THE NEIL GILLILAND STORY
A challenge to let God’s call lead you where He can use you.
By Neil Gilliland
In 1965 as a 13-year-old boy at Porter FWB Church in Slocum Station, Ohio, the Lord spoke to me very clearly about serving cross-culturally. I was not even sure what that meant at the time. But, that abiding conviction never left me. I knew that God had a plan for my life. It happened one night at church when we had a guest missionary. We had them often, and I loved it when missionaries came. I was mesmerized by their slide programs, and sometimes they brought intriguing artifacts from around the world. I would always rush home and grab the correct volume of the World Book Encyclopedia and read about the country we just learned about.
During my high school years, I developed an interest in physical therapy. I even got a part-time job working it the PT unit of our local hospital. I loved every minute of that job. But how was I going to marry my love for PT and the call I knew God had on my life? I had read the exciting and fascinating stories of Dr. and Mrs. Miley at the mission hospital in the Ivory Coast. That was it! I could be a physical therapist and work with Dr. Miley in Africa. I enrolled at Ohio State University and started the journey. I found a local church and was extremely active in its ministry. After two years, I was not admitted to the PT program. I thought I had disappointed God. Little did I know, He had a different plan. Since physical therapy was out, on a whim I majored in psychology.
After graduating from Ohio State University, that missionary conviction became even stronger. To many of those around me it did not make sense, but I knew it was what the Father wanted. So, I left my job and headed to Nashville and FWBBC to study Bible and missions. Under the tutelage of Dan Cronk, I sensed the call to missions even stronger. I met my wife at FWBBC and after two years of study, we married and left to minister at the FWB Home for Children in the mountains of East Tennessee.
In our second year as winter blew across the snowcapped mountains just behind our East Tennessee home, our lives were about to change forever. We had finished our studies in preparation for missionary service, married, and moved to East Tennessee. Sheila had been accepted into a nursing program, which was another step in us reaching our goal of missionary service. She had finished her program and we were now in our second year of marriage and our second year of being house parents of eight children ages 3-18 at the orphanage where we worked. We were settling in and enjoying the ministry the Father had given us.
The Tennessee FWB State Meeting convened that year in the town nearest the orphanage. We made supper early one night, loaded up our “family” in the van, and headed to town for the evening service. I don’t remember who spoke or sang. All I remember is a conversation I had after the service. The director of our international mission’s department pulled me aside and said, “Neil, the biggest need we have right now on our fields is for someone to be dorm parents at the Ivory Coast Academy in West Africa. You and Sheila have been house parents and have the academic preparation for missionary service. You are the most qualified couple we have as possible candidates, and we would like for you to pray about filling this need.” When we got home, I told Sheila about my conversation and we prayed…but it was not a long prayer. We felt like we had answered that call months before, and now the Lord had provided an answer. Little did I know that the prayer we prayed that night would change my life forever.
At that time I knew only a handful of MKs, but not well. I found them interesting and curious, but had not given much thought to their uniqueness. In all honesty, I never gave any thought to what advantages or disadvantages they might have as MKs. My simple thought was they were among the tribe of people who had a different background than mine. Okay…so what?
The next year we traveled about the US speaking in churches and raising support for this grand adventure on which we were about to embark. I would generally speak in vague terms about our ministry. I could only see myself as part of the team reaching the African continent for Christ. Oh, for sure we were a part of the team. But as I would later discover, it was more than that…it was to be a ministry among a group of MKs…all of whom had names. It wasn’t because I didn’t care, but it was simply a matter of ignorance. As I traveled, I began to speak to every missionary I could and asked questions about their children. I talked to parents whose kids had gone to boarding school and those who didn’t.
We went to language school in the magnificent French Alps. Our classmates had children…MKs…most of whom were new to the world of MKness. I tried to be observant as to how these new MKs experienced the new culture in which they found themselves. I noticed how they seemed to be far more at ease with this new culture than we as adults were. I made a mental note to myself.
After nine months of rigorous language study, the day finally came when we stepped out of the airplane and took our first deep breath of the hot, muggy African air. I can still feel the emotions as I walked across the searing tarmac into the airport terminal with the cacophony of new sounds and smells. My heart raced with excitement and, to be honest, fear. I still wasn’t sure what this adventure held for my relatively new bride and me. However, I was sure of our calling and that God had orchestrated the events of our lives to bring us to this place. Perhaps that is the first major lesson I learned about dorm parenting. It is a calling. As with any calling, the Father uniquely equips people to serve in the place and ministry to which He has called us. God divinely appointed us. Not to be church planters, literature experts, evangelists, doctors, or anything else. We were called to be dorm parents.
Sheila’s health did not hold up in the tropics and much to my chagrin, we returned to the US. I was hired by FWBBC to serve as their first Director of Recruitment. I connected well with students at that time and often found myself in the role of a counselor. I returned to school and completed a Masters and Ph.D. with the intent of serving MKs and their families with no idea of what that would look like. As I was completing my clinicals in 2001, I was approached by then General Director, James Forlines, about joining the IM staff as the Director of Member Care. In August of 2001, I joined the home team. I have done my best to serve our missionaries, staff, and denomination the best I knew how. Since the initial role of Member Care, I have added the roles of Mobilization and Candidate Shepherd. It has been a humbling honor to serve.
So, 57 years ago as a young boy in Slocum Station, Ohio, to Columbus, Ohio, to Nashville, Tennessee, to France, to Cote d’Ivoire and back to Nashville, my life has focused on the Great Commission and those who tirelessly labor to fulfill it. Regardless of where the rest of my life takes me, that great command has always been and will always be my focus.