By Mickey Noah
Video: Who Is Jim?View or Download
“When I am watching my pastors be effective for the Lord, and they’re drawing attention to the Lord and nobody knows who Jim Turnbo is, but they see God blessing in that church, that’s what gets me going like nothing else.” So says Jim Turnbo.
His humility and servant-spirit notwithstanding, Turnbo’s “people” – the Native American, Hispanic, African American and Anglo Southern Baptists of western New Mexico – know who Jim Turnbo is and what he is about.
While his official title is regional associational missionary for the Mountain and Western Baptist Associations, Turnbo, 48, is first and foremost a church planter. When he’s not planting new churches, he’s a loving gardener tending established churches, ensuring their continued healthy growth. And in his “spare” time, Turnbo is a coach, developing a cadre of discipled leaders among Baptist pastors and laypeople in New Mexico.
His ministry in New Mexico is sort of a fulfilled prophecy. One of his mentors once told Turnbo -- a young pastor at the time -- “Jim, there will come a time when God turns your attention from building your own ministry to helping others build theirs.” Two years ago, he began doing just that in the “Land of Enchantment.”
Turnbo and wife Karen are two of more than 5,000 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® for North American Missions. They are among the North American Mission Board missionaries featured as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 6-13, 2011. With a theme of “Start Here,” the 2011 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $70 million, 100 percent of which benefits missionaries like the Turnbos.
The cities in Turnbo’s two associations are few and far between. There’s Gallup with some 20,000 inhabitants, located on I-40 almost at the Arizona state line; Grants (pop. 9,000), where Jim and Karen live, about halfway between Gallup and Albuquerque; and Socorro and its 9,000 residents, due south of Albuquerque.
With New Mexico’s vast deserts, mountains, mesas and small communities -- the state conjures up visions of the Old West. To the north of Turnbo are the Native Americans – the Navajo Nation and the Luguna, Acoma and Zuni Pueblos. To his south are the Anglos, including the cowboy culture.
“Eighty percent of our people are in the open country. . . so you have isolated, relatively small communities,” Turnbo says. “But each pocket of people deserves the Gospel and so that’s what we’re here for.
“We have a mission field of 90 percent lostness among the people groups identified in the four counties. These are folks who need the Gospel but they’re not in large cities or glamorous locations. Most of them are in isolated pockets in communities that can never support a full-time church. God has placed a core group of Christians here as His instruments for getting the Gospel to them.”
Turnbo supports 25 churches, and only four of them have full-time pastors with seminary training. The other 21 are served by bi-vocational staff, many of whom are “home-grown,” indigenous lay leaders Turnbo himself has developed and coached.
“We have to do things a little bit differently than in the Bible Belt,” he says. “We have to serve our pastors around their schedules if they’re working (in other jobs). Developing leadership and raising the level of lay leaders is one of our major priorities, especially with our Native Americans. We have to be about going where the churches are. We can’t just have a meeting and say ‘y’all come.’ We have to be more relational.”
Turnbo says the state’s diversity – along with the geographic size of his mission field -- is a big challenge. With a population density of only 16 humans per square mile, New Mexico is the sixth-most sparsely inhabited state in the Union. Some of the churches Turnbo supports are 400 miles apart.
In addition to the Native Americans and Anglos, Turnbo’s mission field includes a large percentage of Hispanics and African Americans. Among U.S. states, New Mexico has the highest percentage – 44 percent – of Hispanics. The state has the nation’s third-highest percentage of Native Americans after Alaska and Oklahoma.
“This incredible diversity of people groups in a spread-out geography of a vast territory means you just can’t take a program off the shelf and apply it to every one of our churches,” said Turnbo. “You have to do customized assessment and help our churches where they’re at.”
The NAMB missionary believes his personal background and experience was provided by God to prepare him uniquely for his current assignment.
“I was raised in the LDS Church, the Mormon Church. Here, we have a significant number of Mormons in the area so I have an affinity for them and a desire to see Mormons come to Christ. I spent eight years in western Nebraska working with Native Americans, and God has used that to prepare me for coaching Native American pastors.
“I grew up in the boroughs of Houston and my family is Hispanic,” said Turnbo. “We have a large unreached Hispanic population here. So it just seems that as I was growing up, God brought me through one area or another that just suited me for the unique mix of people groups we have here in New Mexico.”
But it may be the Navajo people who hold the warmest spot in Turnbo’s heart. Rock Springs is a Navajo community about four miles north of Gallup. There, Turnbo and Peter Cho, a Korean missionary to the Navajo, are revitalizing a Navajo church now running about 27.
“This is the beginning of what we hope is an incredible ministry, and one that is strategically important for us,” Turnbo said. “The church is located on property right on the Navajo Nation reservation, so we have incredible access to the community.
“I pray for an awakening among the Navajo people, which is a nation of wonderful, precious people but it is a lost nation. Only a small percentage of Navajo people are saved. We need a spiritual awakening among the Navajos and hearts to be opened to our witness so many people would come to Christ. Part of this need is for leadership in our Navajo churches. We need indigenous pastors, deacons, worship leaders and youth workers.”
Why is the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering important to Jim and Karen Turnbo?
“It really enables us to do what we do,” Jim says. “We’re in an area that’s sparsely populated, and there is very little support system beyond the association and the state convention, which are far away. Because of Annie Armstrong, we are able to live among these people, be connected with all these churches, and provide the support they need to reach their communities effectively.”
Turnbo earned his bachelor’s degree from East Texas Baptist University, Marshall, Texas, a M. Div. degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, and a doctorate of ministry at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, Mo. He also served pastorates in Texas, Louisiana and Nebraska.
Karen -- Jim’s wife of almost 25 years -- supports her husband as his ministry assistant, a Vacation Bible School coordinator, music leader and as a mentor for other pastors’ wives. He and Karen have three children: Elizabeth, 19; Lydia, 15; and James, 10.
Mickey Noah is a writer for the North American Mission Board.
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC