Monday, June 18, 2012

Daniel Vestal: Laying the foundation for CBF, then building on it

This Friday evening, June 22, at the closing session of this year's General Assembly in Fort Worth, Daniel Vestal will preach his final sermon as executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

This month, Daniel brings to a close his service as CBF's longest-tenured executive coordinator. Patrick Anderson, editor of Christian Ethics Today and a former CBF moderator, will lead CBF on an interim basis while a committee, chaired by George Mason, continues to search for a permanent executive coordinator. On July 1, Daniel Vestal will become director of the new Eula Mae and John Baugh Center for Baptist Leadership.

Daniel and I are not close, though we have spoken briefly with each other on several occasions in recent years, as recently as this past April, when I expressed to him my appreciation for his statement in response to the suggestion by the outgoing CBF moderator that, once Daniel's successor is named, certain CBF hiring practices be "revisited."

In his statement, Daniel responded that he respects those who disagree with him and believes we should be able to cooperate with each other in spite of our disagreements. However, he does not support the suggestion to revisit CBF's hiring policy, because CBF's role, he said, is to serve churches, not dictate to them, and such a change in CBF's hiring policy would put a strain on many partner churches and CBF's relationship with them.

It was a statement that was typical of Daniel Vestal, gracious and at the same time wise and prudent, in my opinion. I was in total agreement (and I have to admit that it's rare that I'm in total agreement with anyone, including my fellow Baptists), and I expressed my full support of his statement.

In past years, however, Daniel and I have also discussed the connection between our families that goes back many, many years. Though I didn't meet Daniel until recent years, I met his father some 56 years ago. In the fall of 1952, when I was just 1-1/2 years old, my family had moved to Montague, a little town located right next to the more well-known town of Nocona, home to legendary boot manufacturers. My daddy, A. Jase Jones - who then was in the midst of his doctoral studies in Christian Ethics, under T. B. Maston at Southwestern Seminary - pastored First Baptist Church of Montague until we moved to Dallas in 1957, where he led Jewish Evangelism work for Dallas and Tarrant Baptist Associations, as well as the BGCT.

I often heard Daddy tell the story of a revival in our little church in Montague in the spring of 1956, preached by Dan Vestal, Daniel's father, who stayed in our home at the parsonage during that week. In fact, I recently found, in Daddy's files, a promotional flyer for that revival, featuring photos of Dan Vestal, in addition to a biography. Unfortunately, I have no memories of that revival or of Dan Vestal being in our home. I had just turned 5 a few weeks earlier, and my attention was usually on Romper Room, Captain Kangaroo, and J. Fred Muggs (the chimpanzee starring on NBC's Today back then), not the visiting preacher! But Daniel's dad was a prominent Baptist evangelist in his day. So our "connection" goes way back.

In 1996, Daniel left a highly successful pastorate at Tallowood Baptist Church in Houston to succeed Cecil Sherman as executive coordinator of CBF. But he was not new to CBF. In fact, he had been the first one to articulate the vision that became the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and then was instrumental in its founding.

The morning after losing the 1990 SBC presidential election in New Orleans, Daniel Vestal addressed a Baptists Committed breakfast. Acknowledging that moderates had lost the battle for the SBC, he told the gathering of more than 800:
What we did was right. . . . We spoke to the issues that are crucial to our day: openness, fairness, missions, trust, and freedom. We resisted a political movement that excludes people from decisionmaking, assassinates people's character, questions people's integrity and commitment to the Word of God. . . . We called for a return to our Southern Baptist heritage: cooperative missions, unity in diversity. (Shurden, The Struggle for the Soul of the SBC, 1993, p. 255)
He then called for a "convocation of concerned Baptists," to be convened and planned by the Baptists Committed organization. Daniel writes of his vision for this convocation in The Struggle for the Soul of the SBC (edited by Walter B. Shurden):
Its purpose would be renewal, and in it we could find ways to cooperate for the cause of Christ. . . . We needed a place to be accepted for who we are, true followers of Christ with a worldwide mission vision, Baptists who believe in the Bible but who also believe in the freedom to interpret it.
On August 23, 1990, Jimmy Allen convened the Consultation of Concerned Baptists in Atlanta, and Daniel Vestal - a humble and soft-spoken pastor - delivered a stirring opening address in which he firmly took a stand for Baptist principles of freedom, integrity, and cooperation - and invited the 3,000 assembled to join him.
We've been driven here by a group of folks who have told us they don't want us to work with them in the cause of Christ. . . . They have not only maligned and libelled good and godly people, but they have caricatured and misrepresented others. They would take away our dignity and our freedom. I, for one, will not allow that to happen to me. I, for one, will not give that up. . . . I am driven here to find a people who will respect me even if they disagree with me, and will allow me to cooperate with them in the grand and glorious cause of Christ.

