Robert L. Owens has been serving in ministry in the Covenant for the past forty-four years as a pastor and most recently as the superintendent of the Southeast Conference. He retired in August.
Tell us a little about your call to ministry.
In 1982 I was working as a vice-president of development for a construction company. I was also a bivocational minister in one of the first two African American churches in the Covenant, Grace Covenant Church in Compton, California. One day I was on the way to a job site on the 91 Freeway in my Jeep and the Lord said to me, “You’ve been playing with this a long time. It is time to make a decision.” I started bawling like a baby. I had to pull over to collect myself. Through the mentorship of Pastor Robert L. Dawson, I began to pursue vocational ministry.
In 1993 after I graduated from North Park Theological Seminary, I went to Atlanta, Georgia, to plant New Life Covenant Church. At the time there were other black churches in the Covenant that were adoptions or transitional churches—churches that became black when white flight took place. However, New Life Covenant was the first African American church plant in the Covenant. New Life is a multicultural church in an urban context where Catherine Gilliard, the new Southeast Conference superintendent has been serving. Ironically, the church, which is in a severely under-resourced, under-served area of Atlanta, is located in the shadow of the $1.6 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home of the Atlanta Falcons.
What changes have you seen in church planting in the Covenant since you planted New Life?
The Covenant has seen tremendous growth in the ethnic diversity of church planting. We are being very intentional about adopting and planting new ethnic churches and planting sustainable ethnic churches. We aren’t there yet, but we have made significant progress.
What was your biggest learning curve in your role as superintendent?
I had to learn to say no. A lot of people want your time in this job.
I had to figure out how to create balance in my life. I haven’t gotten there yet, but I’m learning.
What do you do to create that balance?
I like to read. I like to pull away and write. I enjoy driving through the back woods of Georgia and listening to jazz. For old-school jazz I love Miles Davis and for smooth jazz, Peter White and David Cobbs.
What are your plans for retirement?
Don’t you print that I’m retiring—I am repurposing my life! I will still be engaging the Covenant, specifically addressing the mosaic through church planting. I am going to do work with the young men in my neighborhood through my nonprofit ministry, River of Life. These young men need training, skills,
and most of all, hope. It is a unique program devoted to helping youth and adults in underprivileged communities to be self-sufficient. We want to reclaim those in the margins, reinvest in their lives,
and restore them for sustainability.
What’s the first book you will read after you leave this role?
I’m reading it already! Why Men Don’t Go to Church, written by my friend William Harris, an Atlanta theologian. I am also reading Trevor Noah’s book Born a Crime and T.D. Jakes’s Soar. I also like comic books.
What advice you would give young ministers at the beginning of their career?
Lay a good foundation! The race is not given to the swift but to those who endure to the end (Ecclesiastes 9:11).