Pictured Above: Gary and Susan Townsend with their daughter Tara and her family.
Helping pastors and their churches was one of the things Gary Townsend enjoyed most about his role as north regional catalyst for the Florida Baptist Convention.
As a third-generation pastor himself, he could personally relate to the pastors and enjoyed being able to come alongside them to help solve problems. And as a seventh-generation Floridian, he enjoyed serving in the region that included the area where his ancestors settled on the bluffs of the Suwannee River near Bell.
‘I love pastors. I grew up in a pastor’s home. My dad lived the faith. My mom lived the faith. I’ve always had a love for pastors.’
“I love pastors,” he said. “I grew up in a pastor’s home. My dad lived the faith. My mom lived the faith. I’ve always had a love for pastors.”
Townsend retired in June after seven years as a catalyst, but he’s worked in various capacities for the Convention since 2004.
As catalyst for the north region, Townsend served a vast area that includes 460 churches and 12 associations. He described his job as catalyst this way: “I am the contact person to reach out to churches in the north region, representing everything the Florida Baptist Convention is. This is the vision of Dr. Tommy Green (Florida Baptists’ executive director). He empowers us to make decisions on the spot. We don’t have to go back to a committee; we don’t go back to him. We are empowered to say Yes.”
And that empowerment is important when aiding pastors who face a multitude of issues in day-to-day operations of their churches.
Alan Harmon, pastor of Journey Church in Mayo, raved about working with Townsend, including an incident several years ago when a tree fell on the roof of a church in Fanning Springs, causing great damage. “When Gary found out about this damage, he promptly contacted the Convention and presented us a generous-sized check to help with the damages. A few years later another pastor and I replanted a church in Bell (Redemption Church). Gary was by our side every step of the way with encouragement and with monies to help us update the building and begin some community outreach events.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down churches across the state and country, Townsend was able to set up meetings with pastors through Zoom and to help them use the Convention’s Zoom account for their own churches and associational meetings. Through these meetings, pastors were able to learn from one another and help each other out.
Learning about FM receivers for outdoor services was huge for many churches, he said, as it enabled them to host drive-up services. Churches also become more tech-savvy during this time, holding virtual Bible studies and ministry meetings, broadcasting worship services via Facebook and YouTube, and offering new avenues for giving.
“Churches did not die for lack of funding because they brought the concept of multiple ways to be obedient in giving,” he said, mentioning online giving, drive-up offerings and more. “This was significant for churches to move into the digital age of stewardship and to offer different venues to watch their services.”
Townsend was near the end of his sophomore year at the University of Florida when he sensed God’s call to ministry. He then transferred to Palm Beach Atlantic University for his Bachelor of Arts degree, before going on to receive his Master of Divinity degree from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky.
As senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Jensen Beach for 14 years, Townsend was always active in his local association. “I had served almost every position that a pastor can serve in an association as far as committees, moderating. I never missed a meeting. I thought that’s what Baptist pastors did. My dad was always active in associational life.”
During his last two years there, he began doing more work for the association, doing revivals for churches in the area and meeting with leaders from various churches. He recalls coming home one night after this type of work, realizing how much he enjoyed it.
“This would be awesome if You wanted me to do this full time,” he recalls praying to God. “Never in my wildest dreams did I realize that would be a direction I would take.”
Soon after that he became director of missions for Marion Baptist Association in Ocala, where he stayed eight years. Next, he took a role for the Convention as associate in stewardship, promoting Cooperative Program giving, which led to his next role as GuideStone state rep for 10 years before taking the job as catalyst.
In his work for GuideStone, which offers retirement solutions, insurance and investments for pastors and churches, he would often meet with pastors to discuss their plans for retirement. Not everyone had such a plan, including Townsend himself. This realization led him and his wife, Susan, to sit down and make their own plan, which ultimately resulted in his retirement in June.
Susan retired as a schoolteacher three years ago, according to their plan, and since then has traveled with Gary as he made his rounds visiting pastors at their churches and associational meetings in the region.
The couple plan on doing some traveling, including a bucket list item of Gary’s to visit all 12 churches that were connected to his and his father’s work as pastors. They also want to spend time with their two children’s families and their four grandsons.
“I am going to take some time for me to just debrief and unpack all this. I still feel like I have a clock in my head, that there is something that I need to get done,” he said with a laugh.
They are excited about getting plugged back in at their local church, First Baptist Church of Ocala. Perhaps in early 2024 he may be ready to do some interim pastoral work through the association and to work with young pastors, he said.
“We were loved so well by First Baptist of Jensen Beach, and we want to do continue to do that to help young pastors,” he said.
Commenting on Townsend’s retirement as a catalyst, Green said, “Gary has been a constant source of encouragement and blessing to the churches of the north region. The Florida Baptist Convention exists to serve churches, and Gary has been ‘right beside’ our pastors and churches. Florida Baptists are stronger because of the faithful and fruitful ministry of Gary Townsend!”