Malcolm P. Burleigh says God has a habit of pushing him into new ministry positions, including his forthcoming role as executive director of Assemblies of God U.S. Missions, even when he is perfectly content with his old role.
While some might consider Burleigh obstinate and irascible, he says he just wants to make sure it’s God, not just people, calling him.
Assemblies of God general presbyters nominated Burleigh and five other candidates to succeed the retiring Zollie L. Smith Jr. as the new leader over seven departments. Since 2009, Burleigh has been senior director of one of those departments, Intercultural Ministries. Burleigh earlier succeeded Smith as president of the AG’s National Black Fellowship. The two men have known each other for more than 20 years.
“Malcolm is a dedicated and proven team player,” Smith says. “He has a positive attitude, a great personality, and enjoys working with people. Malcolm has a great sense of humor, and uses it to accomplish his assignments.”
Other candidates in the running for the U.S. Missions post were Wilfredo “Choco” de Jesús, pastor of New Life Covenant Church in Chicago; Rick Ross, superintendent of the AG North Carolina District; Bradley T. Trask , pastor of Brighton (Michigan) Assembly of God; Eric A. Treuil, director of Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship at the University of Louisiana; and Randy L. Valimont, pastor of Griffin (Georgia) First Assembly.
Burleigh, who turns 67 on Oct. 24, considered himself the least qualified and least known of the field. Instead of promoting himself, Burleigh merely handed a business card to people supporting his candidacy that read, “If God wants to use us, Maria and I are available, but we won’t help Him,” and said nothing. Maria is Burleigh’s wife of 46 years.
Accepting the Intercultural Ministries post 8 years ago took some convincing as well. Burleigh initially turned down Smith’s request. A year and a half later, General Superintendent George O. Wood asked Burleigh to be interviewed by the Executive Presbytery. Burleigh had no interest in leaving Living Faith Assembly of God in Tampa, Florida, where he had been senior pastor for 18 years. In an attempt to deter being pressured, Burleigh instructed Maria to only answer questions in Spanish. Burleigh didn’t count on EP Saturnino Gonzalez interpreting. The body hired Burleigh.
“God made it clear He was sending me on an assignment,” Burleigh says. “This U.S. Missions election is a continuation of the assignment.”
Burleigh has a similar story for when he left Belmont Assembly of God in Chicago for Living Faith in Tampa. Fellow Chicago AG pastor Spencer Jones repeatedly told a disinterested Burleigh about the pastoral opening in Florida.
“The third time he asked, What is God telling you about the move? I told him — and I later apologized for my rudeness — God is telling me to tell you to leave me alone,” Burleigh recounts. Burleigh then told the Lord if He wanted him to interview for the opening to have the church call him. The phone rang almost immediately, an elder on the line. Despite Burleigh’s subsequent bids to erect roadblocks, the church voted him in as pastor.
“I don’t ever want to look back and say I missed God,” says the dulcet-voiced Burleigh. He and Maria pray and fast about the ministry offers, with Maria typically receiving the identical answer first. She keeps quiet, waiting for the Lord to confirm the answer to her husband.
When Burleigh pastored in Tampa, Peninsular Florida District Superintendent Terry Rayburn tabbed him as district presbyter at large, and asked him to organize a black fellowship for the district.
“Terry saw something in me I didn’t see in myself,” Burleigh says. “He’s invested in me, and has always been supportive of me.”
That Burleigh is involved in ministry leadership is remarkable, considering his youth and early adulthood. Originally from Gary, Indiana, Burleigh lived in three foster homes beginning at age 8. He never felt as though he belonged, as foster parents always introduced him as a foster child and their biological offspring as their own. The foster families all went to church regularly, yet disciplined Burleigh brutally.
Repeated punishment with an extension cord left him with welts and a bloody neck, back, and arms. At 17, he fled for Chicago as a viable alternative to murdering his foster father.
“I had so much anger in me,” Burleigh recalls. In Chicago, Burleigh got involved in gang life, selling heroin. During an armed robbery, he got stabbed, and in a separate burglary sustained a gunshot wound.
Leaving the violent life behind, Burleigh went to work at an educational manufacturer plant. There he met Maria, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico at age 23 to look for work.
“I fell in love with this woman,” Burleigh says. “She was a total contrast from the women on the street.” They married in 1971. The couple now have three grown children and five grandchildren.
In 1975, Maria accepted Jesus as her Savior after watching The 700 Club. But Burleigh wanted nothing to do with God; he equated Christianity with physical beatings. He forbade Maria from attending church. She went anyway.
“I made her life miserable,” Burleigh says. Nevertheless, Malcolm agreed to send their children to a Christian school. In order to keep from paying higher tuition, Burleigh allowed Maria to attend church. She went to Belmont AG, then pastored by George Cope.
Burleigh made a salvation decision in 1981, at the second service he attended. Within months he started teaching 3- and 4-year-olds, learning the Bible as he went. Eventually, after teaching every other age group, he spent 7 years as senior associate pastor at the church.
The Burleighs are a multiethnic couple; he is African-American, she is Hispanic. Neither knew much of the other’s language at first. But early on in their relationship, Burleigh immersed himself in Maria’s culture, language, food, and customs, learning Spanish from radio and television programs.
While some might consider Burleigh gruff, Maria calls him a man of integrity and deep faith.
“He’s a good leader and an influencer,” Maria says. “People follow him. He’s a relational person and compassionate. He always defends the weak and has a good heart.”
Burleigh has experienced racism, but says it would be reduced — in part — if people learned other cultures.
“If we were all the same skin color, it would be the blue eyes versus the brown eyes, because sin makes us look for the difference where we can elevate ourselves over the other,” Burleigh says.
Although he has worked for U.S. Missions since 2009, Burleigh says adjusting to the executive director slot will be gradual.
“When you go into a place to establish your vision without understanding the culture, there is a collision,” Burleigh says. “It’s ignorant for an individual to go into a new position and start making changes immediately. Learn the process first, then progress will come.”
In his new role, Burleigh will nominate his replacement as Intercultural Ministries senior director, with Executive Presbytery approval. He is in no hurry, again waiting on God rather than fellow ministers to direct. There are 330 Intercultural Ministries missionaries ministering in a wide range of ethnic groups and compassion ministries.
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