Once in a rare time, someone of extreme insight is born, an individual with great empathy and concern for the human condition. Not just someone you could see as your best friend and neighbor, but an individual you just had to have as a friend and neighbor. Gerald Mann was just such a person.
Gerald was born to his mother Ruby Mann and father Cary Mann on December 18, 1937. Much of his childhood was spent in West Columbia, Texas. He spent his childhood years growing up on his father’s ranch with his brother Wayne Mann and his sister Mickey Mann. While on the ranch he gained a life-long respect and love for nature. He enjoyed playing football. Despite his small physique, Gerald played football for his high school varsity team as a star running back. He really longed to play college football. This dream was not to be due to a physical injury.
Easter Sunday 1958 was a massive turning point in Gerald’s life. He attended an Easter church service with his new bride Lois. The original intention was just to participate in your average Easter service. But God had other plans for Gerald. To his wonder, Gerald responded to the altar call and committed his life to Christ. A short time later, this spiritual drive was amplified when he felt the call to preach. He studied at Kilgore College, Baylor University, and the University of Corpus Christi. In pursuit of his life-long dream to help and truly minister to people, Gerald earned his Master’s Degree in Theology and his Doctorate in Philosophy from Southwestern Theological Seminary. Better than most, Gerald Mann understood that Christianity was a way of life and not an ideology. His was the practical faith of a common man.
Early Ministry Years
In the early days, Gerald served as a pastor at churches in Hereford, Texas and later in the Springbranch area of Houston, Texas. In 1973 the Mann family moved to Austin where Gerald was installed as the pastor of University Baptist Church. Gerald thrived in Austin.
In 1976 Gerald Mann was invited to offer the opening prayer for the Texas State Legislature. At the time, the legislators were acclimated to long, drawn-out, burdensome prayers from local ministers. State lawmakers were awoken by Gerald’s captivating, brief prayer for he prayed “Lord, help us to lead such lives that when we die, even the undertaker will be sorry.” Amazing! They had to have more. And so, Gerald was invited to serve as the Texas House & Senate chaplain. Gallery spectators and lawmakers would wait in anticipation to listen to this most uncommon preacher. Lend your attention to two of these astounding prayers:
“Father, as we face the difficult decisions of this week, may we not grow wishbones where our backbones ought to be,’ while another advanced, ‘Lord, help these senators to remember that making laws is like a love affair; if it’s easy, it’s sleazy. Amen.” In short, this man’s insight was powered by God Almighty.
As time passed, University Baptist Church grew in attendance. Unfortunately, University Baptist’s building had no room for expansion. John Wooley & Gary Bradley, 2 Austin real estate developers, took Gerald on a tour of a 33-acre site beside Lake Austin. This land was a great candidate for church relocation. As sometimes happens, University Baptist’s leadership decided not to relocate after much consideration.
Birth of Riverbend
But Gerald Mann, the servant-leader & pastor, was driven by a vision and nothing would stop him. In respectful love, the 42-year-old Gerald resigned his position as pastor to University Baptist Church. 60 families believed in his vision. With Gerald and company, a new church was born on June 1979. This church was Riverbend Church. Gerald’s endgame was forming a worship experience for those who did not normally attend church. Like Jesus, he wanted to reach people at their point of need. The Riverbend family uncovered an eager audience within the Austin area. In the early days, Riverbend met in Hill Country Middle School. Swiftly the congregation grew. Gerald knew how to reach into people’s hearts and souls. A fabulous earthly commercial was just such an effort. During the television commercial, Gerald appears on a golf course with Austin humorist Cactus Pryor. Cactus challenges Gerald and declares, ‘Reverend Doctor Mann, if you can sink this putt, I’ll join your church.’ For a moment Gerald peers heavenward and then launches his golf ball on a 40-foot trajectory to the cup. Through a visual segue we see Dr. Mann standing next to a pulpit proclaiming, ‘At Riverbend, we’ll take ’em any way we can get ’em!’ while Pryor smiles in agreement. In short, a non-churchy commercial for a non-churchy church. Intrigued, the people came to see what the fuss was all about.
In 1985, the Riverbend congregation dedicated their first church building. At that time, over 1,600 people participated in the Sunday services.
Gerald’s Sunday messages were succinct and practical. In time, they gained national attention. His many books, Real Life! television program, and weekly radio broadcasts crossed the globe. He was not your grandfather’s tele-evangelist. No massive appeals for money. Only an outreaching heart to help the broken. Celebrities even sought his counsel, people like Willie Nelson, Larry Gatlin, and Darrel Royal. Riverbend Church emerged as one of the 10 fastest developing churches in America. For Gerald, following the Lord was a way of life, what he referred to as “common-sense religion.”
As one who has seen his talks, I can honestly say they were a refreshing spiritual meal in a time of need. As he frequently affirmed, Riverbend’s calling was to “reclaim the 4 B’s: the bruised, the battered, the broken, and the bored.” He had a way with words and speech, creating captivating themes and topics that would stick with the audience and help them learn. Subjects like ‘Wait to Worry,’ ‘You Can Begin Again,’ and ‘There’s a Yes in Every Mess’ are still quoted to this day by those who saw him in action. Gerald had a rare gift. He could deliver powerful messages in only an 18-minute timespan. Using his gift for story-telling and humor, Dr. Mann delivered practical wisdom for your daily walk on earth. With the Lord’s guidance and Gerald’s shepherd-like facilitation, Riverbend thrived as a living, breathing, Christian community.
The Final Journey
Over the years, Gerald and his wife Lois had several children: Cynthia, Stacey, and Gerald II. He referred to his grandchildren: Jessica, Garrett, Carder, & Sasha as his Salt & Light. But as many a pilgrim finds, his travels were met with dire trials. In 2000 Lois, his wife of 42 years passed away from cancer. In time, he met and married his second wife Sandy (the wonderful woman who has given us permission to web-publish The Search for Inner Peace). And then, Gerald was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. I remember the broadcast when he bravely shared his ailment with the public. He continued with his work but on Easter Sunday 2005 Gerald preached his last sermon at Riverbend Church. His failing health left him no choice. During that sermon Gerald beckoned, “When I die, don’t feel sorry for me, because I’m going to fulfill my dream to be with God.” He battled Parkinson’s for over ten years. At his side, Sandy was there for him faithfully during this difficult journey. And then on Saturday, October 24, 2015 Gerald Mann fulfilled his dream to dwell with God.
In His Own Words
Gerald Mann cared deeply for people. Once long-ago Gerald talked openly about how his ministry had changed over the years. “When I started out, I saw myself as a prophet of God, standing on a high bank of a river looking down at people in the muck being swept away into perdition. I was shouting down to them to tell them how to get out of the mess,” Gerald commented. “Then, I got right next to the muck and tried to help pull them out. Now, I just get down into the muck with everybody else, hold on tight, and paddle like crazy.”
Some of Gerald Mann’s Books
- Gerald Mann, The Search for Inner Peace (Austin, TX: Gerald Mann Ministries, 1999), pp. 5-9. ISBN: 0-9678502-0-7.
- Gerald Mann, Jesus, B.C. (Austin, TX: Riverbend Press, 1999), ISBN: 0-9647272-7-7.
- Gerald Mann, When One Day at a Time is Too Long (Austin, TX: Riverbend Press, 1998), ISBN: 0-9647272-2-6.