BY SHERYE S. GREEN
Following God’s call
“THE ONE THING I RAN THE HARDEST FROM IS THE VERY THING THAT BRINGS ME THE MOST JOY IN LIFE.”
This is how Chip Stevens explains God’s call on his life to preach and teach the Word of God and to love His people. Having grown up the son of a pastor, the grandson of another and the nephew of yet another, Chip is now in his 26th year of ministry. He is also the new senior pastor of First Baptist Church Jackson (FBCJ).
“A calling to ministry is God’s invitation to join Him in how He’s at work. All Christians are called to ministry somehow. For some, it’s to honor God in the marketplace. For some, it’s to honor Him in the classroom. For me, it’s to honor Him through serving as a pastor. I just knew I’d never be happy if I did anything else.”
The search for God’s man
A year ago, Chip and his wife, Sandra, and their three children – son Reid, daughter Emory, and youngest son Graham – were living in Starkville, where Chip had been serving as senior pastor of First Baptist Church Starkville (FBCS) since 2006. Life in the college town was rich and full, and the church was growing and thriving.
Meanwhile, FBCJ had been searching for a senior pastor for well over a year. A nine-person Pastor Search Committee (PSC) led by chairman Doug Gunn conducted an exhaustive process to find God’s man for the job. “We coupled intensive prayer with months of talking with each other,” Doug said. “We listened to church members, watched many candidates online, traveled to nine different states to see pastors in person, and reflected and discerned what God was showing us. At a certain point in time, we felt God was pointing us directly to Chip.”
Chip recalls having almost an “Oh, no!” moment when Doug first contacted him on behalf of the committee. “I was grateful, yet torn, because Starkville was home. FBCS had become our family.”
Sandra had similar feelings. “I was scared. We loved Starkville, but knew there was a possibility that God may want us to move, and I was just not sure I was ready to do that.”
Doug and the other PSC members met with Chip and Sandra on numerous occasions. One draw was the fact that Chip’s oldest brother, Art, and his family lived just north of Jackson in Ridgeland and were members of FBCJ. There were also many similarities between the two congregations and, as the interview process intensified, Chip realized God had work for him to do in a new place.
Chip and Sandra had a hard decision to make. As Chip says, “We’d be leaving a church family that we love dearly, leaving a community that we love dearly.” Those years in Starkville were “important,” says Sandra, “as our children were raised there. We went through many broken bones, birthday parties, ballgames, church camps and all the things that go with family. FBCS also was a great church for our kids to be a part of as they truly learned to love the church.”
But the similarities between the two congregations were uncanny. Both were downtown churches. Both had long histories. Both had been through difficult times. Both needed to be reminded of their identity.
The morning of February 24, 2019, dawned with great expectation and hope in the hearts of the FBCJ congregation. Several members of the PSC were to share the news that God had led them to a new senior pastor. The position had been vacant since June 2017. Walter Nelson “Chip” Stevens was announced as God’s man for the job.
Six days later, on the morning of Saturday, March 2, a “meet and greet” session was held so church members could hear and see Chip and Sandra. The interview-style conversation between Chip and PSC Chairman Doug Gunn was held on the platform of the church’s sanctuary, but it felt like peering through the window of a comfortable home in which two friends were chatting.
The next morning on Sunday, March 3, Chip preached a sermon in view of a call. His subject was rebuilding walls, and his text the first chapter of Nehemiah. Committed to equipping members of his new congregation to view their downtown church as a “city within the city,” Chip closed the service with these words: “Let’s be used of the Lord, and let’s rebuild some walls together, and may the gospel be seen and God be glorified in our city.”
Where it all began
Chip was the third of four siblings and was born in Selma, Alabama, where his father, Wayne, was senior pastor of Sardis Baptist Church. Chip’s mother, Carol Lois, taught school. His nickname was given to him by older brother, Art. “The story goes that he came to see me in the hospital when I was born and my parents said, ‘Meet your little brother, Walter.’ Art’s reply was, ‘He doesn’t look like a Walter. He looks like a little Chip.’” The name stuck.
Over the years, Chip’s father was called to serve two other pastorates, one in Andrews, South Carolina, and the other in Lineville, Alabama. By the time Chip reached junior high, the Stevens family was living in Heflin, Alabama, where his father served as senior pastor of Heflin Baptist Church. “Heflin was a great place to live,” says Chip, “as it had a real family atmosphere. I went to Cleburne County High School and played sports. That was definitely my love.”
After high school, Chip attended Mississippi College. “I got a degree in business administration. Ministry was the last thing I wanted to do. I grew up in that life, so I knew what that was like, and it just wasn’t what I wanted. However, I can see where God was calling me at a young age.
“Because of that, I worked two different parttime youth director jobs later on in my college years. To be honest, it was really more to prove to myself that it wasn’t what I was supposed to do, but obviously it didn’t work.”
After college, Chip accepted a job with New York Life Insurance Company. “They were great to me,” he recalls. “I went through the training program and had just begun in sales, but I knew God wanted me in the ministry, and I had to obey Him.”
Chip resigned and enrolled in New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. “I wanted to go into some type of business, but God had other plans.
“God shapes us for our call all of our lives. When my eyes were opened to see what He was doing, and how He had been doing it, I was ready to say yes.”
A ministry partner for life
While in seminary, Chip also worked as the part-time youth director at FBC Crystal Springs, Mississippi. His brother Art and his family also lived there at the time. Art served as president of Trustmark Bank, and the bank office was about five minutes from the church. “One day,” Chip shares, “I was in the bank and one of the ladies who worked there told me she wanted me to meet her niece. Sandra and I met at a basketball game at Copiah Academy and were married at the end of that same year.”
