Neville Callam will make history for Baptists around the world if elected general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance.
If elected in July, the 55-year-old Jamaican pastor will be the first non-white chief executive of the group, which represents approximately 110 million Baptists in national and regional bodies across the planet. He would also be the first general secretary in the group’s 101-year history to hail from somewhere other than the United States or Europe.
Callam, who would succeed Denton Lotz, the organization’s retiring general secretary, was announced as the nominee March 7 during a meeting of the BWA executive committee at the group’s Falls Church headquarters. The panel responded by giving the nominee a standing ovation and symbolically affirming the candidate.
“Rev. Callam is a seminal theological thinker … and he is an articulate statesman,” said John Sundquist, chairman of the search committee that recommended Callam. “I was so impressed by his capacity to listen—the way he is able to take any question, any inquiry, and begin to exegete it biblically.”
Sundquist called Callam a “genius” who is “a Renaissance man—and a dedicated, humble follower of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Callam, in response, said he would offer only one sentence: “All I have to say is, if this is how the Lord is leading us, I am willing to follow.”
In speaking of his commitment to the Christian gospel, Callam said, “Living for Jesus is what my life is about. My calling is to serve the cause of Christ. I have had reason to be very thankful for my Baptist heritage, which I celebrate.”
The position will not become formal until the organization’s larger governing body, the BWA General Council, votes on Callam’s nomination during its July meeting in Accra, Ghana.
Pastor of Tarrant Baptist Church in Kingston, Jamaica, Callam has been heavily involved in BWA life for more than 20 years. He has served on BWA governing bodies and on several other committees and work groups for the organization. He currently belongs to the BWA’s Implementation Task Force, which is charged with restructuring the organization for the future.
Callam has served two terms as president of the Jamaica Baptist Union and has, at other times, held every other office for that denomination, including acting general secretary. He also worked on the boards of several public and religious media organizations in Jamaica.
He also serves as a member of the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission. It is a theological discussion forum whose membership is not limited to denominations that cooperate with the ecumenical council. Southern Baptist Convention leader Timothy George is the only other Baptist who serves on the commission.
A Harvard Divinity School and University of the West Indies graduate, Callam is a specialist in Christian ethics. He and his wife, Dulcie, have two grown children.
Burchell Taylor, president of the Caribbean Baptist Fellowship and a member of the Executive Committee, said Baptists in the West Indies are excited about Callam’s nomination and what it will signify for the global Baptist movement.
“We regard his elevation to this post as a great historic statement by this Baptist world family, and we do think that it will have consequences for the good as the unfolding future comes upon us,” he said.
The man Callam is slated to replace said the election of a non-white candidate who does not come from a First World nation signifies the radical changes global Christianity has undergone since the alliance’s founding.
“The fact is, the Christian faith has moved to the Southern Hemisphere. Neville represents that tradition of African Christianity that is winning the world” for Christ, said Lotz. “And maybe we in the West need to be re-missionized and re-evangelized by the [global] South.”
Sundquist said the place where BWA members will vote on Callam’s election is significant.
“We will, in the providence of God, install Neville Callam into the office of general secretary when we are in Ghana,” he said. “Neville’s [ancestors] were shipped in slave ships from Ghana to Jamaica. And now he becomes, in Ghana, the leader of the Baptist World Alliance.”
At the March meeting, BWA leaders also heard a financial report and expressed concern about strained relations with some Baptist unions in former Soviet-bloc countries.
Ellen Teague, the BWA’s director of finance and administration, noted that the organization ended 2006 with nearly $500,000 more in net assets than it had at the end of 2005. She said the BWA’s income from individual and church donations has increased dramatically in recent years. In 2003, for example, the group received approximately $315,000 directly from local churches. By 2006, the figure was more than $761,000.
The increase was due in large part to appeals to individual churches after the group’s largest member body left the organization in 2004. That year, the Southern Baptist Convention alleged BWA was too open to working with member bodies—like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship—that hold doctrinal positions contrary to the positions of SBC leaders. It also accused the organization of tolerating “anti-Americanism.”
The European Baptist Federation, comprised of BWA member unions from Europe, the Middle East and the former Soviet republics, reported that two Baptist denominations in small Central Asian republics had left the BWA in the past year. Leaders of the Baptist unions in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan cited concerns similar to the Southern Baptists’ in deciding to leave the worldwide fellowship.
In addition, Baptists in Romania are in the midst of a struggle over leadership that could decide the future of their relationship with the BWA, according to Tony Peck. Peck is the European Baptist Federation general secretary.
An upcoming election for the Romanian Baptist Union’s presidency pits an anti-BWA candidate against Otniel Bunaciu, vice president of the Union’s seminary that supports continued BWA involvement.
“We need to pray for him [Bunaciu] and the Romanian Union for the future,” Peck said. “We really do need to pray for the situation. We don’t want a division and the split there; we want them to find a way forward in our Baptist world family.”
The committee also honored Lotz, whose retirement was announced a year ago. North American Baptists honored him with a banquet prior to the executive committee meeting; similar celebrations are set for Europe and the General Council meeting in Ghana.
Several BWA leaders honored Lotz for helping internationalize the organization’s leadership. The retiring general secretary said he was simply implementing the vision of his predecessor, Gerhard Claas, whose 1988 death in a car accident elevated Lotz to the office.
“We have internationalized the BWA, and it’s not just a NATO group—it is a world organization,” he said, referring to Claas’ hope to extend the BWA’s participation and leadership far beyond Baptists in North America and Western Europe.
“We need more and more to hear the voice of the Asians and the Latins and the Africans maybe telling us how to do missions,” Lotz continued. “Isn’t it funny that we’re the ones whose churches are empty, but we’re still telling them how to do missions?”