By Philip Timothy, Managing Editor
“In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.” – Proverbs 16:9
LAFAYETTE – David Carlton never imagined he would leave the mission fields of Africa.
After all, it is where God had led him and it was where he and his wife Pamela had spent the bulk of their 26-years in ministry. And after 18 years of developing and nurturing meaningful relationships in South Africa, the couple was entering a fruitful season in their work.
But late in 2015, after much prayer, they made the extremely hard decision to accept early retirement from the International Mission Board and to leave their work in South Africa.
“It was probably harder to leave than it was to go,” said Carlton. “We were experiencing more fulfilment in ministry than we had had in all the 18 years we had been overseas. So, yes it was a very hard decision to leave it all behind.”
Their decision was made even more difficult by the speed in which it all took place.
“One of the things I think that made it so difficult was it happened so quickly. You know we kind of got word this was going to be rolling out this way, and the decisions were going to have to be made pretty quickly.”
The Carltons became two of the 983 missionaries and 149 stateside staff to leave the International Mission Board as a result of voluntary retirements and resignation programs. He did not stay in retirement for long.
On Feb. 22, 2016 the executive committee of the Evangeline Baptist Association unanimously voted him as Director of Missions.
“We feel so at home and welcomed to Acadiana,” Carlton said. “This is just so unbelievable and humbling to us … there has been just an outpouring of welcome, love and acceptance.”
IMBEDDED IN THEIR LIVES
Carlton was first employed by the IMB in 1998 as Director of Theological Education by extension for the Tswana people group, a Bantu-speaking people living largely in South Africa and Botswana.
It was a position he would hold for seven years.
In 2005, he took on the task of strategy facilitator for one of two South African clusters where he worked to formulate strategies to reach the people groups of southeast South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. He also was instrumental in providing strategy oversight to the missionary teams in the cluster.
He later served as an administrative associate for the Central, Eastern and Southern Africa region where he was responsible for administering and managing regional finances as well as personnel and logistics for the region. In 2009, he became director of logistics for Sub-Saharan Africa and two years later moved on to be the head of pastoral studies for the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa for which he developed curricula for the preaching academy. He also served as spiritual director, counselor and mentor to students.
He was just beginning a different phase of work when he and his wife took the early retirement option as part of the IMB’s drawdown of veteran field missionaries.
“We were starting to get into the lives of some South Africans in the area of discipleship in helping them connect with God in a dynamic relationship, in a dynamic relationship many of them had never before experienced,” he said.
“They had known a lot about God. They knew some things about Scripture, but they had never really encountered God in that kind of intimately personal relationship that we were privileged to accompany them on and lead them into, and that was just a phenomenal experience for us.
“You know Africans are extremely relational,” he continued. “I mean it’s all about the relationship to them.”
Carlton said having to “quickly close down relationships they had been building for years” was another aspect that made it so difficult to leave.
“Because our organization had had some previous experiences with reorganization and changing the way things were operating, it had impacted previous relationships. So, we felt we were rebuilding the trust with our national brothers and sisters — to leave so quickly was very difficult for them, and it was very difficult for us too.”
Carlton said the South Africans had “become intertwined in their lives … more so than the majority of their American relationships.
“The South Africans became more than just national partners in ministry. They were our family, they were our support group,” he said. “We were very much embedded in the lives of our South African brothers and sisters. And they were in ours as well.”
Carlton has so many stories to share.
Carlton said there were so many groups and individuals who had impacted their lives in Africa, but several seminary students stood out in his mind.
“I still do spiritual accompanying via Skype with some of the students at the seminary where I taught,” he said. “A young man by the name of ‘S’ – who just finished seminary and is entering his first ministry experience – is having a significant impact in the lives of the church that he is working with.
“He’s just an exciting young man and to see the way the spirit of God is at work in his life is just humbling,” said Carlton. “Just to see the way he has grown in his understanding of the image of God in his life and God’s desire for his ministry is such a blessing.”
Carlton also recalled an older man in Botswana who came to the Baptist Center from a very remote part of the Kalahari Desert.
“I want someone to teach me the Bible,” Carlton remembered him saying. “I’m the pastor of a church, and I don’t know the Bible the way I need to know it to lead the people.”
Carlton’s job at the time was theological education by extension. “So he came to me and said, ‘Can you come help me do that?’ And, so I said, ‘You better believe I can help you do that.’ It was the closest thing to a Macdeonaian call I’ve ever experienced.
