Pastor Jerry Gillis lived in South Florida when he was asked to lead the Chapel at CrossPoint. The year was 2002, and Gillis had been serving for eight years as associate pastor at South Biscayne Baptist Church in North Port. It took the Atlanta-born pastor six months to make the decision to move his family north.
Today, Gillis is 42. He leads a congregation of thousands at the Chapel, where his mechanical pulpit rises like a phoenix from the stage in a worship hall with stadium seating for 2,300. The Chapel’s 33-acre complex in Getzville includes a bookstore, coffee cafe and music department. It employs a staff of 100, and draws worshippers for more than 30 ZIP codes.
Gillis received his doctor of ministry from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, his master of divinity from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and a bachelor’s degree in speech communication from the University of Georgia. He and his wife, Edie, have two sons, Trace, 15, and Tanner, 12.
People Talk: Did any other churches make a pitch for you?
Jerry Gillis: I got five or six inquiries – all at the same time – from churches in Georgia, Ohio. One was in Florida. One involved planting a church with a Baptist denomination in Boston. They knew from an educational standpoint that I wanted to work on my doctorate, but it was very unconnected to evangelical faith. I said no to all of them.
But I had sensed God was up to something. I wasn’t at all unhappy. I didn’t have the resumes out. I wasn’t looking to find a better pasture. He found me.
PT: Churches of this size are not uncommon in Southern states.
JG: In the South there are a lot – in terms of the breadth or size. Part of that has to do with population, the culture. When you grow up in the Atlanta area with a population of 6 million, you’re able to conglomerate a lot of people of faith into places of worship. Plus, there’s a prevailing culture in the South; that’s why they called it the Bible Belt. That’s not really true anymore. There is no belt. The pants are down. It’s a different planet, more cosmopolitan. That’s what I grew up with.
PT: What kind of a kid were you?
JG: Athletic. Class clown. Grew up in a great home. My mom and dad are still living and still together.
PT: Were you a follower or leader?
JG: I was a follower for quite a while, but grew into becoming a leader. It almost started in high school. I was a year ahead in school – not so much because I was smart, but because of my birth date. It was tough. You’re small. You’re younger than everybody in your grade. I grew into my own skin, became president of my high school student government. I ran on a platform that was a little bit goofy. I was not even remotely interested in being a pastor. That was the furthest thing from my mind.
PT: What did you want to do?
JG: There were three things running around my head, being a Bob Costas kind of broadcaster, a TV news anchor and president of the United States. As a dreamer, I would have loved to play shortstop for the Atlanta Braves.
PT: Do you see yourself as a television preacher?
JG: It’s not something that interests me a whole lot for a number of reasons. Many pastors on television are not viewed with lots of respect from the communities outside of church. They just think huckster, swindler because of the Jim Bakers and Jimmy Swaggarts of the world. People who don’t know church life or who don’t know you personally have a tendency to be really skeptical. I’ve just avoided all those things, frankly. In fact I’ve turned down invitations for that very thing – to broaden our television audience – on certain national networks.
PT: Rate yourself as a storyteller.
JG: I enjoy telling stories. It is a part of the culture of my family. My dad, early on, was in the Marine Corps, so we moved around a lot. And then he got into the business world. My mom was a paraprofessional at an elementary school. She still substitutes from time to time, but they both retired. He’s also a writer. Right now he’s finished a book he calls a business thriller.
PT: How did you and your wife meet?
JG: I’ve known her since sixth grade. Though we were not dating during middle school and high school, I had my eye on her pretty closely since seventh grade. We ended up at the University of Georgia. Through the course of time and after coming to a place of faith between my sophomore and junior year, she and I began dating and ended up getting married shortly after college. Our families live about five minutes from one another.
PT: On the pulpit, what topic do you avoid?
JG: I’ve talked about just about every topic there is: politics and God, marriage, divorce, homosexuality, sex. I did a message series called “Elephants in the Church.” What are the things that people don’t talk about in church?
PT: Your messages average 45 minutes in length. What is most challenging about the process?
JG: What not to say. I have a source book of material called the Bible. If I’m teaching a lesson on forgiveness, I’ve got the guts of Scripture to talk to me about what forgiveness looks like. I’m part nerd. I will overstudy for a message.
PT: Take yourself out of the pulpit. What could you do better?
JG: Right now, I’m scattered in my personal growth and study. I have a tendency to read about six books at a time as opposed to focusing on one, digging into it and making applications. I’m sort of an information monger. I read broadly: theological books, mission books, fantasy. I read a lot of C.S. Lewis. [J.R.R.] Tolkien is an author I like a real lot. Recently I read part of the biography of [Nazi resister] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I read a lot on Judaic history, Greco-Roman history.
PT: Tell me about your outreach programs in the community.
JG: We provide training here on campus for people to get certified as foster parents. We call it our Every Child ministry, not only for our church but for others in the region. So we started a partnership with Gateway-Longview, a placement agency.
At our other church campus – Renovation Church in North Buffalo – we provide after-school tutoring, job development programs. And we’ve got a ministry called Potter’s Hands that helps rehab church facilities, fire-damaged properties.