The Rev. Michael S. Lewis, who has spent his career as a minster in pulpits from Texas to Florida, always had a heart for working in the mission field.
So when he was offered the chance to lead an effort to help strengthen and save struggling Southern Baptist churches across North America, he felt God's calling to accept.
Lewis, pastor of Plant City's First Baptist for nearly four years, is resigning to take a newly-created position in the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board. With almost 900 Southern Baptist churches closing their doors each year, Lewis said he has a sense of urgency to help reverse the trend.
His last day in the Plant City pulpit is Feb. 3.
Lewis said he will miss Plant City but feels the calling of God to become the mission board's executive director of Church Revitalization and Pastoral Relations.
He announced his departure in a video to his congregation.
"I deeply love my church family. This is the most difficult decision I could ever make. I struggled in my heart," he said.
The 44-year-old pastor said in an interview that he was "very grateful for our time in Plant City. It's hard to leave. It would take the call of God for us to leave."
He said the new position was appealing because it helps him fulfill the biblical admonition for Christians to serve as missionaries to spread the word of God. He said North America will be his mission field as he strives to strengthen the 16-million member denomination.
In his new role, he'll essentially become a "pastor to pastors," providing them with encouragement and support in their ministries, marriages and other aspects of the lives. About 300 to 500 of the denomination's 46,000 pastors leave the ministry month, he said.
"Being a pastor is the loneliest job in the world. I will be there to support them," he said. "My role is revitalizing. Healthy pastors lead healthy churches."
Myrle Henry, a longtime deacon, said he's sorry to see Lewis goes but excited for him, too.
"I know he's a praying man and that he's prayed it through and he feels God's calling," Henry said. "It will be our loss. God has somebody in mind to replace him."
Lewis has always encouraged First Baptist members to serve as missionaries, from full time to a few days, so it's not surprising that he is accepting a mission-based opportunity, Henry said.
A committee will be formed to find a new pastor for the Plant City church, which has 3,700 members on its rolls. In the interim, the Rev. Jim Henry, retired First Baptist Church of Orlando pastor and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, is expected to serve as pastor.
Lewis said North American Mission Board president Kevin Ezell called him about a month ago and asked if he'd be interested in the position. Ezell was quoted in a mission board news article as saying, "Michael has a heart for seeing people led to Christ and a heart for pastors. I'm excited about his leadership in this area."
The Southern Baptist Convention is the second largest denomination in the United States, behind only the Catholic church.
Lewis will live in the Atlanta area, where the mission board is headquartered. But his territory includes all the United States and Canada, where he will help start new churches and keep struggling ones from closing their doors.
Lewis took the pulpit at First Baptist in March 2009, following the retirement of longtime pastor, the Rev. Ron Churchill. The church has grown under his leadership and is debt-free.
"The church is healthy and vibrant. God has been so good," he said.
Lewis and his wife of 21 years, Liliana, a former professional ballerina, have four daughters, 19-year-old Charity, a student at King's College in New York City; 18-year-old Faith, who recently became a missionary in Southern Asia; 15-year-old Hope, who is homeschooled; and 17-year-old Joy, a Plant City High student for whom they are parental guardians.
A native of Savannah, Ga., Lewis was senior pastor of Great Hills Baptist Church in Austin, Texas before he moved to Plant City. He has an honorary doctor of divinity degree from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, Va., and a master of divinity from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., among other degrees.