When Pastor Bill Hatfield met businessman Ted Robertson at the YMCA in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, the pastor never dreamed what a profound impact this relationship would make on his ministry.
Six years later, Hatfield is one of several ministers and missionaries who regularly attend weekly luncheons of the International Fellowship of Christian Businessmen (IFCB). Not only have the meetings enabled him to find mentors who have survived serious life losses, exchanges with the 60 or so men who attend each week have expanded the Baptist pastor's ministry.
He credits this personal growth to that lunch invitation from the chapter president. Still going strong at 83, Robertson is a humble man who started a tire shop that generated $47,000 its first year, but today spans a dozen stores and more than $23 million in annual revenues.
"When you meet Ted, you feel like you're meeting someone from back home," Hatfield says. "He's got that bigger-than-life Oklahoma-baritone-honey drawl to accompany a big smile that makes you instinctively trust him and relax your guard. Together with the anointing he has, he can effectively share Christ, as people warm up to him quickly."
Soon after coming to Christ in the late 1960s, the ebullient founder of Robertson Tire devoted considerable time to sharing his faith in the marketplace. This habit has crossed denominational boundaries, led to a countless number of conversions, spurred greater missions involvement by those around him and set a strong example for younger generations.
"He's shown me and my brother [Chad] and other people who work here what it means to keep your integrity and faith as part of your business," says grandson Shane Robertson, the company's corporate development director.
"It's nothing pushy or outlandish—we don't go around with crosses on our trucks—but we have learned from him. Part of his legacy is keeping our faith, what we believe in and how we treat our customers and employees."
That steady witness is what impresses Don Hail, an insurance broker. He especially recalls Robertson's demeanor during the years Ted's first wife, Anna Kate, struggled with the cancer that claimed her life in 1992.
"I would go by his place of business, and there were people who would have issues to discuss that were so important to them," Hail says. "Ted would take time to minister to them. He had the weight of the world on his shoulders, but you wouldn't know it from watching him."
Freed From the Past
It took a crisis to turn Robertson towards God. Although raised in an Assemblies of God (AG) church, a railroad accident claimed his father's life when he was just a teen. A well-meaning church member suggested the tragedy could have been God's way of keeping him faithful until their reunion in heaven. The remark instantly turned him away from church.
"At 16, I couldn't imagine God taking your dad away from you," Robertson recalls. "I quit church and caused all kinds of problems for my mother, who was on the verge of a nervous breakdown."
Fast-forward two decades. Robertson was a Naval veteran who met the love of his life after returning home. To impress the Christian woman who later became his wife, he spoke often of his AG preacher-brother and his now-late father, who was a lay minister.
However, after launching his business, Robertson stayed out late wining and dining corporate suppliers, or devoting long hours to growing his tire business. Five years into their marriage, he and Anna separated for six weeks. Finally—weary of taking their two sons on outings and watching them bawl before he left for the night—Robertson called Anna with a critical question.
"What do you need from me to make our marriage work?" he asked.
"Go to church with me and help raise our boys in a Christian environment," she replied. Reluctantly, he agreed to go to an annual revival meeting at the church he later joined.
Although raised in a Christian home, Robertson had never made a decision to follow Jesus. The first night of the revival the country preacher discussed the consequences of sin. After squirming in discomfort, the 30-something businessman walked outside and promised if God granted him another 24 hours, he would turn over his life to Him.
At the end of the next night's sermon, the preacher left the pulpit, walked to the end of Robertson's row and motioned to him. Robertson followed, knowing he needed to overcome bitterness towards his mother and church members and his 15-year-long cigarette habit.
"When I knelt at the altar, everything went away," Robertson says. "I loved my wife and those church people. I took a pack of Viceroys and threw them in the parking lot and never smoked again. It's been a wonderful journey."
Several years later, Robertson had a providential encounter at the Tulsa Chapter of Full Gospel Business Men's Fellowship International (FGBMFI). After another member invited him to share his testimony, Robertson met Hail, who was presiding over the meeting.
Robertson's talk proved so popular it brought a wave of speaking invitations from chapters in the region and other states. He and Hail often traveled together to those meetings, forging a long-lasting friendship.
Unashamed of the Gospel
Initially, Robertson felt a bit reluctant to pray at the drop of a hat like other men in FGBMFI. Their numbers included Hail, who comments: "Sometimes after you receive the baptism in the Spirit, you have more boldness than wisdom."
However, Robertson gradually overcame his shyness to speak to others about Christ and minister through prayer or other assistance.
"He became bold in his faith and walk with the Lord," Hail says. "He conducts himself as a Christian in the marketplace. Ted enjoys a good reputation in the city of Tulsa and wherever he's been. He's not ashamed of the gospel. He doesn't flaunt it, but he carries himself and operates with integrity and generosity."
Indeed, Robertson Tire supports more than 200 charities and community organizations, such as the John 3:16 Mission, The Salvation Army, Boys & Girls Clubs of America and Cherokee Heritage Center.
Another cause dear to the founder's heart is Operation Smile. The worldwide organization performs surgery on children born with cleft palates, a malady that has touched two of his eight grandchildren.
