JACKSONVILLE–After serving the Florida Baptist Convention, where he has “invested his life in the church,” for 25 years, Craig Culbreth, is retiring March 31, 2023.
Culbreth, born in Maine, became a Christian as a football player at Clemson University in South Carolina. A fellow player shared the gospel with him, emphasizing that being a Christian wasn’t about “religion” but rather about a “relationship” with Jesus Christ.
Culbreth took his newfound faith with him to his first job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Pompano Beach, where he became involved as a volunteer in a local church. There, he sensed a call to ministry and tried to find a place “as far away as he could get” from the familiar, ending up in Minnesota, where he began his seminary training and accepted his first pastorate in 1980. During his first week in the state so far from home, Culbreth walked into a bank to open a checking account and met his future wife, Gail.
Together, they served churches in Minnesota, Georgia and Florida, welcoming three sons into their family along the way.
In 1998, John Sullivan, then Florida Baptists’ executive director-treasurer, invited Culbreth, then a Florida Baptist pastor, to take on the role of church planting director for Northeast Florida. From there, he went on to serve as the state convention’s partnership missions director and then the state director of missions. At the time of his retirement, Culbreth was serving as Florida Baptists’ East region catalyst. Although Culbreth’s role with Florida Baptists has changed a few times through the years, his focus has remained the same.
‘Craig has deeply invested his life in the church, and his impact on Florida Baptists will still be felt for many decades to come.’
“Craig Culbreth has served the churches of the Florida Baptist Convention for the past 25 years with faithfulness and integrity. He has built strong relationships with pastors and has come right beside our churches. Florida Baptists have been blessed by his ministry of encouragement and engagement,” said Tommy Green, Florida Baptists’ executive director-treasurer.
Pastors throughout the state agree.
“Craig has deeply invested his life in the church, and his impact on Florida Baptists will still be felt for many decades to come,” said Johnny Weldon, pastor, Moultrie Baptist Church, St. Augustine.
‘God gets the credit for the past 43 years of my ministry.’
Culbreth doesn’t let such personal accolades distract him, saying, “God gets the credit for the past 43 years of my ministry.”
Citing Ephesians 2:8-9, Culbreth said, “By the grace of God, I am where I am.”
The realization that Florida “has a lot of churches but also has a lot of lost people” has kept Culbreth going through the years.
‘Friend, confidant, mentor’
In his role as the East region catalyst, Culbreth came alongside pastors as a “friend, confidant and mentor,” said Garry Taylor, lead pastor, Life Church, Palakta.
“He is a shining light, and he loves us well,” agreed Weldon.
The words are echoed by Tim O’Carroll, pastor, Discovery Church, Ft. Pierce, and also associational mission strategist, Treasure Coast Baptist Association, who considers Culbreth “a friend, mentor, support, coach and partner in the ministry.”
As he served alongside Florida Baptist leaders over the past decade, Culbreth has shared, “Hope is a great attitude but a terrible strategy,” leading many pastors to credit Culbreth with helping turn their ministries and churches around.
‘Craig Culbreth has served the churches of the Florida Baptist Convention for the past 25 years with faithfulness and integrity. … Florida Baptists have been blessed by his ministry of encouragement and engagement.’
“If I had not met Craig five years ago, I am confident I would not be in the ministry today. I was fresh out of a difficult ministry experience and entering into another one. When it was time to replant the legacy church I was serving, Craig was right beside us. With Craig’s involvement, Life Church in Palatka has grown from a small dying legacy church to a multi-campus church,” Taylor said.
“To say that he has impacted my ministry is an understatement,” he said.
Pastor Weldon also accepted a pastoral role in a struggling congregation a few years ago, and he credits Culbreth with helping strengthen the church.
“There were days that were so dark, and I felt so alone,” Weldon recalled.
Culbreth, he said, “shined light on my darkness, was a breath of fresh air, and pointed us in the right direction until we could see our way and steer the church back on mission.”
Culbreth’s “wealth of knowledge about being a healthy pastor of a growing and evangelizing church is really quite amazing. He encourages us to reach beyond our walls and to collaborate with Southern Baptist ministries and missions around the state, nation and world. He is a problem-solver, a cheerleader, a visionary, a dreamer, a doer, a giver, a listener, a prayer warrior, a student of Scripture, and a brother pastor. He is consistently willing to pray and try to help hurting churches when the odds of actually succeeding sometimes seem awful,” Weldon said.
‘Never fully retire’
Over the past six years, O’Carroll has come to know Culbreth as a “man of integrity and character” and a man with a heartbeat for ministry.
“I would say that he will be missed, but the man I know will never fully retire from ministry. I believe the Lord is freeing him up to serve in more strategic ways,” he said.
O’Carroll is right. Already Culbreth has been commissioned as a chaplain for the St. John’s County Sheriff’s Office where Culbreth said he “will carry a badge and a Bible, but not a gun.” He will also serve as a chaplain for a Florida restaurant group, building relationships with the many workers who serve in the food industry.
Personal heartache and blessing
During his Florida Baptist ministry, Culbreth’s wife became ill and passed away in 2020 after a five-year cancer battle.
“Even in the middle of his wife’s cancer battle, he was vulnerable, caring, kind, evangelistic, and sacrificially loved churches and their pastors all over the state,” said Weldon.
His wife’s illness and death drilled home one lesson for Culbreth: “Seize every moment. Life is short.”
Through the years Culbreth had worked alongside four-decade Florida Baptist executive assistant Patty Vansant. Both widowed, the two saw their working relationship blossom into a friendship and then more. “Seizing the moment,” the two were married in 2021.
“God has blessed me by putting Patty and me together,” he said. The blessing, he said, is multiplied through the five children and 11 grandchildren they share.