(originally published in Lifeword’s October 2015 newsletter)
When I retrace the twenty-five years of my stewardship at the Harvest Gleaner Hour/Lifeword, I have to say with the Psalmist, “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:23). What the Lord did for this ministry is truly marvelous.
The Board elected me as executive director on my forty-first birthday, January 25, 1986, just a few hours after my predecessor’s funeral. It was a day of extreme emotion as we said goodbye to a dear friend and a loving mentor and then trembled at the responsibility ahead. Terminally ill with colon cancer his last two years, Paul Bearfield faced death with courage and grace, grit and determination as he fought hard to the very end to leave the radio ministry in good shape financially. The foundation he laid was the secret of a smooth transition in leadership.
Our first major objective was to upgrade the recording studio. I asked Mike Jones, recording engineer, to bring me a figure of what it would cost. He came back with his answer: $90,000. A few days later two men walked into my office and laid a check on my desk for that exact amount. That reassured me that God was with us. With the new gear, “quality” became our watchword.
When elected, I told the Board that this ministry would not be a one-man show, but I would search out qualified personnel who were self-starters and would not require over-the-shoulder supervision. The Board gave positive affirmation. As in production, quality was our watchword in selecting the team. A good friend advised, “Hire the best, and you will get credit for what they do.” I sought out people whose talents exceeded mine, and I remained in awe of the co-workers God gave us.
A long-range objective was to locate some choice property for a future location to accommodate our future needs. The desired property became available much sooner than we expected when board member O’Neal Sims found 6.5 acres fronting on Interstate 40 for $48,000. The Board approved the location, and we organized a “Gideon’s Band” of 300 people who would each contribute $53.33 for the first payment of $16,000. Six months later Gideon’s Band II raised the second $16,000, and then another six months later Gideon’s Band III raised the final $16,000, and we purchased it interest-free. That acquisition would sky-rocket in value by the time we faced relocation.
By 1987, the name Harvest Gleaner Hour had become problematic. It was hard to enunciate clearly, and the word “gleaner” was unfamiliar to many. In 1987 we asked Bill and John Ward of Ward Advertising to lead a brain-storming session, and Kirk Shelton, Program Director, and I joined them at their farm. John asked the opening question, “Brother George, how would you define the purpose of Harvest Gleaner Hour?” I answered, “To preach the Word as it applies to life.” Out of that response the new name arose: Lifeword. One year later we unveiled it at the 1988 BMA of America, when it was adopted as our official name.
In the early 1990s response to the long-format broadcasts came mainly from believers. That was gratifying, but we wanted to target unsaved listeners, so we began experimenting with short formats. We settled on a one-minute dialogue that used current events and humor to attract listeners who would never tune in to a religious broadcast. Rick Russell was the straight guy, and Donny Parrish was the zany occupant of the fictitious office cubicle next to Rick. The program always closed with a spiritual challenge and an offer of evangelistic literature. Mail began arriving from unsaved listeners who wanted answers. We adapted the format to a variety of languages and cultures.
International outreach has always been a major thrust of Lifeword. Since joining the staff in 1989, Rick Russell has worked tirelessly to identify language groups that have limited gospel witness by radio, giving priority to target areas served by BMA missionaries. Rick’s diligent research and on-going consultation with BMA Missions enabled Lifeword to expand into multiple languages, a total of thirty-five when I left. For the most part we engaged adept BMA missionaries to produce the programs under the patient coaching of Rick and his able assistant Luis Ortega.
Occasionally we received “windfall revenues” (such as donations of property when churches disbanded, estate distributions, etc.), and we set them aside in a savings account. Those became the initial investments in the Lifeword Foundation when it was incorporated in 1994. Deposits are never spent but invested to generate income for Lifeword annually. Foundation deposits were approaching one million dollars by the end of my term.
Video production began with the addition of Donny Parrish in 1990. We started by producing promo videos for BMA departments and evangelistic TV spots customized for sponsoring churches. Some highlights of those years included the video-taping of “The Story,” a musical about the life of Christ featuring a 200-voice choir from area BMA churches directed by Jerene Reddin and staged at the Conway High School auditorium before an audience of almost 1,000; production of “God’s Amazing Grace” by the Lifeword Singers video-taped live at the 1997 BMA America at Lubbock, Texas; and a BMA Fiftieth Anniversary set of three VHS tapes featuring a concert by the Ward Family Singers, interviews of two beloved BMA leaders and their wives, Dr. and Mrs. Gerald Kellar and Bro. and Mrs. C. O. Strong, and a concert by the Lifeword Singers with historical video clips at the 2000 BMA America at Little Rock. Bill Ward, who followed Donny Parrish as video director, and his assistant, Maggie Chandler, video-taped a series of thirty-second TV spots, “Church: Try It Again for the First Time,” and produced thirteen half-hour TV programs featuring interviews by Maggie Chandler, music by the Lifeword Singers and a message by Pastor Don Chandler of Central Baptist Church in Conway.
Relocation remained a back-burner issue until we outgrew our building. The appraised value of the 6.5-acre tract on I-40 eight years after its purchase was forty-two times the original price, and it became more practical to sell it than to build on it. In 1994 Lifeword purchased a $2.4 million location in downtown Conway, three blocks from Central Baptist College, with two large two-story buildings. The sale of the 6.5 acres on the Interstate and the old location in the Industrial Park paid for the new location. Remodeling was our only cost.
When I left, our only indebtedness was to ourselves. We paid off our bank loan for the remodeling with a loan from the Lifeword Foundation at a lower interest rate than we were paying to the bank but a higher rate than our investments were bringing. It was a win-win situation. That property has now become the BMA Global Ministry Center, housing the offices of Lifeword, BMA Missions and DiscipleGuide. Steve Crawley joined our staff as director of finance and development, and his expertise was crucial throughout the relocation process.
Many persons with a variety of talents have had a hand in building Lifeword, but we all know Whose hand has made the difference. “The Lord hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad” (Psalm 126:3).
(Bro. George retired on April 30, 2011, but he visits quite often and we praise the Lord for his continued devotion to and love for Lifeword and her team members past and present.)