A Leader in Ministry

I was in the middle of a book deal and wanted to discuss marketing with someone local. Dean Ross’ bio in Gathering Magazine caught my attention. He is the executive director of Abandon Productions; the largest faith-based concert and event ministry in the region. His website documented his success marketing Christian events, so I made an appointment. Before I left, I recorded his spiritual journey.

Dean grew up attending a Baptist church. He understood the gospel at a young age, but standing before a thousand people with the pastor’s hand on his shoulder as the congregation voted him into membership deterred Dean from making a public profession of faith. He was too shy for that much attention.

At twelve years of age, Dean volunteered to work at a “Heaven’s Gate Hell’s Flame” event. The touring evangelistic drama incorporated congregation members in a series of skits to bring the audience to a decision regarding their eternal destination. At the conclusion of the skits, the pastor’s challenge to choose heaven or hell tugged at Dean’s heart. Knowing he would not be singled out to be accepted into the congregation, he slipped into the mass of people walking to the altar. Within the refuge of those choosing heaven, Dean prayed for salvation.

God’s plan for his life formed when he attended a Centrifuge camp. The week-long event was designed to bring the campers to an encounter with God and to develop spiritual maturity. The camp achieved its goals. During the camp’s activities, Dean heard God say, “Son, you will be a leader in ministry.”

Dean wondered how he would become a ministry leader. There was a legacy of faith in his family, but his shyness would make it difficult to be in a public office. “I am shy,” Dean replied. “How can this be?”

God’s promise to make Dean a leader in ministry quickly bore fruit. Dean knew most of his high school friends had little interest in attending a traditional church service. He decided to expose them to the gospel through a non-traditional venue. A girl in his youth group had tried to organize a student led evangelistic event at his high school, but found little support. Dean contacted the girl and several friends to discuss reviving the ambitious plan.

With the help of their youth pastor, the small group of student evangelist organized IMPACT: Faith Over Fear. Dean’s church sponsored the event in cooperation with other churches. A taboo against drums on the platform was set aside, and a Christian band invited to perform.  Christian break dancers and pizza also were incentives to draw a young crowd as news of the event traveled via word of mouth. “Six of my friends accepted Christ,” said Dean. “I would do it again for fewer results.”  Dean planted a seed that continued to grow. The student led IMPACT event continued for years after Dean graduated from high school.

Dean wanted to attend college in another state hoping to escape from Louisiana’s depressed job market. Baylor University in Texas and a few colleges in Florida were options. He credits God’s guidance for his decision to attend Southeastern Louisiana University where he made his first foray into concert ministry. Dean invited Jason Morant and his band Adam’s Lament to perform at the college. The event required a crash course in contract negotiations and handling large sums of money.

Dean leaned back in his chair as he reflected on that period of his life. “I loved organizing events, but my goal was to finish my degree in accounting. I later changed that to a degree in marketing and management. I planned to be an accountant or marketer or own a profitable business that could support ministries. A hurricane named Katrina changed everything.”

August 2005, news reports of a massive hurricane headed for New Orleans sent multitudes fleeing for safety. Laura, Dean’s girlfriend and a Physical Therapy Assistant, was on call. She qualified to stay at the hospital until the hurricane passed. Hospital policy prohibited anyone except family from taking refuge with her in the hospital. When Dean realized Hurricane Katrina might become the worst case scenario storm everyone talked about, but no one thought would happen, he refused to leave the city. Laura might need him. Dean doubted the tin roof on his apartment would survive the storm. Laura’s apartment wasn’t a good option either.  When a friend of a friend offered refuge in the Biology department of the college, Dean accepted.

Dean and his friends settled on the top floor of the Biology building. They spent the evening communicating with friends in other states until the electricity failed. When the eye of the storm passed over the city, Dean stepped onto the balcony. Trees were snapped like twigs. Debris flew past him. He knew the building had survived Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and felt safe. Dean retired for the night thinking everything would be fine in the morning.

