"I was at a church that I love" -- East End Baptist Church -- "that was doing a wonderful job growing and developing. We've had a building program that's kind of all laid out -- the land, 17 and a half acres of land purchased, the plans were completed. City approvals done. The money ... in the bank. It was just a matter of starting."
Croston loved the church as his own family, cherishing his relationships among East End's nearly 1,000 members.
"It was right then, right before starting the building, that God spoke to me," Croston said. "As the deacon got up to pray on that Sunday , I felt like God told me, 'Open your eyes and say goodbye.' My plans got all interrupted. Everything changed on that day.
"A couple of months later, I'm doing something I never believed I would be doing."
Croston has worked as LifeWay's national director of Black Church Partnerships since last November. Yet, when he visited LifeWay in Nashville following God's direction, Croston saw no place there for himself.
" asked me, 'Could you see yourself in this position?' My answer was 'no.' 'Could you see yourself leaving your church?' 'No.' So, all the questions they asked me, my answer was no to all of them,' Croston said. "They even said to one another, 'He doesn't sound like he really wants to come here.' I can't say there was anything about the position. ... It wasn't about anything except that I felt God called me to do this task."
Croston helps African American churches assess their needs and determine how LifeWay can help meet those needs.
"Our job is to help churches in their ministry of making disciples. I provide training, consulting and resourcing to churches across the length and breadth of our country, African American churches," he said.
Croston holds a doctor of ministry degree from Virginia Union University in Richmond, with a concentration in Christian education in the African American church. In 2012, he was president of both the SBC-affiliated Baptist General Association of Virginia and the Virginia Baptist State Convention, which describes itself as Virginia's oldest African American Baptist organization.
Croston sees the value of the LifeWay position because of his experiences as a pastor.
"Having some people available to us as pastors who know about the cutting edge of research, who know about the trends that are happening in the church and society, who have resources and access to resources that can be made available to us is just really, really helpful," he said. "I've moved from serving the church as a local pastor to kind of serving the pastors of the churches, just in a different capacity."But, he acknowledged, leaving the pastorate is difficult.
"What I miss," he told Baptist Press, "is the relationships you have with people, because the way that people let you into their lives and the kind of experiences you have with people, I don't know that there's another way to have that in some other capacity other than being a pastor. I get plenty of preaching opportunities, plenty of teaching opportunities, plenty of work in the ministry, but that kind of intimate relationship, I don't think, could you gain with that broad a spectrum of people in any other way."
Elgia "Jay" Wells, who held the LifeWay position before his 2012 retirement, said the post brings LifeWay in greater harmony with the SBC's National African American Fellowship, which is marking its 20th anniversary this year. Wells is NAAF's executive director.
"We are extremely grateful that God has led Dr. Mark Croston to LifeWay," Wells said. "He is a gifted leader and will take the work with African American churches further than it has ever been. As NAAF we will pray for him and give him our full support and cooperation."
Croston serves as NAAF's treasurer and has been an active member of the group for 19 years.
"Our convention has made a bold initiative to be more ethnically inclusive and sensitive," Croston said. "I would see my role in this position as helping the convention to achieve those particular goals. The National African American Fellowship has been working towards these ends for some time.
"One of the things that we have consistently talked about in the fellowship meetings is encouraging and making our convention sensitive to the needs of minorities in our country and in our convention and the idea of being more inclusive," Croston said. "So we really celebrate the fact that the convention has now gone on record to say we really want to do this."
As NAAF began to voice its concerns for ethnic diversity within the SBC, Croston said, the group realized it would have to be part of the solution.
"It's easy for me to sit in my church and say look we need this stuff, but then somebody's got to step up and actually do it."
Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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