Living into Change: A Conversation with George Mason

by | Apr 29, 2022 | Feature

Living into change: A conversation with George Mason about his and Wilshire’s 33-year shared story

Shortly before his final Sunday to preach as Wilshire’s senior pastor, George Mason sat down for an interview with Mark Wingfield, who served alongside George as associate pastor for exactly half George’s 33-year tenure. The video of the interview can be found on our YouTube channel or by clicking this link. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript.

MW: George, I’ve been thinking about a beautiful homily you gave several years ago at your daughter Jillian’s wedding. I quote this homily all the time, because it was so beautiful. With both Jillian and Chris being theatrical and actors, you talked about the development of a play or a script. And what you told them at their wedding day was, the characters in a drama have to change from beginning to end. They cannot be the same or there’s no story. It’s not interesting. And I love this metaphor, which makes me ask you, how have you changed? How has your character changed from the beginning 33 years ago? Or even before that, to where you are today? How is your character different?

GM: Well, I hope my character in terms of my moral center hasn’t changed so much. But in terms of my sense of who I am, as a pastor, my theology, the way I lead, in some ways, I think, has changed. For instance, in the early years of my pastorate here, I was much more hands-on, much more involved in the day-to-day management of the church’s life and staff. And shortly before you came, but definitely during the tenure that you had here, I stepped back from that role. And we sort of had a little more of a relationship where I was a big picture leader, in a sense more involved in the community in representing the church more broadly. And you more in the day-to-day management of the church’s life.

Interestingly, over the course of our relationship that began to change as you became more publicly involved, but that’s also part of the changes that happen in our lives. And we had a conversation back during the Ebola crisis about this, in fact, where I said to you something like, ‘You’re doing a lot of TV interviews.’ And you said, ‘Well, George, I can change too.’ Yes, yes, you can. And that’s an interesting point. You’re not locked into a role.

Another of the ways I changed in terms of being a pastor is that there came a point after about 10 years of my pastorate where it became clear to me that I was just in a really great place. And that the arc of my ministry here — I was in my early 40s, and typically people move from one church to another — it occurred to me the likelihood that I would have to make a decision about whether to stay or go. But I decided to become another pastor of the church instead of the pastor of another church.

One of the ways I did that was to invite our church to take up this work of pastoral ministry training. So we have this residency program, and it helped me to sort of turn my attention from the arc of my own career, so to speak, thinking about where I was going next, to turning around and looking at who was coming after, and being a part of that process.

MW: Well, speaking theologically, it’s pretty well known that the church and you have both come to a new understanding of inclusion and diversity. But I suspect that’s not the only theological nuance or character change that’s happened in this plot.

GM: Right. When I look back on my pastorate, there’s a certain uneasiness I get over time when I feel like I have become assimilated into a particular group or worldview. And I have enough of a contrarian sense about me that then I start questioning — wait a minute, now is this really where I want to just be pigeonholed? And as a theologian, I always believe that if you think you can name who God is perfectly, you’ve created an idol. And therefore, you need to repent and begin to let God be God, which also means if our theology becomes stale, and fixed, then we probably need to rethink it.

And so, for me, that happened, when in the early years, as you know, I was more conservative, theologically and politically. And there were people in our church over many years who felt like things had changed, in a way, and that I had changed, and they felt somewhat maybe betrayed by that. They’re not wrong in that respect.

I actually don’t think it’s a vice, but a virtue to be open to change. And so there are a number of things I’ve changed my mind on. Among those would be that my bias moved a bit from the past to the future, from working hard to say that theology needs to focus on enduring or permanent things, and not lose the importance of what has been handed on as tradition to us. I focused more on that in my early years, to now recognizing that the very nature of God’s created world requires that we change with it, and that it’s still adapting, changing, and so must we, and that there is an unfinished sense of creation, and that the whole language of the kingdom of God, the reign of God that is coming is where our bias ought to be. That we live into something not just out of something.

So my mind changed about things like baptism, for instance. That was a big shift that happened in our church where our middle name is “Baptist,” and we only baptized believers by immersion. But it came to a point where I realized the very principle of noncoercive faith was being violated when we were then saying, we’re not going to coerce your baptism, because your faith is free, but you actually can’t be a member of our church, even if we believe you’re a follower of Jesus, and are not judging your salvation. That seemed more coercive, in a sense. And so we shifted on that.

