An Interview with Tom Phillips, Vice President, BGEA
Doug Stringer: Tom Phillips follows Jesus as Vice President of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Charlotte, North Carolina. At BGEA Tom leads and shares with supporters the Lord’s vision, to spread the gospel by every effective means, and to equip others to do the same. Tom’s passion for God and for revival is consistent and unwavering. Tom is a man who, I believe, truly understands what it will take to see a great awakening in a mighty revival. So, Tom, how do you see revival?
Tom Phillips: Revival is nothing but a renewed church, coming back to normal Christianity, which must mean that we’re abnormal if we need to be renewed.
Doug: What can we, as Christian leaders, do better to invite this kind of revival?
Tom: Our adequacy as leaders, all of us know, is from the Lord. And leadership is an interesting facet of human humility. We’re driven to humility, whether we like it or not. We need to take account of ourselves as servant leaders and inadequate leaders. The Holy Spirit is adequate. Jesus is adequate. And as He flows through us, we become adequate.
Doug: Growing up did you see any leaders like that?
Tom: My grandfather was one of my great, great heroes. He was a Southern Baptist circuit rider. I remember seeing him as a young man sitting on Sundays with an open Bible. He was a big Welshman, and people would come from all over just to have time with him. I watched the way he loved others, and I wanted to be like him. We also had a great pastor who challenged us all to read the Bible every year. I didn’t comprehend really the power of the Word of God but I did want to honor this pastor, so I would read through the Bible with him each year. And as we get into the Word, of course, we realize that Jesus is our true model.
Doug: How did you cultivate that in your own life?
Tom: I had a heart for the Lord. When people would be pumping gas beside me and God said, “Speak to them,” I would do it. Or in a grocery store, if God would say, “Go tell her I love her,” I would do it. It was humbling and it was embarrassing, but God never failed me. When God calls you into a ministry that is biblically one of the “called” ministries (like evangelist, pastor, teacher, administrator of His Kingdom), you give up a lot in terms of the world to do what He’s called you to do. But out of that obedience, I have found, comes fulfillment.
Doug: I struggle with referring to full-time ministry as serving in a church or ministry, because we’re all called to full time ministry. We just have different places of stewardship.
Tom: I totally agree with you about the potential of looking at ourselves as ministers and others as not. Billy Graham, about 18 years ago, said the next great move of the Spirit of God could easily come in the marketplace. And frankly, I believe we’re seeing that today. And we always want to encourage that in every way. I’ve got a young evangelist I’m mentoring right now who works as a stockbroker. He asked recently, “Do I need to leave my job?” And I said, “How many people like you are in your firm?” He replied, “Not many.” I said, “Then could you possibly be the missionary there?”
Doug: What led you into vocational Christian ministry?
Tom: I think God uses our own pride, if sublimated to Him in obedience, to carry us into the servant leadership positions He initially engineered in the womb. Whenever God called me as a young college student into the ministry, I wept, because I wanted to be the wealthy southern surgeon with a lot of position, prestige, power, and possessions. My father and my mother also wept. My dad said, “Son, if this is God, then I’m not going to give you any more money to help you with your education.” I told him, that was fine. Then a couple of days later, I went back to him and said, “Dad, do you ever remember me knowingly disobeying you?” He thought for a moment then said “No.” Then I said, “If I won’t disobey you, how can I disobey my Heavenly Father?” He got very somber and said, “Son, I do understand, and I’ll be there for you.” That didn’t mean I didn’t have to work. It just meant that he would do what he could.
The Heavenly Father does the same thing. He never lets us down. He always does what He can, but His resources are unlimited. Still, I didn’t really give it to the Lord. I went back to Ole Miss, where I had a lot of leadership potential through my fraternity. I was already in a bunch of offices, and that was hard to give up. It was the way to get ahead, and I was pretty materialistic. But after half a semester, I thought I was literally losing my mind out of disobedience. God spoke to me and said, “I didn’t call you to be any of those things. I called you to share Jesus with others.” I was broken in my little dorm room, and I just said that whatever it is He wanted me to do, I would do it.
Doug: How did God then move you into ministry at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association?
Tom: I went home for a semester and attended a junior college. But I knew what God had called me to do, so I set my sights on seminary. I visited New Orleans seminar, which was a nine-hour drive. I had no money to spend the night, so I walked the campus, prayed, and drove home in the same day. God said, “No.” Then He sent me to Southern Seminary, which is where I attended.
A wonderful man of God, Dr. Louis Drummond from Spurgeon College in London and the first evangelism professor in Europe, came to our seminary and began to adopt a bunch of us. At the end of my three and a half years at seminary, Dr. Drummond said to me, “I have you a place at Oxford in England for your Ph.D.”