But do not pity me, for I also choose to be here. I choose because I believe in some principles and precepts that are foundational to my life: the priesthood of the individual believer, religious liberty and separation of church and state, cooperative missions based on the autonomy of every church, congregational polity and moral integrity in decision making. I am first and foremost committed to Jesus Christ.
(For more details on these events, I highly recommend Walter B. Shurden's The Struggle for the Soul of the SBC: Moderate Responses to the Fundamentalist Movement. For a "nutshell" description of these events, based on Shurden's book and other sources, see the three-part TBC Baptist Briefs video series, "Founding of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.")

Six years later, Daniel Vestal took the reins of CBF at a time of great change, and the pace of change has only accelerated in the 16 years since. Changes in Baptist life, changes in technology, changes in worship styles, changes in how churches "do church," a struggling economy that has yet to recover, the aging of the generations that had stalwartly populated both pew and pulpit for so long, and the coming-to-age of the millenial generation that has challenged church leaders to give them good reasons to stay in church as they grew to adulthood.

These changes - and more - challenge today's leaders of every Baptist institution and church, large and small. Most have had to face decreases in financial support and been forced to make painful decisions to survive. CBF hasn't been immune, as it has had to cut back on funding missionaries as well as operational staff. Neither has it been alone; note last week's news that membership in the Southern Baptist Convention had declined for the fifth straight year. It's been tough all around.

But for 16 years, through all of these challenges, Daniel Vestal has provided CBF with stable leadership marked by a consistent commitment to sharing Christ with the world. His is a legacy of strong leadership through humility and generosity of spirit. He explained his vision of the "missional community" in Chapter 6 of his book, Being the Presence of Christ: A Vision for Transformation:
Christian community is a means to an end. It is to represent, serve, and proclaim the kingdom of God. Its goal is not to build up an institution or to enlarge its membership or even to enjoy its own existence. Rather, the purpose of Christian community is faithfulness to God's mission in the world. Its very identity and essence define it as a missional community.
"Faithfulness to God's mission in the world" - that pretty well sums up Daniel Vestal's life and ministry, including his stewardship of CBF as executive coordinator.

So, as Daniel preaches his final sermon Friday evening as CBF executive coordinator, followed by a reception in his honor, we celebrate a life and ministry committed to the Lordship of Christ and the sharing of Christ's Gospel around the world, a life and ministry marked by uncompromised integrity and unshakable commitment to the principles that have undergirded the Baptist movement for over 400 years.

Thank you, Daniel, and God bless you as you turn the page to the next chapter of your ministry and continue to be faithful to God's calling in your life.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

From Raleigh to Richmond: the Baptist History & Heritage Annual Conference

When the Baptist church in Raleigh was organized in 1812 on the second floor of the original state Capitol building, there were 23 charter members—9 white and 14 black. In 1868, there was a peaceful separation of the two groups when the newly emancipated members established their own congregation.
Thus begins the History page of the Web site of First Baptist Church, Salisbury Street, Raleigh, North Carolina. The corresponding page of First Baptist Church, Wilmington Street, adds that,
By 1859 the original membership of twenty-three had risen to 228 whites and 208 blacks, and the Church had relocated several times to accommodate that growth.

In June of 1868, Henry Jett and a delegation of approximately 200 blacks asked for letters of dismissal from the integrated Church to worship as a separate body under the name of the First Colored Baptist Church. Thus began the era of First Baptist Church as we know it today and the beginning of the tradition of black pastors.
Last week, I flew to Raleigh to attend the 2012 Baptist History & Heritage Annual Conference, sponsored by the Baptist History & Heritage Society. Sessions were hosted by both of these historic First Baptist Churches, and participants were privileged to hear the two pastors present the histories of their respective churches.

But that barely begins to tell the story of this conference. This was my second such conference; I attended last year's meeting that was held at Dallas Baptist University. I'm always amazed at the ground covered by the program prepared by Executive Director Bruce Gourley and the Society's Board and its officers.

