Ayoung-looking 47, the Rev. Terry Marks has retired after 25 years in banking and finance and has set about forging a ministry built on what he calls “incremental dreams.”
“We are a church about bringing hope,” proclaims Marks, pointing to the church’s current theme, “Reviving the Saints and Rebuilding the Stones,” based on Nehemiah 4:2.
In 1997, the congregation of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal moved from just north of downtown Mesa to a church building with seating for nearly a thousand in Phoenix just west of Tempe. It gives a church, with about 200 members, plenty of room to grow as it seeks to serve new neighbors, especially the ever-changing areas of south Phoenix, where gated housing has replaced commercial flower gardens, orange groves and blighted neighborhoods.
Today, it is known as Greater Bethel AME Church. It is intentional in maintaining its ties to the African Methodist Episcopal denomination founded in 1787 as the first major religious denomination in the Western world with origins from sociological rather than theological beliefs and differences. It was founded in Philadelphia primarily as a protest against slavery and discrimination.
“Greater Bethel endeavors to build a spiritual city, utilizing a foundation of saints as living stones,” begins the church’s mission statement, which ends by declaring the church is “making Christ our chief cornerstone.”
The church was started in 1919 in Mesa by a missionary called Mother Maxwell who was joined by seven others. It was during the ministry of the late Rev. Bernard Jackson that the congregation transplanted to Phoenix.
“We are a progressive, bold-thinking and nontraditional church and yet a church that is centered in the word of Christ,” said Marks, who is working on a doctorate in organization leadership and a master’s of theology degree from Fuller Theological Seminary.
It’s a sharp change from his years in banking “off Wall Street,” arranging loans with major companies. A finance major at Arizona State University, he spent years with Bank of America, then as a property banking manager at Bank One and later the property banking division of Irwin Bank. Since retiring, he has become a consultant for new churches with focus on financial analysis, tithing and property purchase. For four years, he drove on weekends to Flagstaff to shepherd a small church.
Marks says he brings his business and marketing mind-set to his ministry. “I say to my congregation, ‘Don’t be misled. I’m not a businessman who is a preacher. I am a preacher who has a business background.’
“We see this church having gone through some ups and downs, but we want to bring a message of hope and faith, that we are the living stones that will be used to rebuild this church and to reach out into the community,” he said.
Church administrator Al Harris said the church is intentionally striving to become more culturally diverse, noting it has an ethnic mix and has added 35 new members since Marks arrived in November.
Though not Pentecostal, he said, “We feel the Holy Spirit, and when the Holy Spirit moves, we move with it. There’s clapping, and people will jump up and dance a little bit, you know.”
Harris oversees a corporation that manages the church’s child day care center, Heavenly Hands, with space for 79 preschoolers. It also runs an after-school program for third through sixth grades. It is part of a health ministry called Heart Soul, with a wide range of services including health monitoring and smoking cessation. Running and walking programs are offered, and movie/ dinner nights are held. The congregation also has a community food pantry and is engaged in prison ministry, including an Angel Tree program called Joseph’s Friend.
“It’s just a matter of utilizing our skills for what the people have to do,” Marks said. “I would rather use one person for one thing than to try to spread them out over too many. . . . We are too big of a church to where we have to have our members volunteer for every aspect of ministry, yet not quite large enough to where we would be fully staffed.”
He has taken Heavenly Hands from a “separate day care” and “no vision” to a Christ-centered day care that is “child-caring.”
“We can do all these fancy programs with fancy names,” Marks said, but he constantly asks his congregation, “Did the hungry get fed? Those in prison, were they visited? Did we visit the sick? Those are the things we are judged ourselves on.”
People come to the church, he said, and say, “I want to be part of Jesus,” but all too often they are not shown ways of service and outreach. “We allow them to slip through our fingers. We have misplaced them. Jesus found them and turned them over to us, and we misplaced them in the church system.”
“I look at families, and I challenge each family to say, ‘What is our family vision?’ ” said Marks, who wants the church to continually broaden its vision. It now serves 50 children in afterschool outreach, but it could be 200, he said. “We have to have a vision.”
Church member Ardith Brostowicz said Marks has brought strong ideas to the church. She cited his emphasis on the family unit, strong leadership training for fathers and the mentoring of men. “He believes that everyone has something to offer in the house of the Lord,” Brostowicz said.
Marks explains it this way: “God has given you the mission and he has given you the vision; what is it that you are doing with what he has given you to do?”