By Ken Camp
Phil Lineberger, pastor of Sugar Land Baptist Church near Houston and former president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, died May 31. He was 69.
Lineberger “lost a battle with depression and took his own life,” son-in-law and family spokesman Brian Seay said.
Lineberger became pastor of Sugar Land Baptist Church — formerly Williams Trace Baptist Church in Sugar Land, Texas — in November 1995. He had been on medical leave from the church since mid-March of this year.
Four years ago, Lineberger delivered the eulogy for his friend John Petty, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Kerrville, Texas, and former chair of the BGCT Executive Board, who died by suicide at age 42 after a long struggle with depression.
“Depression speaks a language of its own known only to those who are depressed,” Lineberger said in the funeral sermon. He noted 19 million Americans suffer from chronic depression, and it claims more lives than war, cancer and AIDS put together.
“Depression is both ancient and universal,” he continued. “In fact, those who study it — doctors and psychiatrists — tell us that depression is the most common emotional problem in America. It has risen to immense proportions. No one is immune to it. It is not a willful fault, nor is it a sin.”
Lineberger pointed to biblical figures such as Moses and Elijah, as well as noted ministers ranging from Charles Haddon Spurgeon to Harry Emerson Fosdick, who suffered from depression.
“The Bible says we see through a glass darkly,” he said. “We don’t know how dark the darkness is in someone who is depressed. Through the darkened glass, they can’t see the light of life or the love of others. They can only feel the pressure of the darkness of despair in their own mind. That darkness is visible to them and often invisible to us.”
Lineberger was president of the BGCT from 1989 to 1991 after serving as vice president in 1988-89. He presided — in a bulletproof vest with a bodyguard nearby — over a contentious 1991 BGCT annual meeting in Waco that drew a record 11,159 messengers.
At that meeting, messengers approved a revised relationship agreement between the BGCT and Baylor University. Lineberger helped negotiate the new relationship after Baylor’s board unilaterally changed the university’s charter, removing it from BGCT governance. Working with Paul Powell, chair of Baylor’s board of regents, Lineberger and other BGCT officers helped draft an agreement that allowed the BGCT to elect one-fourth of the regents.
In 1999, an 18-member search committee nominated Lineberger to succeed Bill Pinson as executive director of the BGCT Executive Board. After initially accepting the nomination, Lineberger subsequently withdrew his name from consideration, saying he “could get no peace from God about serving in this high position.”
Lineberger was a longtime member of the Texas Baptists Committed board of directors and served as the moderate Baptist organization’s co-chair in 1994.
“This is a deep personal loss for me,” said Bill Jones, executive director of Texas Baptists Committed. “Phil had become a dear and trusted friend.”
Lineberger’s contributions to the organization and its mission were immeasurable, Jones said.
“Ever since I took this job four and a half years ago, Phil had been my go-to person — my first phone call — whenever I needed help dealing with BGCT issues, because I trusted his experience and understanding, as well as his wisdom,” he said. “Phil was always gracious and positive, and his sense of humor made heavy burdens much lighter. I miss him already.”
Before arriving in Sugar Land, Lineberger was pastor of two other Texas congregations: First Baptist Church in Tyler and Richardson Heights Baptist Church — now The Heights Church—in Richardson. Previous pastorates included Metropolitan Baptist Church in Wichita, Kan.; Calvary Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark.; and Calvary Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ark. He also was associate pastor of Travis Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.
Lineberger grew up in Texarkana, Texas, and made a profession of faith in Christ at age 10 in response to a revival led by evangelist Freddie Gage. Highland Park Baptist Church in Texarkana ordained him to the gospel ministry.
He graduated from the University of Arkansas and also earned master’s and doctor’s degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.
He was a regent at Baylor University and William Jewell College and a trustee at Dallas Baptist University. He also served as a director of Associated Baptist Press, now Baptist News Global.
He is survived by his wife, Brenda; adult daughters Becky Groves, Amy Seay and Kathy Lineberger; 10 grandchildren and another grandchild due soon.
A memorial service is scheduled for 1 p.m. June 4 at Sugar Land Baptist Church.