This year's theme was Baptists and Theology, and keynote addresses were delivered at the three general sessions:
  • Glenn Jonas - "Nurturing the Vision: Highlights from a 200-Year-Old Baptist Church in Raleigh"
  • Bill Leonard - "Conviction and Contradiction: Reassessing Theological Formation in Baptist Identity"
  • Fisher Humphreys - "To Go Forward, We Must First Go Back: Baptist Theology Since 1950"
On Friday morning, 23 papers were presented in breakout sessions. To give you just a taste of the depth and breadth of the subjects covered, here are a few of the provocative titles:
  • John Jasper: Celebrated African American Preacher
  • Deconstructing Hobbs: Theologian-in-Residence for the SBC
  • E. Y. Mullins' Neglected Theological Foundation for Church-State Separation
  • Baptists and Sacramentalism: Engaging Recent Work in Baptist Sacramental Theology
  • Toward a Twentieth-Century Baptist Identity in America: Insights from the Baptist Congresses, 1882-1913
  • Friedrich Schleiermacher's Influence on the Baptist Thought of Harry Emerson Fosdick . . . and Ours
  • Worship Wars: Theological Perspectives in Hymnody
  • Locating Baptist Dogmatics: Defining and Defending Identity in the Absence of a Normative Theology
  • Baptist Ecclesiology from John Clark to E. Y. Mullins: The Personal, the Communal, and the Eschatological
And that's just a small sample of the material covered at this year's conference. If you want to really dig deep into Baptist history - from a variety of perspectives - you need to add the Baptist History & Heritage Annual Conference to your "bucket list." By the way, videos of all general and breakout sessions - including all paper presentations - will be up on the Baptist History & Heritage Society Web site within the next month. Check the TBC Midweek Baptist Roundup in July, and I'll let you know when those videos are available and provide links to them.

During the final session, Fred Anderson, executive director of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society, announced that the 2013 Baptist History & Heritage Annual Conference will be held on the campus of the University of Richmond. Centered on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the meeting's theme will be Faith, Freedom, and Forgiveness.

"Our emphasis," Anderson said, "is on religion in the Civil War, emancipation, and reconciliation in our time." As always, there will be keynote addresses and presentations of papers covering various aspects of the theme. A special feature of next year's meeting will be a panel discussion on the subject of racial reconciliation.

We Baptists have a special heritage that is wide-ranging; the list of those who have contributed to, and influenced, that heritage is beyond what any of us can imagine. If you love our Baptist heritage and want to know more, start thinking about attending next year's Baptist History & Heritage Annual Conference in Richmond, Virginia. In the meantime, go to the Society's Web site at, avail yourself of its many resources, donate, and become a member. Believe me, your understanding and appreciation of your Baptist heritage will soon flow, as the beloved fountain in the old song, "deep and wide."

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Wayne Allen stood tall

I read this morning that Dr. Wayne Allen, retired senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Carrollton, had passed away at the age of 82. I never had the privilege of meeting Dr. Allen, but his passing nevertheless moved me.

His obituary gives a broader picture of his life, but the opening passage of an article in the Texas Baptists Committed Newsletter of March 1994 brings into focus the courage and integrity of this man. The article is titled simply, "Wayne Allen Stands Tall," and the passage reads,
Wayne Allen, pastor of First Baptist Church, Carrollton, stood alone as the only Texas trustee on the Southwestern Board to support Dr. Dilday. He deserves our appreciation and respect for his integrity. All of the other Texas trustees voted to fire Dr. Dilday, according to news reports.
As president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Russell Dilday, another man of rare courage and integrity, had refused to stay quiet about his concerns over the insistence of Fundamentalist SBC leaders and Southwestern trustees on carrying out an agenda of power and control at the seminary. So the trustees accelerated that agenda by firing him. When asked the reason for their decision, their chair said that they didn't need a reason, because "We have the votes."

A person's convictions are proven by testing. One of the greatest tests is the pressure to "go along" with the actions of friends and colleagues. Standing against that kind of pressure out of conviction is lonely . . . all eyes are on you, you are isolated, and some who have been your friends may want nothing more to do with you. The TBC article said it well - Wayne Allen stood tall for Christ that day and proved the strength of his convictions. Today he rests in Jesus.

That brings to mind another passage, this one from scripture: "Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Come and share your master's happiness." (Matthew 25:23, NIV)