UBA is celebrating the work and service of Tom Billings (DMin), who has served as the Executive Director of UBA since November of 1989.
Dr. Tom Billings moved to Houston in 1988 with his wife, Sandra, and their two sons, Thomas and Matthew. For three years, Dr. Billings served as a therapist with the UBA Center for Counseling. In 1991, he accepted the invitation to become the Director of the Center for Counseling and continued in that role until 1993 when he joined the UBA staff as an Associate Director. After the resignation of Executive Director Jim Herrington, Dr. Billings continued as Team Leader and Interim Director for a year during the Search Committee process. On November 17, 1999, Dr. Billings was named Executive Director of Union Baptist Association and has served in that role since that time. His retirement date is March 31, 2018.
As Executive Director, Dr. Billings has been required to navigate several significant challenges in the city as well as in denominational life. During the early years of his tenure, Associations in Texas were still learning how to navigate life with two state conventions. UBA had churches that affiliated with the Southern Baptists of Texas, with Texas Baptists (BGCT), and often with both. Dr. Billings led the Association to focus on serving our churches locally without regard to their state affiliation. He remained committed to ensuring that every church had a place in UBA. UBA remained notably free of conflict during that formative time.
The floods of Allison in 2001 were the first ‘trial by water’ that he faced but not the last. When Allison destroyed the UBA Offices, the staff divided their time between cleaning out the local office and visiting churches that had been damaged. Dr. Billings became pretty familiar with ‘flood protocol’ as Houston experienced the floods of Hurricane Ike in 2008 followed by the Memorial Day flood in 2015, the Tax Day flood in 2016 and the Hurricane Harvey floods in August of 2017.
The 2008 financial crisis has been noted as the worst financial crisis for the United States since the Great Depression. Dr. Billings was forced to balance a sensitivity to the financial declines that the churches were experiencing with the compelling financial needs of UBA. Adjustments were made, belts were tightened, and UBA survived the crisis with a continuing focus on empowering and equipping churches to reach their communities for Christ.
As Dr. Billings officially transitions out of this leadership role into retirement, we asked him a few questions about his time at UBA.
Most of all, he will miss the relationships he's made during his time at UBA. Of course, these relationships will not end with his retirement, but he will miss the daily interactions that come from working in an office with people for years. His coworkers have become like extended family and he looks forward to possible collaborations in the future. He will miss the pastors with whom he has had the privilege of working. They are some of the best leaders in the country and have become dear friends.
Over the course of his tenure, as the city grew and changed, churches have changed, the role of the association has changed, and therefore Dr. Billings’ role has changed over the years and he’s had to be flexible. He notes that one change he wasn’t prepared for was the need to be a fund-raiser. Historically churches gave a percentage of their budget to the Cooperative Program and a percentage to the local association. While many still do that, the percentage they give to the association has decreased. Many churches prefer to allocate much of their mission giving to their own local initiatives rather than give to cooperative initiatives through the association. This has forced ministries, like the Mission Centers of Houston, to also become more focused on raising funds to provide their ministry.
While some people may struggle with change, he has thrived in it and appreciated the opportunities to different structures and initiatives. These opportunities have given him the chance to learn about and find the most effective way to serve local churches, and advance their work and God's kingdom in the city. He recalls some significant changes over the decades:
Over the time I’ve been affiliated with UBA we have seen several changes. The purpose of the association [originally] was to help churches develop good Baptists. (That’s actually described in some of our old books on the association.) The association was a local distributor and trainer for denominational programs. We helped train Sunday School teachers, Vacation Bible School workers, deacons, youth ministers … following the structure of our churches at that time.
In the 90s we realized the city was growing. As churches we were not keeping up with the growth. So we became a church growth and health consulting organization. We focused a lot of leadership development, strategic planning and consulting individually with local churches.
As the city transitioned and became the most ethnically and culturally diverse metropolitan region in the country we shifted our focus and began encouraging churches to think like missionaries in their context. We thought of ourselves as more of a mission agency providing people group research, training in oral communication, cultivating house and cell-celebration churches. While we have wonderful state conventions and national mission agencies, we saw ourselves as the front-line entity, along with the local church, for reaching Houston with the gospel.
As with any changes and new opportunities, there are things that Dr. Billings feels UBA has done well and things he wishes they had done better. He is proud of a lot of the things UBA has accomplished during his time there. The Union Baptist Association has continued to be recognized as a leader in associational life and UBA leads out in reaching Houston for Christ. Through initiatives like people group work, Loving Houston, prison ministry, demographic research, and leadership development, UBA has a legacy in ministry that he is positive will continue under the next director. The work of “reimagining the work of the association as the lead mission agency for reaching the city of Houston with the gospel” is certainly one of the most important developments.
Being the Executive Director of UBA has allowed Dr. Billings a unique platform to do ministry on many levels—from working with local churches in Houston, other associations, state and national conventions in the United States and abroad, and working with denominational agencies like NAMB and IMB. He didn't expect to serve as an associational leader. He doesn’t see it as one of the ‘most glamorous positions’ in Baptist life, but it is one of great influence. He's grateful for the opportunity to have served.
When asked if he might have advice for Josh Ellis who takes over as the new Executive Director on April 1, Dr. Billings replied that he’s “always hesitant to offer advice," but did offer some things to be considered:
think like a mission strategist, think big picture, keep the city (or whatever your area of responsibility is) in the forefront of your thinking and planning, innovate, you don’t have to pattern your work on what other associations do—figure out what is needed for your work and do it, don’t be afraid to stand alone at first, innovators usually do. Pray. Build a team around you to help you. Make sure there is diversity within the team. While it may make decision-making take longer, you’ll make better decisions as you work through a diversity of opinions. Visit the future often, then come back and lead your organization. Like a good chess player you will need to think several moves ahead. Learn to live with criticism. No one does the job perfectly and no one can please everyone. Just make sure your heart and spirit are set on pleasing the Lord first and foremost. Lead.
He and Josh Ellis have been working together for a decade, and he has given words of wisdom throughout that time. He is confident that Josh is ready to take over and will lead UBA to the next level.
UBA is grateful for Dr. Tom Billings for his leadership over the years. Join us in celebrating his service and pray for him as he moves into retirement.