I told him, “I’d love to do that. I love to study, I love to learn. But I wasn’t called to be an academic.” Then he said, “Well, I’m starting the Doctor of Ministry program in evangelism, would you be my first student?” That sounded great to me. But then I learned the school’s Board changed the flow and I would be required to do a two-year internship, which turned out to be God’s sovereignty. You see, Dr. Drummond was the Billy Graham Chair of Evangelism Professor. So I said, “Could you ask Mr. Graham if I could do six months with his team rather than two years on my own? I’d learn a lot more. And could you ask the Board if they would allow this?” Everybody said, “Yes.” At the end of my six months, God spoke again to me and said, “They’re going to ask you to stay.” So my wife and I began to pray. On the very last day, under the stage where Mr. Graham was preaching, they said, “We’d like you to stay on,” and I said, “Absolutely!” Then I knew that for which I was raised to do. I’ve been to 108 countries and 50 states, and I’ve seen God work in surgery, spiritual surgery, that I would have never dreamed.
Doug: With so much travel in those early days, how did you stay pure?
Tom: My wife asked me that one day and I said, “Honey, I love you. And you know, you’ve kept yourself so well, you’re a beautiful woman. You don’t look at Volkswagens on the road if you’ve got a Corvette in the driveway.: I also said, “You see me basically on the weekends. But Jesus sees me all the time.” Mr. Graham once was asked, “When do you pray?” And he said, “I’m praying right now.” Walking with the Lord is right now, it’s not something you do on Sundays or when you’re thinking ministry. The Sovereignty of God guides us. I never wanted to hurt my heavenly Father, but I knew if I did, I could confess right then and be forgiven. I could confess and then, like getting on a cloverleaf on a freeway, get right back on track.
Doug: in your life, when you were met with unexpected challenges, how were you able to move through those places and keep your eyes fixed on your destination?
Tom: That’s a very good question. I had a mentor named Charlie Riggs who met with me every week. He was an old military man, and he was tough as nails on me. He would dig into every part of my life. I’m not sure I would still have a marriage without the discipline from him and the Graham team. The Graham team was just like the disciples, ordinary men and women. We were utterly, utterly, utterly, utterly committed to the Gospel. Because of that, we were committed to each other regardless of our differences, regardless of denominational backgrounds, regardless of our accents, regardless of our ethnic group. Origins and ambition fled by the wayside in most cases because we could confront one another directly.
I think the greatest brokenness of my life has been finding myself. Early on in prayer, as I prayed for the sin of the world one day, God in His providence held a mirror of Jesus in front of my face in my quiet time and I saw myself reflected in His purity. And I saw all the black spots of Tom Phillips. The breaking was pretty intense. But the presence of God that had already been there became overwhelmingly consistent. And I have a feeling that is what God used guide a very inadequate farm boy from Mississippi into places I didn’t deserve to be. But it was His call, so He made it happen. I don’t know how to get around the fact that I don’t deserve to be here. I’m honored to serve the Lord regardless of position or place. There would be no way, had I followed my own course, that I would be here today in the darkest hour where light can shine the greatest.
Doug: When you look at the spiritual landscape today, what do you see?
Tom: The momentum for true awakening has never been more eminent then when the Church, in survival mode, has pulled its survival waters into the taproot because it is attached on every side. But God has told us in the last days, He’ll have a latter rain and He’ll pour out His Spirit on His kids. The taproot will not only fill with water in the tree of life, but it’ll float through the trunk and into the limbs, and we will have the greatest harvest the world has ever seen. I wouldn’t trade anything I’ve been through. But I’m just grateful to be here during the times when it looks like evil could win, knowing that God is the Victory.
Doug: Any final thoughts?
Tom: Everything we’ve talked about is a daily battle. There is a quote from quote from J. Oswald Sanders in Spiritual Leadership that says, “Our word ‘ambition’ derives from the Latin word meaning ‘canvassing for promotion’…ambitious men and women enjoy the power that money or authority brings, such carnal ambitions were roundly rebuked; the true leader will never canvass for promotion.” I think of Jesus as our example, and Mr. Graham was certainly that example.
One afternoon at the Billy Graham Library something in my spirit said to go to the lobby, where I saw this 6’6”, very well-dressed brother. He had a big Bible, and he said, “Oh, you’re the man I need to see.” He said, “I’ve been here five times. I’ve moved here from New Jersey, and I’m planting a church. I want to know the secret to Billy Graham’s success.” He started naming all the materialistic aspects and the visible aspects of the successful men of God he was watching—things such as entourage, cars, size of the church, position and on and on. I said, “Did you see any of that in Mr. Graham’s journey of faith when you went through the library?” He said, “No, I haven’t. So, there’s something else.” I said, “please tell me your name.” He gave me his name, and I said, “That’s the secret to success. Can you die to that name?”
You see, Billy literally died to his name. It was apparent if you knew him or talked with him. The humility that allowed Jesus to flow through unhindered through Billy Graham allowed God to make him successful in the eyes of the world. I shared with this young man, “You’ll be successful.” He had all the markings. “But if you want to be great in God’s eyes and do more than you could ever dream of, it’s between you and Jesus. You have got to die to your name.”
Dr. Doug Stringer is founder and president of Somebody Cares America/International. As an America of Asian descent, Doug is considered a bridge-builder of reconciliation amongst various ethnic and religious groups. He is a sought-after international speaker, addressing topics such as persevering leadership, reconciliation, community transformation, revival, and more. He is host of “A Word in Season with Doug Stringer & Friends,” with new programs posted weekly on the Charisma Podcast Network.