ORLANDO, Florida — A married couple involved in training Chi Alpha Campus Ministries leaders for three decades received the Young Influencer Award Aug. 3 during the General Council Influence Conference.
Since 2018, Eli and Mary Gautreaux have served as Chi Alpha directors for South Texas Assemblies of God Ministries and New Mexico Ministry Network. For a quarter century, they have held the same role for the North Texas District.
But before that, the couple built the chapter at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, into the largest Chi Alpha group in the nation. The group kept growing because of a multiplication principle: the more leaders the couple trained, the more they left to plant student ministries, ultimately on 30 other campuses.
While a strategy of raising up leaders, teaching them, and sending them to start new Chi Alpha ministries elsewhere may seem counterproductive, it led to unprecedented growth at SHSU, where Eli and Mary served for 27 years. Eventually, 1,200 students consistently came to weekly meetings. Even more — 1,300 — actively engaged in small groups where discipleship occurred.
“We didn’t think we were the best orators or musicians,” says Gautreaux, an ordained AG minister and U.S. missionary. “Kids came because they experienced the Lord in a small group.”
The SHSU Chi Alpha became the largest student group, religious or otherwise, on the 21,900-student campus. Attendees outnumbered sorority and fraternity membership combined.
Eli and Mary met while athletes in college in Stockton, California, the statuesque Mary on the swimming team and the muscular Eli on a water polo scholarship. When Eli committed his life to Christ in 1990, he experienced a radical change in priorities. Eli, a native of Houston, relinquished his scholarship and returned to Texas to enroll at SHSU his junior year.
Around the same time Eli converted to Christianity, Mary recommitted her life to Jesus and also transferred to SHSU. The couple wed during their senior year, Eli graduated with a business degree, Mary with an elementary education diploma, which later came in handy in home schooling the couple’s two daughters.
After Gautreaux graduated, Joe B. Barnes, then pastor of Huntsville First Assembly of God, asked him to revitalize the dormant Chi Alpha group on campus. Despite his perceived lack of spiritual training, Gautreaux accepted the challenge.
In time, Eli and Mary, backed by half-a-dozen full-time staff members, modeled team team ministry designed to invest in relationships. The 200 small group leaders, who gathered weekly for training, were expected to recruit their own attendees. The soft-spoken Mary served as small groups and discipleship leader for women. She taught intern classes, conducted leadership training, and also did crisis counseling.
For years, corporate Chi Alpha gatherings took place at First Assembly in Huntsville because no building on campus could accommodate such a sizable group. In 2018, the Chi Alpha group divided into five separate worship gatherings to allow for more leadership development.
At first glance, the physically imposing, red-bearded Gautreaux may not seem like a guy who connects with so many young collegians. But he wins over many men with his strong personality, intense vision, and transparency.
“We don’t see students so much as sheep as potential shepherds,” Gautreaux says. “Christ’s plan was to entrust His followers with responsibility.”
The Gautreauxs discipled leaders who not only departed to pioneer Chi Alpha groups, but also to become pastors and missionaries throughout the U.S. and indeed the world. Nearly all interns who graduated under their leadership are now in full-time ministry. One way young people caught the vision for ministry involved taking overseas trips to two dozen nations in conjunction with Assemblies of God World Missions. More than 1,000 students went on cross-cultural outreaches.