Even better than expected – part 3

Note: This is the third in a series on the unexpected twists and turns of my career. If you didn’t see part 1, go back now and catch up on part one and part two.

Transitions are never easy, especially when you believe you are following a calling.

When I interviewed with CBF, then national Executive Coordinator Daniel Vestal warned me that working at a faith-based organization can cause you to lose your faith. I don’t think I lost my faith, but the economic recession of 2007-2008 certainly tested it.

As giving to churches dropped, the funding from churches to CBF fell even more precipitously. In response, the CBF leadership was forced to lay off 13 employees, several of whom I was close to. In addition to financial difficulties, CBF faced a leadership transition. Daniel Vestal was retiring, and after 10 years on staff, I felt like Daniel’s transition was the right time to test the job market. I decided my resume and experience matched up best for internal communications and media relations jobs in the non-profit or higher education sectors. I began applying for jobs in April 2012 but didn’t get many bites.

While working in the newsroom of the CBF General Assembly in Fort Worth, Texas, that summer, I received a call from an Atlanta area code. Convinced it was The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s religion writer working on a story about the Assembly, I took the call only to discover it was the administrative assistant for the vice president of communications and marketing at the Georgia Institute of Technology wanting to schedule an interview. I had applied for the director of communications and marketing position at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) but hadn’t heard anything for several months. Grateful for a call-back of any kind, I put the time and date on my mobile phone’s calendar and returned to the pressing matters at hand. After the Assembly, I did my homework on GTRI and decided it was a much larger, more respected and more profitable version of the applied engineering research center at Mercer University for which I handled the public relations as a part of my School of Engineering duties.

Lance Wallace wearing a navy blazer white shirt and orange tie with Georgia Tech Research Institute on the wall in the background.
When one of the lab directors at GTRI first met me, he sized me up and said, “Well, you’re clean cut.”

When the day came for my interview, I was on a conference call for a CBF project about an hour before my interview. That same 404-area code phone number popped up on my cell phone, and I knew I had to answer. I begged off the conference call, thinking it was the administrative assistant just confirming the details of the phone interview. I called the number back only to learn I was 15-minutes late for the actual interview.

Back when I put the appointment on the calendar through my cell phone, I was in the central time zone. When I came back east to Georgia, my cell phone automatically shifted the appointment back an hour. Frazzled and confused, I did my best to talk my way into the interview even though I was late. It took me about 10 minutes to slow my heart rate and get into the flow of the interview, but fortunately I had scripted my answers to the first few obvious interview questions. From there, we had a great back-and-forth with my natural curiosity driving my interaction with the committee. Whether or not my time zone mishap had blown it, I felt good about my performance and left the results up to God.

Returning to higher education seemed natural, but joining the staff of one of the top ranked public institutions in the country was intimidating. I was invited for in-person interviews and spent 90 minutes being grilled by a 10-person committee. Rather than frightening, I found the experience invigorating. I enjoyed the engaging questions and again let my curiosity into their processes drive my questioning.

Poster with my headhshot and blue and white gears with the heading "Welcome to GTRI Communications" Lance Wallace Director of Communications
I received a warm welcome at GTRI, including posters in the elevators.

The co-chair of the search committee, GTRI’s chief of staff at the time, Tom Horton, (may he rest in peace), addressed the elephant in the room right away, much to the dismay of the human resources representative. He wanted to know how my work for Baptists could translate into working with engineers and researchers. I deflected with humor and focused on the work I had accomplished in media relations, publications, web development projects, fundraising campaigns, and advocacy marketing. I walked away from the interview feeling I had made a connection with the members of the committee and given good answers to their questions. I was sure I would be invited back for the final round.

That invitation came during our family beach vacation less than a week after my in-person interview. They scheduled me for a full day at Georgia Tech. I met with GTRI’s director and deputy director and held up under an hour of grilling from two obviously brilliant scientists. When it was over, they took me down the hall to Tom’s office where I had a few minutes to catch my breath before heading to Institute Communications for my interviews with their leadership. Tom asked if I knew where I was in the process. I told him I thought I was a finalist and today was my “make-or-break opportunity.” He took all the pressure off when he said, “No, you are THE finalist.” He explained the committee’s scoring process and that I was the leading candidate. Reassured by Tom’s revelation, I had a good day interacting with the staff at Georgia Tech.