“I went out to his church with him. It was just a little church meeting in his small mud house,” Carlton continued. “When I got there, people from all the surrounding villages had come, too, because, he said, ‘These are people who also want to hear the Gospel. They want to hear about Jesus as well, and they heard that you were coming, and they want to hear what you have to say.’”
“It started a relationship that lasted about three years, until we relocated to South Africa,” Carlton said. “I went out there and worked with him doing discipleship and helping him know how to pastor a church, how to lead the people.
“After that, every time we’d go, there’d be folks there that came from places and villages I had never heard of,” Carlton shared.
Carlton’s faithfulness was rewarded when villagers gave the Baptist Mission a plot of land, telling him, “You people come here to teach the Bible and to pray. We’ve had a lot of other people come, and all they want to do is get money from the people in our village, but you people come and teach the Bible and you pray for people. We would like for you to set something up here in this village.”
And, lives were changed.
“Absolutely, they were,” Carlton beamed. “We were very intentional when we went.
“We brought volunteer teams and I was always quick to tell ‘em, ‘Look guys, we’re not there to hand out candy. We’re not here to give the kids toys. We were here to pray for them,’” he explained.
The prayer teams would walk through the village praying with people and “go into homes where people were dying with HIV AIDS, and we’d pray with them,” Carlton said. “We became known as the Baptists who taught the Bible and prayed because we cared about them, instead of the Baptist who just came and brought things.”
While villagers were receptive to hearing the ‘Good News’ about Jesus, Carlton had to find creative ways of presenting it to them.
He remembered a young man, who, as it turned out, knew Jesus as Lord and Savior.
“I was sharing the Gospel with this young man when he said, ‘You know, I really need my brother to hear this message you are telling me,’” Carlton recalled. “So, we set up a time, and he brought his brother to meet with me. The man’s brother spoke only Xhosa and I only knew Setswana so we needed the man’s brother to interpret for us.
“For about an hour I shared the Gospel the best way I knew how,” said Carlton. “I took him up and down the Roman Road. I gave him the four spiritual laws. I gave him everything I could think of and at the end I asked him if what I shared made sense to him.
“He looked at me and then at his brother and shook his head, and said, ‘No, I don’t understand.’”
“I was pretty discouraged. I knew the young man was lost and I needed some culturally relevant way to share the Gospel so he could make a decision either to choose or reject Jesus – but either way he would understand the gift of salvation available to him and the implications of the Gospel for his life. Having just been trained in chronological Bible storying, Carlton stopped, backed up and started telling the story from the beginning.
“Because we’re in Africa and Africans are so highly relational, I chose the theme of broken relationships. I picked out seven stories. Now, that young man had been watching and listening to me share the Roman Road for more than an hour. But when I started sharing those stories from the Bible he leaned forward,” said Carlton. “and I could tell he was full engaged. He was connecting with those stories.
“When I got to the point of his response I asked him, and if he understood what I had been sharing,” said Carlton, “He excitedly said, ‘Yes, I do.’
“I was amazed at the drastic difference in his response that second time,” Carlton added. “I have to confess. I was a bit skeptical at first. So I went back through the Gospel and when I would ask him questions like, ‘Why did Jesus die on the cross?’ he could give me a clear, uncoached answer in his own words that told me, “Wow, he really, really did get it. On that day, because of that experience, I changed the way I shared the Gospel.
“It really doesn’t matter where you are – be it Africa or America – we have to give people some context in which they can hear the Gospel that will help them understand why they need Jesus.”
“I discovered I needed to begin the discussion about their broken relationship with God, and that is something everybody knows about and understands,” said Carlton. “We live in a broken world, and it’s full of broken relationships. That’s as true in Acadiana as it is in Africa. That experience changed my life as well as his that day.”
A PASSION FOR PEOPLE
Carlton, whose first official day on the job as director of missions was April 18, said he hit the ground running and is amazed how smoothly the transition has been.
“The two previous DOMs are just exceptional men,” Carlton said. “They have helped to make my transition so smooth. And the staff, oh my, they’re an absolute joy to be around. They extend to me so much grace and have such servant hearts. I am deeply grateful for not just what they do but the Christ-filled way in which they do it. They love the churches in our association and work so hard to serve them in any capacity in which the churches need it. It’s amazing to watch and to experience.”
While he is still getting to know his way around as DOM, Carlton said he is steadily working to build relationships in the Acadiana area.
