Stephen and Jonya Davis ~ Celebrating 25 years ~

Story by Greg Sykes

A twenty-fifth wedding anniversary is so rare it’s called a “silver” anniversary. A twenty-fifth anniversary at a job is equally rare, often rewarded with a special vacation or a gold watch.

But 25 years as the pastor of the same church? In this day and age of mobility among pastors and impatience among churches, such an anniversary is a rare commodity indeed. Yet First Baptist Church of Russellville was able to celebrate 25 years with its pastor, Dr. Stephen Davis, on June 14th, 2009, in a special surprise worship service.

Davis and his wife Jonya first came to Russellville in June of 1984, after three brief pastorates in Sparkman and Fordyce, Ark., and Guthrie, Okla. The rest, as they say, is history.

In the 25 years since their arrival at First Baptist, the church has nearly tripled in size, baptized over 1500 individuals, and raised over $8.7 million for missions work both in the United States and internationally. And the congregation is yet again making preparations for future expansion, with plans being discussed for an expanded preschool area and a new worship facility.

During the special service recognizing this milestone for the Davis’, a compelling portrait emerged of two special individuals who have never deviated from love for each other, their family, their church, and the community of Russellville.

Russ Barksdale, the pastor at Rush Creek Church in Arlington, Texas, put it this way during the service: “Life presents big challenges for us all but for 25 years Stephen and Jonya Davis have been coming alongside others, setting the example, and helping others achieve a preferred future.”

It seems that Davis has always been about coaching others to experience a deeper, fuller walk with God than that to which they were accustomed.

“When he gets in that mode, his eyes narrow, his spine stiffens, his voice lowers, and he’s got that coaching hat on,” Barksdale added. The congregation at FBC has become accustomed to that look in the pulpit, as well.

But Davis’ coaching always came with a huge measure of humility, at least according to Bill Elliff, pastor of Summit Church in Little Rock.

“He has always been humble and teachable before the God of the universe. He understands his need for Christ,” Elliff said. Elliff went on to add that Davis’ life was characterized by brokenness, meekness and prayer, all elements that helped make him successful as the pastor at FBC Russellville.

Davis’ oldest son, John-Paul, added to this picture of humility.

“I’ve never met a person was more sure of what you were doing wrong and yet less sure of what he was doing right than my father,” John-Paul said. “But Dad is the first to admit when he is wrong, and he was never afraid to ask you to forgive him.”

Dale James, an FBC member and the chairman of the committee charged with organizing the special recognition, said, “Having the same pastor for 25 years has, in my opinion, contributed greatly to the growth and ministry of FBC. The stability in leadership has allowed the church to have a single continuous focus for this entire period, with priority placed on ministering to area families and spreading the gospel to our community and around the world.”

Of course, some of the special praise was reserved for the pastor’s wife, as well.

“Jonya truly has a heart for ministering to the women of our church,” James added. “She plans and organizes women’s events with the ultimate goal of sharing the love of Christ to all and ministering to the needs of our ladies by providing inspirational speakers and activities.”

When asked to put the special day in perspective, Davis called it “a blessed experience.” He felt indebted to “be a part of a church family that was willing to believe and support a vision to be an Acts 1:8 church, on mission with God.”

And he felt it was a special privilege to serve in one place for 25 years so that he could be a part of an individual’s physical birth, spiritual birth, spiritual growth and establishment of their new family.

Obviously, over 25 years, Davis has learned many valuable ministry lessons. For church leadership, he’d encourage pastors to “stay in God’s Word to get God’s insight, wisdom and methods to build and grow a church that pleases, honors, and obeys Him.”

When asked about practical life lessons he has learned, he said, “Keep your conscience clear, always chose humility, stay away from anger and defensiveness, and try not to take things personally.”

He added, “Be honest with yourself and with others in a loving manner, and be courageous when there is opposition to God’s truths and practices.”

Davis is a native of Oklahoma, having been born in Muskogee and growing up in Midwest City. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism before working in the television and marketing industries in Oklahoma and California.

But, at the age of 28, Davis accepted Christ as his Savior and, soon after, attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. While there, he met Jonya, who is the oldest daughter of Dr. John B. Wright, former pastor of First Baptist Church of Little Rock, Arkansas. They were married in March of 1975, one year before he completed his Master of Divinity Degree.

It was after completing seminary that he served briefly in Sparkman, Fordyce, and Guthrie. Since coming to Russellville, Davis has completed his Doctor of Ministry Degree from Trinity Theological Seminary in Newburg, Ind., in 1990. He also served on

the Board of Trustees of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1993-2003. He is a former trustee of both Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, and Golden Gate Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif.

The Davis’ are the parents of three children, a daughter – Stephanie, married to Marty Collier, a minister in Arlington, Texas – and two sons, John-Paul (married to Breanne Riley of Russellville) and Caleb. The Davis’ have four grandchildren, Anna- Katherine, Cole, Davis and Riley.

The anniversary event was a complete surprise to the Davis’, with special guests and family entering the service at a pre- arranged moment. Three special speakers, Barksdale, Elliff, and Gary Smith, the pastor at Fielder Road Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, handled the service. Those three pastors are friends and accountability partners with Davis. And the Davis’ were presented with a special love offering and other gifts in recognition of their years of ministry, with a reception held after the service.

The church also compiled albums of handwritten “memories” from the congregation, as well as videos and letters regarding the occasion from such dignitaries as Rex Horne, President of Ouachita Baptist University, Emil Turner, Executive Direction of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, Jerry Rankin, President of the International Mission Board, Johnny Hunt, President of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Sharon Trusty, Arkansas State Senator.  

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