Like so many before him, the firm handshake, the quick, friendly smile, and his easy-go-lucky attitude makes the visitor feel at ease even though he is meeting Bill Collins for the first time.
NATCHITOCHES – Like so many before him, the firm handshake, the quick, friendly smile, and his easy-go-lucky attitude makes the visitor feel at ease even though he is meeting Bill Collins for the first time.
It is a summer afternoon at the soon-to-be-opened BCM – Baptist Collegiate Ministries – on the campus of Northwestern State University in Natchitoches. Summer school has started and a slower pace on the campus would be expected.
While the BCM doesn’t officially open until August for the fall semester, there remain hundreds of minute details screaming for Collins’ attention.
He’s busy answering his phone, checking email or DR (disaster relief) alerts on his I-phone, and expertly and quickly dealing with each one.
To some, it may seem a little overwhelming, but to Collins, who celebrated his 20th anniversary on June 12 as the NSU BCM director, he handles the hectic pace with ease, all the while making visitors feel welcomed.
“It is starting to come together,” a proud Collins says about the new building, fours years in the making. “We still need to finish decorating, hanging our shelves, unpacking some more boxes, and getting better organized. We had a lot of this stuff in storage and we are slowly pulling it out. When we get everything unpacked and up, it is going to be quite a place.”
The new building is in marked contrast to the old Northwestern State BSU building he came to on “the coldest day in April – April 11, 1989 – 20 years ago.
“I know it says my anniversary is on June 12, but I began serving on April 11,” Collins admits. “When Louisiana Baptist Convention called and asked me to come to Natchitoches from North Carolina, my church – First Baptist Jamestown – paid my salary up until June 12. The LBC, who reimbursed the church, officially began paying me on June 12. It was a unique situation, to say the least.”
Collins, who graduated from Louisiana College in 1982 and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1985, was going into his fourth year as minister of education and youth at First Baptist Jamestown when Gene Hendrix (then the State Director for Baptist Student Union) asked him to come to Natchitoches.
He would be taking over for Myra Gulledge, who was retiring after 37 years at the BSU (Baptist Student Union).
“I had some big shoes to fill,” Collins said. “Once I got here, she stepped back and the only advice she gave me was for me to develop my own heritage here. It took me three years to understand the legacy of producing missionaries, ministers and dedicated lay leaders that she left behind.
“It took me just a couple of weeks to understand that it would take two people to replace her,” Collins said. He turned to his wife, Phyllis, and together the two of them rolled up their sleeves and went to work.
While Northwestern was his first job as a BSU director, Collins, who accepted Christ in 1968 at a Baptist Associational Camp for RAs, was no stranger to collegiate ministry when he came to Natchitoches. As a matter of fact, his family has a storied history of service.
“I grew up in a Christian home. My grandfather served on the Baptist Sunday School Board from 1927 to 1963 and was a field employee. He got on a train and traveled around to show students and churches how to charter a BSU with a university,” Collins said. “My mother served as BCM director at both Rice and Baylor Medical schools.”
But Collins, despite his family’s background in the ministry, didn’t have any leanings initially to becoming the third member of his family to go into collegiate ministry.
“After I got out of seminary, I decided I needed some experience in a local church,” Collins said. “So, God called us to education and youth ministry in North Carolina. When the LBC called, we prayed about it and asked God to help us decide. He had plans for us, because we packed up and came to Natchitoches.”
He spent 16 years in the old BSU building, located on College Drive, just across the street from the NSU campus. During that time, as he and Phyllis continued to expand the ministry, Collins decided to return to the classroom on a partime basis and earned a Master of Arts in Student Personnel Services
It has proven to be a wise decision for Collins, who works closely with school officials on a number of different projects.
“When I meet with NSU officials, the degree places me on level footing with them. We are able to talk as peers and it helps to get more accomplished,” Collins said.
By 2003, it became evident it was time for a new building. Plans for a new, modern facility were drawn up and the old building was sold. And, then, along came Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
For the next four years, while its new facility was being built, the NSU BCM called The Alley – a part of Northwestern State’s Student Union – home.
“We had to have some place to go,” Collins said. “We remodeled part of the Alley – the old bowling alley – and for the next four years we met there every Wednesday night, held regular lunch encounters, and ministered to the needs of students. God had put us there for a reason.”
No matter the location, Collins hasn’t wavered from bringing the message of God to the numerous students who have frequented the doors of the BCM.
“One of the things we strive to do is to help students – who must separate their lives into academic, social and spiritual compartments – realize that everything is intertwined and connected,” Collins said. “We attempt to teach them the words of Christ; how to live as citizens of the kingdom of God, We try to teach them that faith helps to accomplish the balance.”
Collins, though, is quick to point out he’s not a preacher and the BCM is not a church. The BCM is supported by 126 Southern Baptist churches.
“We work hard to make sure our students find a local church to get involved in,” Collins said. “
He prefers instead to use baseball terms of which he is quite fond to describe his role as the BCM’s director.
“Simply put, the BCM is much like the farm club system in professional baseball. This is single”A” ball and we are getting them ready for the “Majors”. Students oversee the programs here,” Collins said. “I show them where the boundaries of the playing field are and let them play. Many are going to succeed but some will fail. It is my job to direct them.
“I oversee the facility and help the students manage the budget; serve as a spiritual counselor and act as a liaison between the students and administration,” Collins said. “I’m like a general manager in baseball.”
One out of every three students who come to the NSU are Baptist preference students, Collins said, so evangelism takes on a much different meaning. So, while we are evangelistic, the emphasis is discipleship here at NSU.
“We seldom have students come here who do not have a knowledge of Jesus Christ,” Collins said. “But the BCM is not about religion, it is about relationships with Christ and with students. BCM is important for college students, because at no time in their life are they making the kinds of decisions as they make during the time spent in college.
“Ultimately, a lot of students who come through here will end up in the mission field or in some other area of service to the Kingdom.” Collins said.
Four alumni are presently serving as BCM directors at other schools and universities, and numerous others are presently working in the mission field with NAMB or IMB.
“Our program, thanks to NAMB and the IMB, reaches out all over the world,” Collins said. “Mission trips provide the opportunity for these students to go to the next level in their faith and in gaining a better understanding of who Christ is and what he is capable of doing.”
Looking back on the past 20 years, Collins says he doesn’t know how he would have been able to do his job without the help and support of Phyllis.
“I like to say that everything that is good that has happened here is because of her and God. She has been with me every step of the way,” Collins said. “Much of our married life – 26 years – has been spent here. With all that I have going on, she keeps me grounded. While I’m thinking one or two semesters ahead, she keeps her feet firmly planted in the present.
“We have two sons [Cole and Cordell] but our extended family is much larger,” Phyllis said. “Over the years, Bill and I have learned to tag team the duties and have tried to make the BCM more than just a facility. We have tried to make it a place where they will always feel loved and welcomed.”
Many would say they have succeeded.