The battery operated radio spewed wild reports when Dean awoke. “The Superdome roof had blown off. The levee had breached and inundated New Orleans. Chaos reigned.” Fear was evident in the radio announcer’s voice. Dean saw the first images of Katrina’s destruction two weeks later. Weary of eating the army’s MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) he drove to Ruby Tuesday’s in Baton Rouge. A television in the restaurant flashed nonstop images of devastation.

“People who are from New Orleans have an overwhelming love for the city that can’t be explained,” said Dean. “As I viewed the extent of the damage, love for New Orleans was reborn in me. I knew that I would return.”

Dean planned to make Laura his wife, but Katrina had destroyed the pier in Mandeville where he wanted to propose. He drove Laura to a similar spot that faced the lake and left his car head lights on. Laura followed him to the shore thinking they were going to look at the damage caused by Katrina. Instead, Dean asked her sit on the floodwall. He dropped to one knee and said, “I live my life by Proverbs 21:21 ‘He who pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity and honor.’ I believe God has called us to do this together.” He opened the ring box. “Laura, will you marry me?”

Dean and Laura were rebuilding their lives in Hammond when the president of Next Generation, a campus outreach, asked Dean to organize a festival at Tad Gormley Stadium in New Orleans. Dean loved organizing and promoting the event. He knew that he had found his calling and committed to one year of missionary work with Next Generation in the St. Charles Parish schools. For most of that year, Dean commuted from Hammond. Then God opened the door for Dean and Laura to move to New Orleans.

In preparation for the next phase of his ministry Dean started Abandon Productions.  “It didn’t make financial sense for me to do concerts and events in New Orleans. We brought Newsboys to the Tad Gormley Stadium and had a thousand in attendance. I could do the same thing north of the lake and easily have 5,000 in attendance. It just didn’t make sense, but I knew God called us to New Orleans.”

Dean incorporated Abandon Productions Ministry in 2007 with a threefold mission: assist the local church, proclaim Jesus Christ and mobilize God’s people for missions.  God blessed Dean’s obedience. A concert with Toby Mac and Skillet drew 5,000 to the Lakefront arena, the largest Christian event in decades. A Chris Tomlin and Louie Giglio event drew 2,000.

Dean’s success launched him beyond New Orleans to organize events throughout the Gulf South. Giving him opportunity to work with a variety of bands and speakers:  Michael English, David Platt, Aaron Gillespie, David Nasser, Fireflight, Daniel Bashta, Disciple, Flame, Wavorly, December Radio, Trip Lee, Seventh Day Slumber, Rush of Fools, Jake Smith, Corey Hicks, Tedashii, Avalon, Spoken, R-Swift, Jeff Deyo, Parachute Band, LeCrae and many more. But Dean’s call to New Orleans grew louder than his success. He redesigned his ministry to train event leaders in other cities while he focused his efforts on New Orleans.

The New Orleans Hornets requested Dean to organize their Faith and Family night. In collaboration with The Youth Ministers Network, Abandon Productions established “U-Nite @ the Hive”. The annual event offers discounted tickets for churches. Christian bands perform either pre or post-game. Zephyr’s stadium also offers an annual “U-Nite at Zephyr’s Field” with a post-game Christian concert. “U-Nite at the Dome” offered a similar event during the New Orleans Bowl, a NCAA-sanctioned post-season college football game that is played annually at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.

The need for office space produced a new facet to Dean’s ministry. He was content to work from home until God blessed him with another son. His office was remodeled to accommodate the newest addition to his family. The pastor of Lakeside Church in Metairie had offered him office space. Dean met the pastor for lunch to inquire if the space was still available. Before Dean made his inquiry, the pastor said he was resigning to accept a pastorate in Texas. Dean promised to pray for the congregation as they searched for a new pastor. He left the lunch wondering what he would do for office space.

Dean had organized an event for Lakeside and knew several of the congregation members. They asked him to submit a resume to the pastor search committee. He wasn’t interested. Having extensive connections in the Christian community, he offered to refer speakers until the church elected a pastor. For the next two weeks, Dean and Laura prayed for Lakeside’s congregation. As they prayed God spoke to Dean and Laura simultaneously to submit a resume. Dean obeyed but wasn’t convinced the older congregation would accept a young man as their pastor. He was wrong. In October 2011, Lakeside Church elected Dean to be their pastor.

Love for God has been the driving force in Dean’s ministry. He has embraced his pastoral duties without forsaking Abandon Productions, which he prays will give birth to a movement. “Events are great,” said Dean, “movements are better. Movements continue long after the event ends.”

 

A Phone Call

 Passage to Purpose: #10 A Phone Call

My interactions with three well known agents in Christian publishing had left me disillusioned with publishing. Based on my limited experience its purpose had strayed from producing quality books reflecting Christian thought to pursuing money. I understand the quandary publishers are in. They have to pay salaries and maintain equipment and buildings. I also understand that Christians cannot serve both God and money. When money dictates what we do talents are oppressed and the public consumes what the God of money bestows.

Paul challenged the Corinthians to “…think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of the world and the despised things and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). Paul included the wise and influential among us when he said “not many of you”.  The truth is most Christians are not brilliant, wealthy and influential, but all of us have gifts the body of Christ needs and no one should be disqualified based on our status in this world.

I had accepted the challenge to write Kathy’s book and already discussed publishing options with her: self-publish or Print on Demand (POD) with POD being the affordable option. While I researched options for publishing Kathy’s book, my request for a brochure from Tate Publishing elicited a phone call from Stacy, the Director of Acquisitions.

I explained that I could not send them Kathy’s manuscript since it did not exist yet. Then we had a long conversation about Christian publishing, agents and Tate Publishing’s mission. During our conversation, I told Stacy about the manuscript I had prepared for an agent. She wanted to see it. I admit that I was skeptical. Especially when she said I would have to pay a fee to use their marketing department or hire a professional publicist.

I was accustomed to being ignored because I wasn’t an important influential person that guaranteed book sells. Our conversation confirmed the mission statement on their website: find and market new authors. She did want to know who I was, or if I had a big following. Her interest in the content regardless of whom I was prompted me to send her the manuscript.

There was nothing to lose nor would I owe anything unless I signed a contract. If they offered one, I wanted to be prepared. My research on Tate Publishing revealed pleased and disgruntled authors. The sticking point was the fee to use the marketing department, which caused some to cry scam. I surveyed twenty of their authors, published within the last five years. The feedback regarding the production of their book was unanimously positive. The marketing department did not fare as well.

I didn’t expect to hear from Stacy again. When she sent me an email offering a contract, I was cautious. I told her about my research and that I would have to do more before investing in their marketing department. The next day, I received a phone call from Dr. Richard Tate, the founder of Tate Publishing.

Again I was skeptical. They were nice.  Too nice? Both Stacy and Dr. Tate were charming and easy to talk to. Dr. Tate told me Stacy brought my manuscript to his attention. She said, “Some manuscripts shine brighter than others and my manuscript shined.” We discussed family, grandchildren, and the state of America with its entitlement mentality. Dr. Tate was old school. He believed in working.

I signed the production portion of Tate’s contract but not the marketing agreement which included the fee. The fee would be refunded if I sold a preset number of books through bookstores. I didn’t believe his marketing department could do much to help me and requested to use a local Christian owned company that had great success producing concerts. I knew I was on shaky ground since the local company had no experience marketing a book. However, the man who ran the company knew a lot of pastors. Churches were my niche market.

I debated with Dr. Tate for two months over who could do a better job. He had confidence in his marketing department. I had confidence in the company I wanted to hire. My husband broke the impasse. Tate’s cost to produce the book was seven times greater than the fee I was expected to pay. “He has the greater investment,” said my husband, “use his company.”

When writing friends learned I had signed with Tate, the slander began. “They were thieves and liars who only wanted my money”. I wondered how people who never had dealings with Tate Publishing knew so much about them. I also wondered if I had made a mistake. Then my husband and I were invited to a wedding in Oklahoma City. Tate Publishing is located twenty minutes from the Will Rogers Airport in Oklahoma City. I RSVP the wedding and requested a tour of Tate Publishing.

The employee assigned to take us on the tour had left ill before we arrived. Dr. Tate took her place. He was as pleasant in person as he was over the phone. He walked us through the building which housed production and media explaining the function of each department. Then showed us a photo of his warehouse where books were printed and stored, which was located in another part of the city. My husband was impressed.

We walked across the street to a second building and sat in what appeared to be a board room where we talked for hours. Dr. Tate said something that touched a chord with me. I write as a service to God and his people. Regarding the marketing fee, he referenced King David who refused to offer to God that which cost him nothing. (2 Samuel 24:24).

When an employee entered to remind Dr. Tate of a commitment, he seemed reluctant to leave. He had already spent three hours with us. I ended the meeting, and left at peace about signing the contract. Several months later, I filmed one of Tate’s authors at a Guild meeting. The author was a marketer by trade. Tate had waived the marketing fee. Waiving the fee assured me that Tate Publishing was not a scam only interested in my money. Dr. Tate only wanted a guarantee the book would be marketed.

In my opinion, the slander about Tate Publishing is not justified. Redefining publishing does not make one a scam artist and thief. There is no point in producing a book if it is not marketed, but marketing is expensive. Even traditional publishers have limited their marketing efforts on behalf of authors. I asked an international best-selling author what her publisher did to market her book. She said, “They don’t do book tours anymore, too expensive. You need to develop a good mailing list.” I was stunned by her answer.

Many new authors have the old traditional publishing model in mind. After the manuscript is sold, the publisher deposits a fat advance check in your account and does all the work making the author rich.  Tate does everything the traditional publisher, with the exception of paying an advance to new authors and requiring a financial investment from the author guaranteeing the author will participate in marketing. I can’t find fault with that.

Another Agent

Passage to Purpose: #9 Another Agent

Having put publishing a book out of mind, I continued to pursue writing stories about people. On occasion, a person will repeatedly come to my attention. That is what happened with Kathy Baker who co-pastors a church with her husband. I had declined multiple invitations to her interfaith Bible study, before a friend enticed me to attend with promise of lunch and fellowship afterward.

Her teaching was rich. After the study, I inquired if I could write about her ministry. Most people I write about become little more than acquaintances. Kathy was different. I had an open day on the faith blog and asked her if she wanted to contribute videos of her teaching. She accepted. As I filmed her teaching, we became close friends.

I was picking up my camera equipment when she asked me to stay, so we could talk. She loved the story I wrote about her for NOLA and requested that I write a book. I listened intently as she told a story of rape and reuniting with the child she gave up for adoption thirty years later. The story had an unusual twist that made it compelling.

I had already decided against writing a book. The manuscript I wrote for the agent was a compilation of short stories, and I wasn’t sure I could write one. Kathy was sure I was the person to author her story. After consulting with other writers, I accepted the challenge.

I had completed an outline of her story when a friend asked if I wanted attend the writer’s conference in Alabama again. The agent at this conference had brokered a movie deal with the Hallmark Channel for one of his authors.  Kathy’s story was perfect for the Hallmark Channel. I decided to return and pitch her story to the agent.

The previous year, I had no problem obtaining ten minutes with the agent. This time the rules for obtaining time with an agent repeatedly changed making it impossible to get my name on the list. I gave up on pitching the idea and spent the morning filming authors promoting their books for NOLA’s faith blog.

After lunch, I looked at the day’s agenda. A publisher was speaking before the agent. My feet hurt from walking around the church most of the morning.  Sitting in one room for two hours would be a relief. The room was a quarter full when the host of the conference entered. The publisher had canceled due to car problems. Half the people left to seek another workshop. A friend and I stayed to chat as we waited for the agent’s workshop.

A woman stuck her head in the door and announced Cheryl had the sign-up sheet for ten minutes with the agent. There were three slots open. I didn’t know who Cheryl was, but everyone else did. The room cleared as they exited to find the guardian of the sign-up sheet. My friend and I were the only ones left in the room when the agent entered to set up his laptop for his presentation. Instead of ten minutes, I had a forty minute conversation with the agent who gave me permission to film his workshop.

The agent explained that publishers are interested in authors who already have a following, preferably a large one. The last publisher he pitched a book to said, “Who is that and why should I care?” That made me wonder why he was at one of the cheapest writing conferences in the nation listening to book ideas. Did he think someone famous with a large following would be here? I had a small following, so he consented to look at the outline of Kathy’s story. I emailed him the outline and received the standard treatment. He didn’t bother to type, “No thanks” and hit send either.

It is possible to be published without an agent. Print on Demand was also a possibility for Kathy’s book. While I was editing the film of authors promoting their books, I looked up their publishers. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I was looking for a publisher to contact when I finished Kathy’s manuscript.

One of the authors had used Tate Publishing. She had a positive experience. Tate did everything they promised and were all she could have hoped for in a publisher. Tate’s website said they were “a Christian-based, family-owned, mainline publishing organization with a mission to discover and market unknown authors.” That sounded promising, so I requested a brochure to learn more about their company.  Instead of a brochure, I received a phone call from the Director of Acquisitions. More about that in my next post.

 

Disillusioned

Passage to Purpose: #8 Disillusioned

Even though I had been told a number of times the stories I wrote about people would make a good book, I wasn’t interested in publishing. One reason was my disillusionment with Christian publishing. I had prepared a book proposal for a respected Christian agent many years earlier. He sent me a letter, which I learned later, was unusual. Standard practice is to ignore you or send a form letter. The agent complemented my writing, noted that I did a good job on the book proposal, and acknowledged the work had merit. He did not believe he could sell the manuscript in the current market and on that sole basis he rejected me as a client.

As I read the agent’s letter, a scripture came to mind. “You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matthew 6:24). Talent didn’t matter, money did. I wondered why money was the deciding factor. I understand that a business needs to make money to survive, even Christian businesses. I also understand that God promised to add what we need (money) if we seek to do his will.

As I talked to published writers, I learned that traditional publishers did little more than print on demand publishers for new authors. If I had to do everything myself, print on demand was the logical choice. The author’s  control over the finished product is greater, and the profit margins were, in my opinion, fairer. The prospect of marketing and selling my own book was distasteful. Ultimately, my research brought me to the conclusion that publishing was not for me.

A friend and I decided to attend a writer’s conference at a church in Alabama. The fee was affordable, and I felt a workshop about writing personal stories would be beneficial. The conference also offered ten minutes to pitch book ideas to agents from a literary agency. My friend planned to pitch a fiction book she had already written. She suggested I pitch the articles I had been writing for NOLA as a book to the nonfiction agent. I wasn’t interested because I had to miss the workshop on writing personal stories to meet with the agent. She persisted. I resisted. She insisted. I wrote a one page query letter to give the agent for one reason: to get my pesky friend off my back.

I met the agent in a Sunday School room. I handed the agent my query letter and launched into my sales pitch. The agent glanced at the query letter, covered the letter with his hands and smiled broadly. As I rambled incoherently trying to sell the idea, I wondered why he was smiling. When I stopped talking to breathe, he said, “I’m interested.” I was dumfounded without a clue what I should say next. His request to see a manuscript forced me to write one.

I spent months collecting signed permission forms authorizing me to use the stories I’d written in a book. Then many hours were devoted to compiling the stories into a manuscript format acceptable to the agent. I sent the manuscript November 1. He said he would get back to me before Christmas. He didn’t. I sent a few email inquiries. He did not respond. I had not sent the manuscript in cold. He asked to see it. When he lost interest, he did not bother to tell me. How difficult is it to type “No thanks” and hit send.

My second dealings with an agent reinforced my disillusionment with Christian publishing. I sent the manuscript on a shelf and prayed, “God, if you want this manuscript published, give me a publisher.” I promptly forgot about publishing, but publishing did not forget about me. More about that in my next post.