And obviously, the biggest move was on LGBTQ inclusion. I had moved from a point of understanding that people with same-sex orientation, and who were more fluid in their gender identity, were, in a sense, not authorized biblically as being a norm, you might say, and therefore we should be cautious about that. I was not judgmental about it but also not embracing to a much more affirming position, to where I could see that the way to read the text, the Scripture, to think about our faith, has to be people-centered, has to be a recognition of the diversity of God’s creation and fully welcoming and embracing of LGBTQ folk.

MW: Well, of course there are other characters in this drama besides you and me, as important as we might be in this. And one of those characters is not a person but an entity, and that is Wilshire Baptist Church. How has the character of this church in this drama changed over the last 33 years?

GM: Well, I actually want to take you back a little further than that. Let’s go back to the fact that Jim Schutze wrote this book called The Accommodation about Dallas and its history of race. And in that book, Wilshire is mentioned and not in a favorable way. Our previous pastor, not Bruce McIver, one before that, back in the 1950s, was said to have claimed that segregation was still part of God’s will and plan and that it wouldn’t change and that this is the way we should understand things. My colleague with Faith Commons, Rabbi Nancy Kasten, mentioned this to me the other day. She did a program on The Accommodation with the Dallas Institute of Humanities. And she said, you know, it struck me that a lot has not changed in Dallas, in reading that book, except for Wilshire Baptist Church and its pastor, and the position we take on race and those sorts of things. And so I was proud, in a sense, to be able to recognize that the church has changed in all of that.

I can take you back also to the time of my predecessor when the AIDS crisis came about. And we did an awful lot for a family that came to us where there was AIDS in the family, and a child was not permitted to come to Sunday school because of fear of AIDS. We didn’t understand HIV at the time or what AIDS would be. And so the church took a cautious approach, even though to its credit, it did a great deal to provide for the physical needs and care for the family. Nonetheless, it was not socially welcoming of the child or the family. And that was something we learned a lot about in retrospect. And when Ebola struck, in 2014, the church made a different decision. We were much more welcoming and open. And we were able to model in the midst of a time of fear — of epidemic, if not pandemic of a deadly disease — what it would look like to move toward instead of away from people in a situation like that.

MW: I love those. And I’m thinking also of just the sheer socioeconomic change that’s happened in North Dallas and in this church. I was telling someone the other day that when you arrived as pastor, I believe all of the Sunday school rooms were painted cinderblock walls. Which represented the sort of middle-class status of this congregation. And that certainly is something that changed over time as well.

GM: Right? When we built, the people who built the church were part of the Builders generation. And they spared every expense in terms of luxury, because they really thought that it was fellowship, it wasn’t the church; it was the people, not the building. There has been a tremendous upgrade of the facilities, and a care for beauty and aesthetics that has grown over the years as you well know.

Now, there are a lot of other things that go with that, though. And some of it is, as you mentioned, wealth. When I came 33 years ago, in this particular place at the corner of Abrams and Ravendale one block north of Mockingbird, there was a lot of question as to whether the decline that was moving out from downtown and up Gaston Avenue and Ross Avenue was going to reach us and continue to spread in this way as people moved farther away into the suburbs. We didn’t know.

We are blessed and fortunate that what happened is things reversed. There was a lot of renewal that happened in our particular neighborhood and even down the other direction. So that was helpful. But yes, being an upper-middle-class church — and it’s humble to say that because we’re really more than that in terms of actual demographics — we have experienced a lot of growth and wealth in our families.

But with that comes often a change of behavior. So like many churches, we don’t have people who are teaching Sunday school every Sunday, like you do, right? You’re one of the very few in our church. And so everybody’s rotating, because no one wants to make long-term commitments, because they’re out of town a lot. They have lake houses, they have ranches, they have vacations, they have a lot of other things going on. Blue laws changed in the time I’ve been here. So now, things are not limited as much on Sunday, youth sports, Sunday mornings, things of that nature. So we don’t have the same attendance.

When I came, we had 100 parking spots. And we had about 1,000 people who were attending. They found a way to get here, to park on the street everywhere they could to get here. And today, we have maybe 400 spots, and we have 400 fewer who come. I often joke that I preached them down to a smaller church over the years. I think it’s a cultural reality, that is not just Wilshire specific.

