Here to serve the church: A conversation with Susie Rowan
Bible Study Fellowship, a global, in-depth Bible study program, hosts classes around the world each year in-person in 40 countries, and online in 30 more countries. Made to Flourish president Tom Nelson recently sat down with the executive director of BSF, Susie Rowan, to talk about the mission of both organizations and how integral the local church is to both Made to Flourish and BSF’s hope for discipleship and ministry around the globe. More information about BSF is available at bsfinternational.org.
TN: Susie, tell us a little bit about your story. Help us to see back into your life and how you got to where you are today.
SR: Well, I am a Kansas City native, though I haven’t lived in Kansas City a lot the last 20 years. I grew up in Kansas City, raised by a family with Christian foundations, but not born-again parents — there was no Bible or prayer in my home. I did have grandparents who were Christians, so I had a Christian influence. I went to church as a child occasionally with my grandparents and then, around my early teen years, mother thought I needed church, so we started going. But it wasn’t really a Christian upbringing.
I am a Kansas Jayhawk. I loved being at the University of Kansas, and earned a couple of degrees, and then went on to law school at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, and through all of that I was living a secular life. I met my husband in the middle of law school, during my freshman year and we started dating a year later. We got married, and on our second wedding anniversary, we talked about God, so that should tell you how secular we were. We were actually attending church, but we weren’t believers. We didn’t understand the gospel. We didn’t understand what Christ had done for us through the cross. We believed in Jesus, we just didn’t — at least I didn’t — understand what it meant that Jesus died for my sins. I didn’t get that until I became convicted of the sin in my own life, and somebody invited us to their church and we heard the gospel. I actually came to faith as the gospel was being preached at a local church during a Sunday morning service.
TN: How did you get involved with Bible Study Fellowship, and how has your involvement led to your present leadership role as the CEO?
SR: We were involved in and stayed at the church where we became Christians. My husband came to faith not too long after me, and someone invited me to Bible Study Fellowship. She was a pledge sister of mine from college. I said I didn’t have time and I was too busy with all these community things I was doing, raising two young children and all of that. And just two days later I was with a friend from a different part of the country and she was telling me about this Bible study she was going to start, and I said, “I think that’s the same thing I was invited to, but I don’t have time.” My friend just said to me, very frankly, “Susie, you’ve heard about this Bible study two times in the last three or four days in two different parts of the country and I think God wants to do a work in your life.” And that startled me. I didn’t know what that meant — God wants to do a work in my life. So, curious, I went, and I felt like I had come home when I started studying the Bible.
TN: So how did you become the leader of BSF?
SR: I would love to hear God’s side of that story. You know, you never really know how these things do happen, but he understands. I was a volunteer leader of a local class, and after serving for about eight or 10 years, my husband and I began to pray for people that BSF had planted overseas to start classes. After being involved in a prayer group, all of a sudden, we felt God tugging on our hearts. Before we knew it, we were off to São Paulo, Brazil, with two teenage children and started BSF classes in São Paulo. My husband, Roger, started the first men’s class in all of Latin America, or at least South America, and then shortly after that, I started an evening women’s class. We were there six years. We had a great time doing the work of the Lord and having a family adventure at the same time in a different culture. It was a great thing for our family and our kids.
Our children came back to the United States for college and then we moved back after six years in Brazil. We came back to Kansas City, went back to working, and taught BSF classes. I taught the evening women’s class at Immanuel Baptist Church in Overland Park, and my husband taught a men’s class in the Lee’s Summit area. We did that for five or six years and then God seemed to knock on the door of our hearts again, really knocking on my husband’s heart, and I was kind of settled in in Kansas City, not really thinking we needed to go anywhere. But God made his will known to me as well, and through a little bit of a struggle, I surrendered again, and my husband said, “I’m glad you are finally ready to go again,” and we moved to Vishakhapatnam, India.
We started Bible Study Fellowship classes there and taught them for a couple of years, and then, out of the blue, I got a phone call from a member of the board of directors of Bible Study Fellowship, saying, “Susie, did you know that the current executive director of Bible Study Fellowship is retiring?” I said “No, I did not know that,” and he said, “Well, I am part of the search committee and we would like you to be part of a process as we look for a new executive director.” So that’s when it all started and a year later I was moving to San Antonio, Texas, where our headquarters is.
We conducted a research project on that and we found that 80% of our current class members actually serve in some capacity in their church. Then, we discovered that 40% of our current class members actually hold a leadership or teaching position in their local church.
TN: So tell us a little bit about BSF, its mission, and its global reach — what it’s about and its influence around the world?
SR: We are an in-depth Bible study. We make no apologies for those words, “in-depth.” That’s really who we are. We are about helping people go deeper into Scripture, with the goal of developing a deeper relationship with God. So we are in-depth Bible classes on a global scale with a global commitment to Christ, his Word, and his church. That’s our mission. And then our vision, in the context of those classes, for every person, is to magnify God and to mature his people. The people who come to BSF are predominantly churched, and 90% of our people regularly attend a local church, so we are seen as a discipleship ministry.
TN: So how long has BSF existed?
SR: Almost 60 years. We had an amazing founder with an amazing passion for Jesus. She was a missionary to China with the China Inland Mission and was forced out of China after the Communist takeover. She came back, and five women asked her to teach them the Bible in their church, and so she started with five women and now we have over 400,000 men, women, and children.
TN: How would you like pastors to understand BSF, and how can they work better with you?
SR: That’s a good question. First of all, I’m so thankful for the fact that 1,200-1,300 pastors host a BSF class in their church. We are grateful, because almost all our classes are in local churches. With those pastors, they tend to understand us better, but in terms of many pastors, I think sometimes they think BSF is taking people away from the church — the time people spend in a Bible Study Fellowship class or in leadership in Bible Study Fellowship takes them away from the time they could be contributing to the church. We conducted a research project on that and we found that 80% of our current class members actually serve in some capacity in their church. Then, we discovered that 40% of our current class members actually hold a leadership or teaching position in their local church. We also saw that the longer a person studies the Bible in BSF, the more involved in their church they become. So that’s what our data shows us. That is what I’d like pastors to know: We are committed to the local church and are training people for service in the local church.
I came to faith through the church. I am for the church. After all, Christ died for the church. He loved her so much that he gave his life for her, so who are we? Sometimes I talk to teaching leaders — sometimes people can gravitate toward a parachurch organization because they have been hurt by the local church. So I really talk to teaching leaders. If they’ve got a problem about the local church, they need to clear that up in their heart, because we are here to serve the local church and they are to be involved in serving. I wouldn’t be doing the work of the Lord if I was not building up his church.
TN: What would you say to someone who is a pastor or Christian leader about joining Made to Flourish? What is the value?
SR: For the same reason that I am interested in what you are doing, and that is because we all have audiences, right? I’ve got this BSF audience and every one of those pastors has an audience. You know, this Sunday to Monday thing, this sacred secular divide conversation, pastors need to be speaking into that. I wrote a little book on cultural engagement from a gospel-centered way not because I had new ideas, but because I have an audience I can pass on others’ good ideas to. Every pastor has that as well. These are important biblical concepts that sometimes have not been at the forefront of our minds in the past. They need to be. That is why I think pastors should be involved.
Topics: Culture, Discipleship