Mike Cummings retired Feb. 28 as director of missions for the Burnt Swamp Baptist Association, but his long history of ministry among his community and fellow Native Americans is not finished.
“He has been a pastor to the pastors,” said Steve Strickland, who now holds Cummings’ former position. “I’ve come in many times to talk, get advice, wisdom and insight.”
Mike and Quae Cummings are looking forward to retirement and future ministry opportunities.
Strickland said Cummings’ retirement will not stop him from serving the community.
Cummings was born one of 12 children in the Saint Anna section of Pembroke, a rural Lumbee farming community. In college, he realized he had not received Christ personally, although he had grown up in an active church background. He became involved in Bible studies with Campus Crusade for Christ and, not long after, submitted his life to Christ. Soon, he felt the call of God to gospel ministry.
Cummings became pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Clinton, N.C., at 19 years old. He was in college at the time and did not have a way to commute, so the church sold “fried chicken plates” as a fundraiser to buy a car, Cummings said. During this time, he met and married his wife, Quae, of the Coharie people.
He went on to graduate from Campbell University in 1974 and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1977. After 10 years in Clinton, he accepted a call to go back to his home community and serve as pastor of Mt. Airy Baptist Church in Pembroke. Then, after a decade at Mt. Airy, he was called as director of missions at the Burnt Swamp Baptist Association in 1988.
Burnt Swamp is a unique association that is not limited by geographic boundaries, but is comprised of churches that are historically Native American. While the Lumbee people make up the largest share of Native Americans in the association, there are at least five other tribal peoples.
The association includes mainly North Carolina churches, but also includes one church in Baltimore, Md. When Cummings began the associational leadership role, he saw a great need for theological training among ministers. Cummings estimates that 80 percent of Burnt Swamp pastors are bivocational, so many do not have the resources, time or money to receive a seminary education. Cummings started offering more seminary extension classes so they could have “better access to good training” and be “better equipped to lead.”
Another highlight of Cummings’ days with the association was his push to involve churches in missions. He was instrumental in helping churches to better engage in “missions outside of themselves.” Cummings is particularly interested in reaching other Native American tribes across America.
Cummings came to realize that, “if Indians are reached with the gospel, Indians must go reach them.” He stated that while the Lumbee people and other tribes in the Carolinas have been exposed to and embraced Christianity for many years, most of the Native American population in the U.S. is “largely unchristian.”
“In some of the traditional reservation communities there is a resistance to the gospel,” he said, due to historically bad experiences with white Christian culture.
Due to the ethnic connection of the Native American community, the churches in Burnt Swamp Association have been able to engage other Native American communities, even starting churches on reservations that previously had no church presence.
“It’s not as hard to raise concern [for missions],” he said, “when you tell the story of some of their own people that are in great need.”
Another change that Cummings helped initiate was the increase of involvement and acceptance of native tribes into broader N.C. Baptist life.
As a minority group, Burnt Swamp churches felt marginalized in the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSC) and Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). That began to change when Cummings was elected as first vice-president and then president of the BSC from 1999-2001. He holds the distinction of being the first minority president of the BSC. Cummings later served as interim executive director-treasurer of the BSC.
Cummings said the presidency “was like a crowning event” to him and the association.
They were very supportive of his involvement with the BSC and took it not only as a compliment to the association, but also as a point of pride. Slowly the people in the association began to feel a greater sense of acceptance and involvement in Baptist life and missions.
Throughout his ministry, Cummings has had the strong support of his wife. Quae, who is also retiring, served as associational secretary for 40 years, beginning 10 years before her husband.
Cummings said not only has his wife done an excellent job welcoming people to the association, but she “has kept me on track in the sense of putting my best foot forward. … She’s been a major foundation for all my ministry.”
Strickland agrees, “Together [he and his wife] have been a great team; it’s hard to talk about one without mentioning the other. Both of them have set a great example of leadership and ministry for us to follow.”
While the association is sad to see the couple leave, Cummings said his retirement will not end his involvement with his community or his people. He has already taken an interim pastor role, beginning the first Sunday of his retirement. In addition to spending more time with their three children and three grandchildren, Cummings and his wife are looking forward to continued ministry together.