But to have maintained a vital church over changes in culture — that has been something we’ve celebrated.

MW: Back to our drama, our theatrical theme. This is going to be a difficult question. Who are some of the other interesting characters in this drama over the past 33 years? And the role they played? If you had to just pick out some. It could be individuals or groups or whatever. Who else has been a character in development?

GM: Well, you. I think partly our partnership that came about about halfway through my ministry. What I knew was that I needed someone who was more task oriented and who was more detail oriented, and who could tell our story well, and you were a career journalist. And, you know, I didn’t want to bear the entire responsibility for all the writing and promotion of the church. And you really stepped into that role in a significant way.

And in some ways, Mark, I would say your tenure with us was a branding period for us. Which is to say that, here we are a church in East Dallas, an otherwise neighborhood church that has become much more regional and even national. Part of that is due to the decisions we’ve made of what kind of Baptist we are, who’s welcome here, things of that nature. But frankly, part of it is that people know about us because of access to information. And you helped that to happen. And I think that was a significant part of the growth of our church and its influence as a result of that. I know you didn’t immediately mean, OK, how about me, but I think that’s actually quite true, too.

MW: Well, thank you. I’m proud to be part of that big cast of characters. And there are some notable, colorful characters we’ve both known through the years here, not to get into naming names. But there have been a lot of colorful people through the doors here at Wilshire.

GM: Well, look, that’s the fun thing about church life generally, right? If you’re in a church like this, the church is not all defined by the pastor. This is really a Baptist church that tries to take seriously the idea that even if you’re larger, congregational decision making, congregational life, is how we do theology, how we live together. We are a local church that lives together and makes decisions together. And that means there’s going to be different personalities and it’s not just all about whatever the pastor says. Believe me, it’s not.

MW: And now as a result of that, we have some people on the pastor search committee, who you walked around the Sanctuary as babies to dedicate.

GM: Oh, I know, Mark, you’re making me feel old, but it’s absolutely true. We have a pastor search committee of people who have Wilshire DNA in them. They’ve grown up here, they’ve gone off, they’ve been educated and come back. Some of them have theological education. Three of them have been fellows for Baptist Joint Committee, so they have deep commitments to religious liberty as part of our Baptist tradition. There is a great diversity on that committee and many of them are young, you’re right.

MW: Well, now to bring our play to an end. Every good performance has an audience that’s interacting with it. And you’ve alluded to this just a moment ago. How has Wilshire’s public audience changed over time? Because this is a two-way conversation between church and community. We are not an isolated entity.

GM: I think that’s really true. Before I came, Wilshire had made the decision to put our church on WRR radio every Sunday morning in a 30-minute produced program that was essentially an edited version of the previous week’s worship. And so on Sunday mornings, that city-owned classical radio station played a 30-minute program for Wilshire. And it has been honestly that for many years, the highest-rated program on Sunday mornings, which is a joy to us that it has been well received that way.

But that was the first foray. Through the years, for almost a quarter of a century, I’ve written a monthly column of public theology for the Advocate magazine that is published in Lakewood, East Dallas and in Lake Highlands. And that’s been an access point.

But we’ve also been very involved in advocacy work and in benevolence work in the community, involved in public education, involved in interfaith activity. Temple Emanu-El, being one of our dear sister congregations — Reformed Jews and reforming Baptists in a way — and so we have friendships across religious lines and in the community.

But I think the thing I would say is people look at Wilshire and see a friend of the common good. They see a church that’s trying its best not to be polarizing, but to figure out how to work with people and to find what is good, point the finger at that, and address injustices and all that not by demonizing people, but by saying we can do better: How might we do better? What would it look like if we all came together in this way? That’s been the way we’ve tried to engage the community. And I think it’s been appreciated.

MW: Well, George, to summarize, I’m reminded of the words of the psalmist: My lines have fallen in pleasant places. And the lines of this drama have indeed been pleasant in the overall, even though there’s been trial and difficulty and anxiety, as in any good drama. Our lines have fallen in pleasant places.

GM: It’s true. It’s actually a psalm I have chosen for my final Sunday. It’s going to be read in worship that day. And yes, I agree. It has been and it is. I feel tremendously blessed to have been able to share my adult life and my vocational work with this congregation. And it has been something that’s changed me and has made me who I am. These people are not a job to me. They are a family to me, and I am really, truly grateful for the privilege.