was strictly out of a desire for me to learn, grow, and prepare myself to serve; and again, I think it is essential for anyone going into ministry to be academically prepared.
NE: Dr. Stewart those are excellent principles of preparation and I totally agree.
You are a product of a denomination, which at the time you were elected to the pastorate did not readily embrace women in that role. So what encouragement can you offer to the woman who is "prepared" as it pertains to navigating the terrains of ministry where women may not yet be welcome?
To be honest, I don't think there is one main thing that will prepare anyone for the unique challenges they will face as a woman in ministry...in the early days of my ministry, I was blessed to have a female ministry friend who was like a mentor to me and taught me many things that have served me well. So, I will say that it helps to have other female (and male) colleagues in the gospel who have been down the road that you are traveling and willing to share their wisdom.
The bottom line is that I believe the way up is down, and the path to greatness is through service...you need to be called to ministry, instead of only being called to preach, so that when you are confronted with rejection and other circumstances as a woman in ministry, you will be able to stand and serve well in spite of.
NE: That is powerful! And, Dr. Stewart, I know that you practice what you preach, because one of the hallmarks of your ministry is your outstanding service in and outside of the ministerial arena, in which you have received many accolades and awards.
How important is it in this hour, in your opinion, that people in ministry are actually availing themselves to their community and the marketplace at large?
GS: Well, I believe it is essential, because you have to move beyond the walls of the church. One of our core assignments is to make disciples of all nations and transform the world into the Kingdom of God, and you can't do that if you are locked behind closed doors and stained glass windows. You have to, as one author stated, "...get out of the salt shaker into the world, because we are the salt of the earth." Where salt has lost its savor, it's good for nothing except to be cast down and trodden under the foot of men is what the Bible says [Matthew 5:13]. So, we have to be willing to get out and serve in order to make an impact on our environment and the world, not only in terms of community service, but also, I believe we should influence the world in terms of social justice, poverty, and other issues that cause people to live beneath the privilege that God has ordained for their lives...We should already have a sense of mission and vision as it relates to ministry, because the mission of the church is to be an extension of Christ's body... When we gather on Sunday and come for worship, etc., and then give the benediction, the church gathered becomes the church scattered so that we then go out into the world to impact it for Christ.
NE: I agree, that is so true! Dr. Stewart, one of the other things you are known for, coupled with serving the Lord in Spirit and in truth, is maintaining biblical standards in this hour, such as the standards of holiness, righteousness, etc.
What would you say to the woman who may feel as though compromise is necessary in order to get to where God is calling her to be in ministry?
GS: Well you know, the Bible says, "your gift will make room for you and it will bring you before great men [Proverbs 18:16]." Therefore, I believe it goes back to faithfulness in serving. Do not despise the day of small beginnings (Zechariah 4:10). In other words, make yourself profitable to the ministry in which you serve. I believe that there is always a place for a "prepared" people. And I believe that if God is audacious enough to call us, He is faithful enough to assign us where we need to be. This does not eliminate the realities of sexism and discrimination against women which are real, but I do believe that God honors us when we commit our ways to Him.
NE: Yes, I'm glad you said that...
GS: Yes, I'm a living testimony of this, because my only objective upon entering into ministry was to obey God; act upon the revelation that I received regarding my call to ministry; to be a blessing to my Pastor; and to serve others. I didn't have any real expectations in terms of next steps in ministry because I originally saw myself in a career in higher education.
Now, let me say this: I don't think that there is anything wrong with anyone having or ambition or aspirations as long it is directed towards glorifying God and not advancing ourselves. When ambition or aspirations are misdirected, we can end up doing all the right things for the wrong reasons and when those right things we did for the wrong reasons don't give us the results we were expecting, we end up disillusioned.
To be honest, even if you don't have an agenda or ill motives, that doesn't prevent you from facing discouragement sometimes, because I've had my moments of discouragements while trying to do the right things for the right reasons. But, it is important to know why you said "yes" to the call to ministry in the first place, because your motives will play a major role in whether or not you are able to endure, and whether or not you will even "sell your soul for a mess of porridge" so to speak...I always tell my ministers that God knows who you are and where you are, and if you will be faithful to Him, at the right season, He will open doors for you...
GS: Rev. Early, we have to be consistent with scripture. When you look at people that God really used in scripture, they all had a waiting period. Even Jesus was in hiding, so to speak, for 18 years; Moses was on the back side of a desert for 40 years; Paul spent about three years in an Arabian desert. It's not just what you can do, but also about who you are becoming; and I believe that God is just as concerned with who we are in Him, as much as in what we do for Him! Your character must match your assignment, and that is developed through spiritual formation.
NE: That is excellent!...Well, Dr. Stewart I know our time is expiring, so I'll ask one of my favorite questions.
What do you believe the Lord is saying to the Body in this hour?
GS: You know that is a good question. And, I think one of the things that God may be saying in this hour is, "Return to Me." In some regards, I believe we have left our first love and have begun to chase after other gods...for instance: this recession that our country has experienced has revealed for many people that their god was the god of Mammon. Even this election is revealing how much we worship the god Mammon; the god of materialism; the god of convenience; and it almost seems as though we've allowed our God to become one of many in our hearts ...So, I would say that when we look at the climate, and the culture of today, and how people have an "anything goes" attitude, it appears that the standard has been lost. So, I would say, God is saying, "Return to me, and certainly return to a place of having standards according to the Word of God."
If there was anything that the world could know about Dr. Gina Stewart, what would you want that to be?
GS: I would like the world to know that I am a woman of integrity and I try to live a life of congruency. I take what I do for the Lord seriously. At the end of the day, I want to leave a legacy and live my life such a way that people will say that they are glad that I've been this way.