“My passion is people,” he said. “If there is one group I would say I am particularly passionate about it would be college-aged students and young adults. They — that whole generation –– are hungry for authenticity and wants somebody to speak into their lives about how to bring a genuine Christian spirituality to bear on all that is happening in their lives. They are very open to hearing the Gospel and open to a genuine relationship with God that affects every aspect of their lives. To me, investing time there is energizing and exciting
“This was really the age group we were working with when Pamela and I left South Africa — college-aged to young adults. They want their own faith and life-changing relationship with God and that’s what we were able to help with.”
A strong proponent of Royal Ambassadors [RAs] and Girls in Action [GAs], Carlton, a speaker at RA events, sees the importance to continue these two programs as the means “to develop and train future missionaries and missions supporters. ”
“It’s in RAs and GAs that boys and girls are introduced to cultures beyond their own and they can begin to see how God can use them in a significant way to reach the world for Christ. It’s all a part of the bigger picture of fulfilling the Great Commission and our children need to understand that they can be a part of that,’ Carlton said. “When Pamela and I would come home on stateside assignment (furlough) and speak in churches we could always tell which of those had strong missions programs. It would always encourage us to be able to ask the boys and girls, “Who is Lottie Moon?” and they could tell us her story. Sadly, even in many of our Southern Baptist churches that’s not always the case.
Carlton has also been reading the findings of 2020 Commission and was surprised by some of the data in it.
“If the statistics I read in the Commission report are right, 50 percent of the people in our state don’t know Jesus,” he observed. “That is one out of every two. That means, if I am a believer in Christ, I need to look at every encounter I have as one where the odds are the other person does not know Jesus. That completely reframes my daily encounters with people.
Early on as DOM I was told that our association needed a 2020 vision. To me, 2020 means not only do we need to have a vision for the future but that we can see clearly what is happening all around us – with 20:20 vision. And I believe a 2020 vision mandates a 1:8 mission – an Acts 1:8 mission.
“That Acts 1:8 mission should start right where we are,” Carlton said. “It’s easy for us to think international for missions but that’s an incomplete biblical picture. We need to look at the needs right around us as well.
“When I saw that statistic on lostness, I thought, ‘Are we okay with that? People are dying without Christ and will have a Christ-less eternity. That’s not acceptable. The love of Christ must compel us to do something about that right here in Acadiana.’”
The needs of Acadiana confront us daily. You can’t talk to someone without hearing about both spiritual and physical needs they have. There are hurting people and brokenness is a part of life for them. They desperately need the Gospel and they desperately need the Gospel lived out in the lives of the Baptists in our association.”
Carlton believes those needs can be met by the churches of the association but said it is going to take cooperation.
“Southern Baptists are best when we are cooperating together,” he said. “I mean this is one of things that binds us together – the Cooperative Program. We are a cooperating group of people and this is what I want to see for our association especially.
“It’s very easy for churches to become so involved in their own thing they can lose sight of the churches around them and the other work that is going on around them,” Carlton said. “I would like to see us build that spirit of cooperation together, because I really do believe the churches in Evangeline Baptist Association, together, can do far more than any us can do on our own.
“We’ve got some phenomenal churches, phenomenal, godly pastors, and wonderful groups of people, but I really believe that we can cooperate in a way that strengthens what we are doing to build the Kingdom and make a lasting, eternal impact on Acadiana,” he added.
Instead of unveiling any new programs right away, Carlton said he is spending time listening to others, especially to people in the community.
“I’m listening a lot right now. I’m not talking as much as I am listening. I ask a few questions, but mostly I’m listening,” Carlton said. “There are people in the association whom I respect very much — who have been here a while. So, I want to hear from them what they think are our priority needs.”
Carlton said the community is starting to engage with him as well.
“Just in the short time I have been here, I learned that when I tell people I am a director of missions or I have served as a Baptist missionary, a number of them close themselves off from whatever else I have to say. It may be they don’t know what a director of missions is or it may be a denominational thing, I don’t know.
“But when I start listening to them and showing them I care about what is going on in their lives, everything changes,” he said. That’s a gift we can offer to folks – to listen to them – and that gives us an opportunity to offer them the best gift from God through Christ.
“These are exciting days. Every day it’s something new. I really believe as an association our best days are still ahead of us, Carlton continued. “And I’m doing a lot of listening, it’s true. I’m listening to people’s stories, the churches stories, and the desire of folks’ hearts as they sense God’s direction for us as an association. People are inviting me to do that and I’m listening every chance I get. I don’t want to miss an opportunity to hear that. At the same time, I’m listening close to the voice of the Holy Spirit. God is making an invitation to the Evangeline Baptist Association and that’s an invitation I sure don’t want us to miss.
David Carlton is ready to tackle his newest mission field.