Chip and Sandra both grew up in small towns, in loving homes with Christian parents. Both had come to know the Lord as children. Chip trusted Christ as his Savior on the front porch of his home in Lineville when he was in the third grade. Sandra’s decision to follow the Lord was made on the back deck of her home while she was a young girl. Both were committed to serving the Lord wherever He might lead.
“Sandra is my partner in ministry in every way,” Chip says. “For one, I never make an important decision without consulting her first. She has incredible wisdom and discernment and has the ability to see things I don’t see. Also, she loves people and is a huge blessing relationally. She is the perfect pastor’s wife.”
Sandra, who grew up in Hazlehurst, believes one of the main ways she supports Chip is through “being a wife and mom. His job is demanding, and I understand that. I see my role as supporting and encouraging him. Also, being involved in the lives of our children is important. In addition, I like being with him at church events. I love the people and the relationships we are able to build.”
In the early years of their marriage, Sandra worked as a dental hygienist until choosing to stay home with their children when they were young. She recalls, “I was blessed to be able to be a stay-home mom and watch them grow and develop. That was a big sacrifice for us, but I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world.”
Upon graduation from seminary, Chip joined the staff of First Baptist Church Biloxi (FBCB), where he would serve for 10 years. Dr. Frank Gunn was senior pastor, and he and his wife, also named Sandra, became dear friends, trusted mentors and heroes of the faith to Chip and Sandra. During his time at FBCB, Chip served as minister to students, associate pastor, and eventually senior pastor after Dr. Gunn’s retirement. Dr. Gunn retired on December 31, 2000, and Chip became the new senior pastor the next day on January 1, 2001.
“God’s Word is always first with Chip,” shares Dr. Gunn. “He is an amazing preacher of the gospel. He studies and is always prepared. Anyone recognizes he is empowered by the Holy Spirit.
“He is a rare leader as he is not only an excellent preacher but also a great pastor. He has always been so sensitive to people. He is a man who possesses integrity and is always seeking God’s will.”
A pastor’s family has many demands placed upon it, and they’re not always easy to shoulder. “Because of Chip’s role,” Sandra says, “I’ve had to do a lot on my own and for many of those early years, we were away from our extended families.”
Chip believes the lessons learned in the family he and Sandra have established have better equipped him for service as a pastor. “Being a husband and a parent really points out your flaws. Also, Sandra and my children keep me grounded. I love them with all my heart and know they love me. That matters more to me than any kind of acceptance or achievement at work.”
Both Chip and Sandra have seen firsthand the changes in American culture that can wreak havoc in the lives of families, and they’ve had to work to battle those same “little foxes” in their own home: Busyness that creates isolation. Lack of contentment that steals joy. The propping up of a parent’s self-esteem on the false shelf of children’s accomplishments. “We live in a world that seems to measure performance more than character,” Sandra says. “I want my children to do their best, of course, but more importantly, I want their hearts to reflect the heart of Christ.”
Vision for ministry
Commitment to relationship, especially within the body of Christ — establishing it, strengthening it and building hedges to protect it — is at the heart of all Chip does. “God saved us to be relational,” he says.
Chip is FBCJ’s 23rd senior pastor since its founding in 1838. One of the first things any pastor has to do in the initial days and weeks of a new job is to get to know the staff. “They’re awesome,” says Chip, beaming. “We’re more than just coworkers; we have become friends. They’re all exceptionally skilled and uniquely tailored for their positions. They take their calling very seriously. I believe that God speaks through His people, not just to the pastor.
“In order to know how God is speaking through the staff, I have to know the staff, so I like spending time with them individually and collectively. I see my role as supporting them and helping them to be as successful as possible.”
Chip adds, with a twinkle in his eye, “But, make no mistake, there’s a practical joke waiting around every corner. It’s a ton of fun!”
Neil Tullos, FBCS youth minister, remembers: “One of the lessons I learned from Chip is consistency. Serving as a pastor is challenging for many reasons, one of which is the fact that the work is never finished. I had Chip’s three little children in my ministry, and the way he spent his time showed his devotion to his family. He understood that while he had a church to lead, he was also responsible for shepherding his own family.
“Within leading our ministry team,” Neil continues, “Chip was excellent at direct communication. If he ever had a question or a concern, he would come directly to me to discuss the matter. I also appreciated how he sought the staff’s input on matters that were not directly related to our roles.”
Chip is grateful for how much his undergraduate business degree has equipped him for his role as a pastor. “I learned accounting, which is helpful in reading financial statements. I learned personnel management, which is a big part of a pastor’s role. I learned problem-solving skills that have been useful. More than anything, I learned how to think, particularly from Dr. Lloyd Roberts. I can’t tell you how valuable that has been for me.”
A few months ago, Chip shared lessons from the life of one of his favorite Bible characters, Joshua. These precepts could serve as a pattern by which FBCJ could reach others for Christ. Just as Joshua did for the nation of Israel, Chip shared encouraging reminders with his FBCJ family: to remember to Whom they belonged, to remember where they had been, to remember what God had done for them, and to remember their purpose.
Building upon his concept of the church as “a city within the city,” Chip shared a phrase that would enable his congregation to see themselves more clearly as ambassadors for Christ: “First Baptist Church, Jackson, is a Bible-teaching, groups-based, multigenerational, missional church located in downtown Jackson, Mississippi.”
“It’s an incredible opportunity to be a church that’s located downtown because God has given us the unique ability not only to minister in the downtown area, but also to be a church that’s able to reach the region.”
Chip is excited about the future of his new church family. “I want them to know that God sees us, loves us and has great plans for us. He placed us in downtown Jackson for a reason. He has sustained us all these years for a reason. He is faithful.
“And following God’s call and seeing Him work through us is more fun and exciting than we can possibly imagine!”