Chuck Conley was stunned. He was on the way home from a trip to Alaska in March, and as he traveled he sent a message to the pastor of the church he had just left asking for the link to their Sunday service so he could watch it.
The response surprised him.
“He said, ‘Today may not be the best day to watch. I’m going to resign,’” recalled Conley, pastor of First Baptist Church Grant.
Conley — along with Mike Foreman, associational mission strategist for Marshall Baptist Association in Guntersville, and Jarred Cantrell, a contractor from FBC Grant — had just spent a few days in Sitka, an island city of about 8,000, with only one Southern Baptist church — First Baptist Church Sitka.
FBC Grant was planning to partner with them for a summer missions trip, and they had worked out the details that week.
So as Conley took in the information that the pastor was resigning, he said God began to focus his thoughts on one thing — “How can we help?”
And Conley began to realize that the best way they could help was to come alongside the church to provide a pastor through the summer.
“You don’t run out and easily find a pastor in Sitka, Alaska,” Conley said.
The island city has 14 miles of road from one end to the other, he noted, and it’s only accessible by a floatplane or ferry. And even though FBC Sitka is part of an association — Tongass Baptist Association — some of the churches in it are separated by as many as 1,000 miles.
Conley cited the statistic that Alaska has “750,000 people spread over a land mass the [width] of the lower 48 states. And when you realize that half of those people are in the Anchorage area, it really highlights just how spread out everyone is.”
So FBC Grant — which Conley said is “not a large church by any means” — began to think about how they might encourage the sister church by filling their pulpit.
“We thought, ‘Maybe we can fill that pulpit for the summer,’ but we knew it would be a stretch,” Conley admitted.
Seeing things through
But they worked it out. On June 9, the day after FBC Grant’s Vacation Bible School, Conley got on a plane to Sitka, and he preached on Sundays for the month of June and got their Wednesday night Bible study going again. A missions team from FBC Grant joined him at the end of the month, and they ran a basketball camp in the community and worked on construction projects in the church.
FBC Sitka — which was averaging around 20 — drew in 60 kids for the camp.
Then Conley came back to Alabama with the team, and Jeremy Roden, FBC Grant’s youth and family pastor, stayed in Sitka most of July with his wife and two young daughters. Roden filled the pulpit and provided leadership for two other missions teams.
At the end of July, two lay members of FBC Grant — Dave and Susan Andrews — drove up from Alabama, rode the ferry over to the island and stayed in Sitka until mid-September. Dave Andrews filled the pulpit and provided leadership for the church for seven weeks.
“We’ve been privileged at FBC Grant to be there the entire summer providing pastoral leadership and encouragement,” Conley said.
He returned to Sitka in late September and attended the Alaska Baptist Convention meeting in Juneau. He said since that meeting, FBC Sitka has received two resumés from potential pastoral candidates.
Following that trip Conley has been working with other pastors in the association to see if they can adopt a plan to come together and help support a pastor in Sitka for the next three years.
Members at FBC Sitka have told him this is the first time they’ve been without a pastor that they didn’t feel overwhelmed and defeated.
“We’re making a time commitment [and] a financial commitment to FBC Sitka, and we’re trying to come alongside them and help support a pastor there,” Conley said. “There’s certainly a need for the gospel message in Sitka. I think it’s important that [FBC Sitka] not only survives, but thrives.”
FBC Grant is planning another trip to Sitka in summer 2023 to run more basketball camps and work on more construction projects. Conley believes the future for ministry there is bright. He also is talking with pastors in the association about coming together to offer a retreat for pastors and their wives in southeast Alaska.
“We’ve had an incredible adventure, but it’s not just about the adventure, it’s about the Kingdom,” Conley declared.
It all started when he decided to reach out to churches in the Last Frontier after learning about Alabama Baptists’ five-year partnership with Alaska Baptists, which began in May 2021.
“We’re super excited about what the future holds,” Conley said.
Scotty Goldman, director of the office of global missions at the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, said what FBC Grant has done in “putting the wheels in motion to take care of this church” has been “a great example of true partnership.”
“There are dozens of opportunities like this all over Alaska,” Goldman noted. “We need more churches or associations who will fill those needs for our partners. They might not all be exactly like Sitka, but all of them, and all Alabama Baptists, can benefit from working together for the Kingdom.”
For more information about how to get involved contact Goldman at 800-264-1225, Ext. 2387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.