I spent three years in that role at GTRI and relished learning a completely different domain. I had to fight feelings of imposter syndrome that constantly reminded me I didn’t have technical training. Despite my lack of engineering savvy, I tried to keep in mind that I was hired because they thought I was competent and could help them with their communications. Another challenge was managing the staff. There were personnel issues, and I had to learn to navigate those conflicts. GTRI’s leadership wanted to centralize communications, so my staff expanded from eight to 20. Tom, who was a great boss, retired, and one of the lab directors, Jim McGarrah, was hired as chief-of-staff. A Georgia Tech and Annapolis-trained Navy engineer, Jim was a former admiral and AT&T executive who brought a world of experience to the job. His heart was in the right place, he had the highest ethical standards, and he was a person of faith. I enjoyed our one-on-one interactions. 

When GTRI’s director left and a change of leadership was on the horizon three years into my tenure, the director of media relations in the central communications office for all of Georgia Tech became available when my friend and trusted colleague, Matt Nagel, left to take a job at New York University. I wanted to be more directly involved with the Institute’s president and senior leadership, providing communications counsel and handling more complex issues.

In what had to be an incredible difficult decision by then Associate Vice President Lisa Grovenstein, I was selected for the position over an internal and much-beloved candidate. That candidate, Jason Maderer, would turn out to be one of the best and most supportive team members of my career, and he could not have handled the situation with more class and dedication to the work.

But unbeknownst to me, I was taking on what would turn out to be one of the most challenging and stressful jobs of my career.

Even better than expected – part 2

Note: This is the second in a series on the unexpected twists and turns of my career. If you didn’t see part 1, go back now and catch up at https://newsouthessays.com/2022/09/17/even-better-than-expected-part-1/.

Learning the ropes of public relations from Ben McDade reinvigorated my career. Getting home before 6 p.m. every day reinvigorated my relationship with Carla. After a year, I was able to start, tuition-free, Mercer’s Master of Business Administration program. I had a new vision for what I could achieve, and my career expectations shifted from running a newsroom to running a university relations office.

Lance sits on a church pew in a small chapel full of people looking forward. His head bowed, Lance types on a smartphone.
From clacking away on a computer keyboard in a newsroom to clicking away on a smartphone on Twitter, my career took off while at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship with the advent of social media and the introduction of a 24/7 news cycle. Here I am over-tweeting a CBF Coordinating Council meeting at First Baptist Decatur.

Two years into my tenure at Mercer, Ben left to start his own consulting business. A new AVP named Judy Lunsford was brought in to run the office. Judy was a nice person and a capable public relations professional. I had no qualms with working for Judy, and I was well into my MBA. There were elements of the job that frustrated me, but overall, I was happy. Carla and I even began planning to start a family. My dreams, which seemed ambitious at the time, were actually pretty confined: enjoy our new house, start a family, work my way up to AVP at Mercer, stay close to Carla’s parents in Sandersville, and enjoy life. That was disrupted when Ben called me one day in early summer out of the blue. He wanted to meet for breakfast and “check in.”

After “rescuing me from newspapers,” Ben had a new proposition. Among his marketing clients was a faith-based nonprofit headquartered in Atlanta called the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Founded in 1993, CBF had its national headquarters in Atlanta, and Ben had a contract with them to do marketing and public relations. CBF’s chief communications officer, David Wilkinson, was leaving, and CBF asked Ben to come aboard and lead the communications and marketing efforts. Ben explained to me that he planned to take the job and would be voted on at the Fellowship’s General Assembly in a few weeks. Among his conditions of accepting their job offer was that he be allowed to hire someone to come in and build a media relations enterprise from scratch.

“There’s only one person in the country for this job,” Ben said over coffee at the North Macon Cracker Barrell. “You have the background in Baptist life and journalism. You’re it.”

Once again Ben had taken me outside of my comfort zone. My immediate response was threefold: I didn’t want to quit on my MBA, I didn’t want to move to Atlanta, and I didn’t want to work for Baptists. The whole thing felt sketchy and unstable. Our first born, Barron, was just an infant, and being close to Carla’s family, our babysitters and support, was a primary concern. I told him I would pass on his offer and thanked him for thinking of me.