Robertson also supports Eternal Life Clinic in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, about 40 miles south of Tulsa. A few years ago, a business associate told him of dreaming of opening a medical clinic for poor and underserved people.
When Robertson looked at a bank building the associate owned in the small town, he said, "This would make a great place for a medical center."
Going into action, Robertson helped obtain $200,000 of equipment from a hospital and arrange a partnership with a doctor from Tulsa. In the fall of 2013, the physician opened a private practice in Okmulgee, with the free clinic using the space once a week.
"We have it organized where we have a group of men at a table with literature," Robertson says. "We pray with them and explain the plan of salvation. A lot are accepting Christ. We've hooked up with an independent charismatic church that is discipling them and inviting them to church."
The clinic brings to mind another outreach Robertson helped organize in the north part of Tulsa in the late 1980s. Branching beyond the business world, the North Tulsa Chapter started in a YMCA that seated 350.
Going out in pairs, members invited people living in government-supported housing and other modest circumstances to a free barbecue dinner where speakers would share their road to salvation.
Thanks to Robertson's connections, the monthly program quickly gathered financial support that enabled them to distribute food baskets to families. Soon, an AG youth pastor offered to transport teens to his church for a program. Members' wives offered to start a nursery for dozens of infants.
"It became a wonderful ministry," Robertson says. "That was the most exciting thing I've ever done. You saw people with no hope—living in government housing and with no transportation—finding hope."
After several years, the chapter fizzled after its leader departed, directed by God to "go home and take care of your wife" as she battled cancer.
Still, Hail says without his friend, it never would have happened. They first discussed the idea on a flight to Canada. Hail told his friend the Lord had put the idea on his heart to go into an impoverished area and invite people to a dinner where they could hear testimonies.
"Ted picked up on it," Hail says. "Ted's the kind of guy that if something hits his spirit, he's all for it. He was the kingpin for it. It's been a very positive experience, just watching him."
Devoted to the Church
In addition to witnessing in the marketplace, Robertson devotes time to his Tulsa-area church, The Assembly at Broken Arrow, where he has been a member for five years. Since he began coordinating the speakers for the monthly men's breakfast, turnouts have jumped from around 30 to as many as 100.
Cody Miller, the connections pastor who oversees the men's ministry at The Assembly and previously worked at a church in Florida and at Oral Roberts University, hasn't seen many other men the caliber of Robertson who are as effective in marketplace ministry.
"Ted is a contagious guy who's led an amazing life," Miller says. "He isn't comfortable in his latter years with what has taken place to this point either. He's not only reaching those around him in his generation, he's also pouring into the next generation."
The AG pastor was referring to IFCB's Young Businessmen's Chapter, which targets business people in their 20s and 30s. Robertson offered to be the first speaker two years ago, and eight people showed up, but today about 60 attend the monthly meetings.
Thanks to Robertson, the Broken Arrow church is home to monthly Southern gospel concerts, too. In February 2004, longtime friend Peter Enns returned from a trip to Branson, Missouri, struck by the enthusiasm that gospel groups generated among predominantly older audiences.
Enns approached Robertson and talked about wanting to start a similar ministry in Tulsa. Ted quickly caught the vision and helped start the gatherings held the first Saturday of each month. In 11 years, only two concerts have been canceled and that because of bad weather.
The performers attract crowds of 800 to 1,500, and numerous newcomers to the AG church. Miller says people often write on visitor cards that after coming to the Southern gospel service, they wanted to return.
"That is another connection to our church and an incredible outreach to local residents," Miller says. "You can't calculate the impact of ministry to everyone who comes in and how it affects churches in our area."
Although loyal to the AG churches he has attended and to telling others about Christ, Robertson never felt the urge to enter full-time ministry.
"I'll hear preachers talk about a guy who had a used car lot and did well in business, and they told him he should take what he learned and put it into God's work," Robertson says. "I felt the call to go outside the church walls and minister in business. I think more pastors should encourage their members to do that."
Hatfield thinks more pastors should rub elbows with marketplace leaders, too. Through the friendships he has formed at IFCB luncheons, the Baptist pastor has prayed with men with troubled marriages, those who have lost businesses and those seeking God's direction.
"It has given me an open door into the thoughts of people in a more unguarded situation," says Hatfield, who left an affluent area to lead a church of less than 50 in central Tulsa. "People tend to come to church and try to look and sound their best. But these guys have been able to open up to me and opened a whole new venue of ministry. I get a microcosm of what's going on out there with Christian men and their struggles."
No matter their circumstances, those who attend IFCB luncheons always leave with a challenge to share their story with their barber, the gas station attendant, yard man or others they encounter.
"I'm more excited than I've ever been," says Robertson, who says the support of his second wife, Joann, has been a boon to his ministry the past 22 years. "Full Gospel Business Men got me thinking about everywhere I went, I could tell people about God. At first, I didn't know how to share a testimony. I just shared my story. It's been a great ride ever since."
Ken Walker is a freelance writer, co-author and book editor based in Huntington, West Virginia, and a longtime contributor to Ministry Today and Charisma.
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