By Vicki Brown
When asked why he gave up microbiology and academia for a pastor’s life, Dwight Stinnett always responds that God has a tremendous sense of humor.
God’s humor not only led Stinnett into the pastorate, but also to spend nearly 18 years as executive minister of American Baptist Churches of the Great Rivers Region. Based in Springfield, Ill., the region includes Missouri and Illinois.
He began serving the region on July 7, 1997, and retired June 30 this year.
Born in Athens, Ala., he earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology at the University of Alabama and his doctorate from the University of Georgia.
After graduation in 1974, he accepted a research post at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, Va., where he focused on cancer and tissue transplantation.
In 1975, he became an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center where he was named as associate director of the surgical immunobiology lab and director of basic research for the Shriners’ Burns Institute.
Despite success, he was “getting increasingly dissatisfied with university work,” he said. A layman at the time, he served in several roles in the Cincinnati church he attended.
Thinking God could use Stinnett’s background in medical missions, Stinnett resigned his university position to earn a Master of Divinity degree at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
But he experienced a “crisis of faith,” he said, when he began to believe the Southern Baptist Convention likely would not appoint him as a missionary because of theological differences.
He decided he needed to go into religious academia. But soon after he started doctoral work at the seminary, another graduate student encouraged him to talk to a church in Indiana. Though he resisted becoming a pastor, he talked with church leaders.
Two months later, he realized God had called him to the pastorate, he said.
He served two Indiana congregations from 1985 to 1997. Then a colleague pushed Stinnett to apply for the Great Rivers position when it opened. The region’s committee called while he was in Russia teaching in pastor schools for Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.
Stinnett “reluctantly” met with the committee and learned he wasn’t the members’ first choice, he said. “But something happened in that meeting.” Driving home he realized “this is it,” he added.
He sees two contributions he has made to the region during his tenure — making the church the “locus of ministry” and establishing a covenant relationship with the Federation of Baptists in Costa Rica.
He led reorganization of the region and reduced a large board to a small one that was “totally representative of congregations,” he said.
According to Stinnett, Great Rivers was the first ABC region to establish a long-term covenant with an overseas Baptist organization.
Costa Rican Baptists wrote the covenant, which included the provision that workers stay in homes instead of in hotels, he said.
The two groups minister together as well. After Hurricane Katrina, Costa Rican Baptists sent a crew to help alongside GRR volunteers. Teams from both countries also worked together in El Salvador.
The reciprocal covenant, particularly the relationship and love that has developed, was one aspect of the position that brought Stinnett the most satisfaction.
When tornadoes ripped through Springfield about 10 years ago and took the roof off the Baptist headquarters, Costa Rican Baptists took up an offering to help with repairs, he said.
Stinnett also points to partnering with his staff and to the “remarkable trust of the board.”
“It was one of those marvelous surprises” that after a staff meeting three months into his job, “I realized I like this,” he said. “The staff team was the most enjoyable, the most solidifying.”
Now in retirement, Stinnett has “a long list of things to do.” One goal is to spend more time writing, particularly on faith and science, response to the challenges the North American church faces and on Baptist identity in the 21st century. “I think Baptists have lost the sense of community,” he said.
And he plans for a little fun — improving his woodworking skills and having the time to actually finish projects.