After the General Assembly, I started following CBF in the Baptist media. A controversy over a plagiarized sermon plagued the meeting that summer, and I felt even better about passing up working for Baptists. Then Ben called a second time to ask if I would join him at CBF. The answer was still an emphatic “No.”

Unbeknownst to me, Ben had a mole at Mercer. Ben enlisted Mercer Creative Director, Steve Mosley, a close colleague and confidant, to inform him the next time I had a particularly difficult or frustrating day. Inevitably such a day came. It was a Friday, and I had spent the morning rising early, driving to Atlanta, filling a seat at an event that was not the least bit related to my job, and returned to Macon after lunch with a full day’s worth of work ahead of me. Steve and I were working on a redesign of the university’s signature alumni magazine, The Mercerian, and it wasn’t going well. The first new design we submitted was rejected as “too fresh,” and we were sent back to the drawing board. It was a long, hard day. Ben later confessed to me that Steve called him on his way home that night and told him “Now is the time to give Lance a call.” I wasn’t the least bit suspicious when my cell phone rang on Monday morning. Ben reiterated his offer, and I found myself coming around to the idea.

“I’ll think about it,” was my response to Ben’s third offer.

At the time, I was also struggling with a sense of calling to ministry. As I told my pastor at the time, Dr. Jim Dant, I had done every role in a church except serve on a church staff and was wondering if I should be pursuing full-time ministry. At Mercer I was handling the public relations for the relatively young seminary, the McAfee School of Theology, and was intrigued by the possibilities of enrolling. When Ben made repeated appeals for me to join him at CBF, I believed it was the answer to my prayers, combining both my sense of calling and professional skills and experience.

When Ben was able to commit to helping me financially finish the MBA, that sealed it for me. Carla and I believed we wouldn’t have to move, and I could just commute to Atlanta. My three initial objections had been addressed. The last remaining roadblock was resigning my current job. Leaving Mercer meant telling the Vice President for Advancement, Emily Myers, the most feared and effective administrator in Mercer’s history. Other than telling me “Ben’s just hiring you to do all of his work,” she did not try to stop me from leaving. In November 2002, I went to work for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

I flourished at CBF. I immediately hit the road with Ben, traveling across the country, building relationships with reporters who covered religion, introducing them to CBF and helping them understand who we were in the crowded and confusing Baptist landscape. Those first four years, I visited more than 140 newsrooms and averaged 5-10 nights away from home each month. I juggled graduate school, a young child and marriage. It was a difficult period made more difficult by our transition to the metro Atlanta area.

After commuting the nearly two hours from Macon to CBF’s office on the north side of Atlanta four days a week, it was clear that I couldn’t sustain such a grind. We started looking for a house in the areas near CBF and found a great neighborhood in Lilburn with a house that met all of our conditions.

I found the work at CBF challenging and rewarding. After I finished my MBA, I was promoted to director of communications and marketing and for the first time in my career inherited more marketing responsibilities. Working for a faith-based non-profit satisfied my sense of calling to ministry because I was telling stories and facilitating CBF’s annual fundraising campaign for missions. The first year I was in charge of the Offering for Global Missions campaign, I cut the amount we spent producing the promotional materials by $75,000 and increased the amount raised by $75,000. Making a $150,000 difference felt good. I traveled to ministry sites for CBF’s domestic rural poverty initiative, Together for Hope, on Native American reservations in South Dakota, small towns in the Mississippi River Delta in Arkansas, and communities along the Rio Grande River Valley of Texas. I went to Southeast Asia seeing firsthand the work in northwest Thailand, Singapore, and post-tsunami recovery areas of Aceh Province in Indonesia.

The position helped me develop communications abilities beyond writing. I spoke frequently in churches and developed a network of advocates with whom I frequently met to resource them to promote CBF in their congregations. I was given the opportunity to run the media relations operation for more than 100 reporters at the historic New Baptist Covenant first meeting in Atlanta with representatives from Baptist denominations all across the country. I achieved so many career firsts while engaging my faith in my vocation. In many ways, CBF felt like the perfect fit and a place where I could work for the rest of my career.

I did not see how the seeds were being planted for the next big transition of my career.