He watched as they got up from their seats and made their way down front. Before long a crowd gathered and he knew what he wanted to do, what he in fact had to do. Maybe because he saw the look on their faces as they came, or maybe he did not need to see their faces because he knew what was in their hearts. But he could not watch from afar and he could not look down from the stage at the group of pastors and leaders kneeling and praying. So he handed the session over to the first vice president, moved off the stage and began praying with the pastors. When Rick Speas, Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSCNC) president, finished giving his President’s Address at the 2008 annual session he invited messengers to respond, and they did. His message from Exodus 3 and the story of Moses moved them from their seats to their knees.
At the conclusion of this year’s annual session in November, Speas’ second year as president will be over and though people will no longer call him president, they will still call him pastor. Speas identified with those leaders gathered to pray last year because, as he often says, he is a pastor before he is a president. When he’s not on the stage during annual session he is back home pastoring and preaching and experiencing the same challenges and struggles every pastor faces day in and day out. Ask him to name a highlight of his two years as president and he seems ready to answer before the question is even finished being asked. “I can give you that,” he said, “because it’s clear. It was last year’s Convention. That was one of those high and holy moments God allowed me to have and I’ll be forever grateful.” Why? Because he saw pastors and leaders being encouraged to grow in their knowledge of the Savior, and that’s what Speas is all about.
This month marks 20 years of pastoral ministry for Speas. If someone had told him 20 years ago he would deliver encouragement in the form of a President’s Address at the BSCNC annual session he never would have believed it. Twenty years ago Speas came to annual session as a pastor only on the job five weeks, and he came to the meeting with a heavy heart, burdened by issues facing his congregation and daunted at the thought of overcoming. Now, 20 years later, the pastor still comes to annual session with a burdened heart — a burden for people and a burden for people to know God.
Speas will be on stage this year, but the spotlight was never his goal. Four years ago when Greg Mathis, pastor of Mud Creek Baptist Church in Hendersonville, asked Speas to consider being nominated for first vice president Speas hesitated. His response: “Why? No one knows me,” he said, and surely “no one would vote for me.” As the grand narrative of Scripture makes clear, qualifications and notoriety are not the prerequisites God considers. And so, the same willing heart that had faithfully served on Convention committees accepted the vice president nomination and later the president nomination. Speas’ intent in all this: to be obedient to the Lord and to serve.
His journey to the pastorate began not long after his graduation from Campbell University. The math major headed to Alexandria, Va., to work for Sprint and 15 months later found himself in a layoff. He went to work for MCI but during this time felt the Lord may be calling him into ministry. Speas was not opposed to the idea, but “I’ve got to know it’s from you,” he told the Lord. Speas tells the story of Jan. 15, 1986, as if it happened yesterday. During his personal devotion time he read these words from Luke 4:43: “I must preach the good news to the other cities also for therefore am I sent.” Of course the words in Luke refer to Jesus’ ministry, but on this occasion, it was “Him speaking to me that night about mine,” Speas said. “From that point on I knew what I was to do.” Speas enrolled at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and after graduating in 1989 with a master of divinity degree interviewed with different churches, but the Lord led him back home to North Carolina to serve as pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Wilkesboro. Speas served nine years before the Lord called him to pastor Old Town Baptist Church in Winston-Salem. He’s been at Old Town ever since, and Speas and his wife Lesley raised their children, 18-year-old twins Christen and Jonathan, in Speas’ hometown.
Speas is a pastor with a heart for reaching people with the gospel. Since coming to Old Town, we “are making much more of a concerted effort to make a difference in our community,” Speas said. Acts 1:8 drives the church’s missions effort. “We’re situated in such a place that you don’t have to look far to figure out whose responsibility the spiritual health of this community is. I tell my congregation, ‘Who do you think God has planted here to be the light?’ If we don’t be that lamp stand that Jesus talks about in the book of Revelation He’ll raise up someone else who will. We take that very seriously. It is our responsibility.” Local mission projects include volunteering at the downtown soup kitchen, providing meals for high school teachers and reaching out to the local elementary school. Every month on the first, third and fifth Mondays Old Town provides a free medical clinic for the community. Old Town also participates in international mission projects, such as a trip to Brazil to share the Gospel and help with the construction of a building for the local church to gather, and adopting a village in Bihar, India.
Serving the community and serving internationally is not just about doing good deeds – it’s about proclaiming the gospel. “I talk a lot about how we need to lift up Jesus. The higher we lift Him up, the more people He draws unto Himself,” Speas said. “I want Old Town to be known for who we stand for and that what we do is for Him and not for us.” Though Old Town is increasing its community outreach, Speas continues to look forward and he is honest about how the church needs to change, such as becoming a multicultural church that reflects its community.
After 20 years in pastoral ministry Speas has changed his approach to some things and lessened his focus on other things, but “I’ve always stood on the truth of God’s word and I will not waver on that,” Speas said. “There are non-negotiables when it comes to scripture and we make no apologies for standing on those,” such as the person and the work and sufficiency of Jesus Christ for salvation. “It’s only by the cross and His grace that we are saved. We’re not ashamed to talk about the cross here. We’re not ashamed to call sin ‘sin’ because that’s what the Bible does.”
Speas may be “much more a pastor than a president,” but during his time as Convention president he settled into the role and learned along the way. “The position doesn’t come with a manual,” he joked. Speas made it his goal as president to provide support. “My heart is to encourage pastors and churches,” he said. “I see my role as a cheerleader. I know what they’re going through because I go through it, too. It’s not that you’re isolated or insulated when you become president, you just happen to be the next guy standing on stage. The rest of the days of the year I’m doing what they’re doing, just in my own context, own setting.”
As president Speas accepted as many speaking invitations as he could, making his way across the state visiting churches, associations, college campuses and the Baptist Children’s Homes, all with the intent to offer a presence of encouragement. He participated in events such as Family Missions Week at Caswell and the North Carolina Missions Conference. “I’ve loved it all,” he said. Speas knew about Convention ministries serving local churches, but by being so closely involved these past two years, he “saw the heart that’s behind” the ministry. “When you meet these folks you see the passion that they have,” he said.
As president Speas served on the Board of Directors, Executive Committee and various other Convention committees. In such settings “I don’t usually say a lot,” Speas said. It’s not that Speas didn’t have things to say, and he spoke up when necessary, but he was content to let others have opportunity to lead — he never forced himself into the spotlight. “I think I will probably go down as the quiet president,” Speas said. People will say, “He didn’t say a lot at these meetings. But he said a lot when we asked him to preach.”
These past two years his voice was heard, but when Speas spoke loudest was not in meetings, and it will not be from the stage at this year’s annual session. Speas is a pastor/president who goes through the exhibit hall and encourages the exhibitors and thanks them for their ministry. He prays with speakers in the prayer room before the missions conference. He reaches out to the waitress at the restaurant. He cares enough about his flock to preach the whole counsel of God.
If quiet means few words in a meeting, then perhaps Speas is such. Yet, quiet may mean working behind the scenes, with little recognition from others, to encourage with the hope of the gospel. Speas, a quiet president? Hardly.