Cottonwood Heights community leader moving on after 35 years of service
Jun 18, 2019 01:49PM
● By Josh Wood
Pastor Mike Gray in the church he has led for over 35 years. (Joshua Wood/City Journals)
By Joshua Wood | [email protected]
On Sept. 1, Cottonwood Heights will see something it hasn’t seen in over 35 years. There will be a new senior pastor at Canyons Church for the first time since Ronald Reagan was president when Pastor Mike Gray officially retires at the end of August.
Pastor Mike leads a Southern Baptist congregation of over 700 in the large church on Fort Union Boulevard and has worked with countless more during his long tenure. People travel from as far afield as Tooele and Park City to attend Pastor Mike’s services at Canyons Church.
“I’m not retiring from ministering; I am retiring from here,” Pastor Mike said. “I want to do transitional pastoring.” This new work will take Pastor Mike to new locations throughout the country, after calling Utah home for so long. “We were a part of Cottonwood Heights before it was Cottonwood Heights,” he said.
Born and raised in New Mexico, Pastor Mike also lived in Texas, California and Colorado before settling in Utah. After studying at the University of New Mexico and earning a graduate degree in El Paso, he worked for a time with churches in New Mexico before making the move to Utah.
With so many Southern Baptist churches in Texas and the Southeast, the idea of coming to Utah took some getting used to, but now Pastor Mike calls Cottonwood Heights home. “We love Utah,” he said. He has been an active member of the community as a pastor, baseball and basketball coach, and numerous community projects.
Canyons Church itself is 52 years old and used to meet in the basement of a Cottonwood Heights area bank. The large building the church now occupies was constructed in the 1990s.
“When you think about that longevity, 35 out of 52 years,” Pastor Mike’s successor, Pastor Jason DeFoor, said. “That’s amazing.” DeFoor has spent the past year working with Pastor Mike and was voted as the church’s next senior pastor by its congregation earlier this year.
Pastor Mike and his wife Dixie have four children and will welcome their 12th grandchild in the coming months. He gives Dixie a lot of credit for his accomplishments in the community. “The church really called her,” Pastor Mike said. “I just came along for the ride.”
“Pastor Mike is a visionary,” DeFoor said, gesturing to the building around them. When Canyons Church built its large facility on Fort Union Boulevard, it also helped construct a facility in Bangalore, India, for congregants there as part of an initiative called Two Buildings, One Foundation. The Cottonwood Heights facility hosts a number of activities and groups in addition to Sunday services, and Pastor Mike beams when talking about it. “This is one of the finest facilities in all of Utah,” he said.
According to Pastor Mike and DeFoor, pastors typically serve in one place for around three years before moving to another position. As to why he has stayed so long in his current position, Pastor Mike said, “I’m persistent. I got a job my seventh grade year washing cars in New Mexico. I worked there almost until I graduated from high school. I make the best of wherever I am. I’m just a guy who doesn’t quit.”
Pastor Mike first worked as a pastor in Portales, New Mexico, near the Texas border, on the fringes of the Bible Belt. “If you want to get somewhere, you go there. Coming to Utah was removing ourselves from that, but it’s been great. It’s given me lots of opportunities.” He has held leadership positions in the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention and was instrumental in Utah hosting the national meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1998.
Pastor Mike said he has worked to distance his church and congregation from negative portrayals of Baptists like those protesting military funerals or General Conference sessions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “We had to separate ourselves and show people that we are not them.”
Pastor Mike decided it was time to leave the church he has led for all these years for a few reasons. He wants to help other churches transition from one pastor to the next by serving as a transition pastor. That work will take him to locations anywhere in the United States. The short term positions will be a far cry from his time in Cottonwood Heights, but he is excited about the work ahead. He said he wanted to still feel young enough to do that work.
As far as the timing of his departure, Pastor Mike cited one major reason he feels he can now leave the church, congregation and community he has known for so long. “I think the answer is Jason,” he said. “I can leave the church in good hands.”
Pastor Mike will lead his final service at Canyons Church on Sunday, August 25 at 11 a.m. There will be a reception to honor Pastor Mike and his wife Dixie at the Canyons Church facility on Saturday, August 24 from 2 to 4 p.m. The event is open to the community.
DeFoor takes over as senior pastor of Canyons Church on Sept. 1. He recognizes the shoes he has to fill and expressed his gratitude for the transition time he has spent with Pastor Mike.
“The word I would use to describe Pastor Mike is just faithful,” DeFoor said, comparing Pastor Mike to a redwood or sequoia who has faced many challenges and stood strong. “They stand so tall and have been there so long. They go through the storms and don’t run and hide. I think he’s a great example to hold up today.”