Some will question the veracity of the fact that I feel bad about what is happening to the Southern Baptist Convention in light of the story I am telling for the first time in such a public forum. If ever there were a person raised and immersed in a specific faith tradition, that was me in 1967 when I graduated from a Southern Baptist seminary.
Years later, in 1986, I completed my academic journey with a doctorate in ministry at another Southern Baptist Seminary. I was just as much impacted by mentors who were stalwart people of faith. Among those were people like Bill Tanner, Bill Pinson, Grady Cothen and Lloyd Elder. These were mentors of heart and “sound mind.” They also were Southern Baptist to the core.
Unfortunately, beginning in 1979, these and many others were suddenly cast as “moderates” by those seeking to gain power in what was called the “conservative resurgence.”
In 1981, I was invited to serve in the administration of the Baptist Sunday School Board. I served as a division director for five years. After Grady Cothen’s retirement as president, I was invited to become a vice president by Lloyd Elder, the new president. At the time I was 44 years old. It was one of the greatest opportunities of my life to be charged with the administration of every program and service at the Baptist Sunday School Board connected to local Southern Baptist churches. I felt like I was in “the place” for which I was born and raised.
All that abruptly ceased in January 1991 when, along with other Southern Baptist agency executives, Lloyd Elder was forced to retire as president.
In July 1991, Jimmy Draper was elected as the new president. In my very first meeting with him, our conversation included this statement to me, “I have been told you are a moderate.” We discussed that and then Draper said, “I have someone I want on my executive staff, and he best fits in the job you are in. I am not saying you won’t have a job, but it will not likely be the job you are presently in.”
I went into the meeting expecting something much like what happened. I was prepared, so I responded, “Dr. Draper, I believe the president has a right to name his own executive staff, so if you will give me some time my job will be available to you.” We agreed that I would begin to look for a new place of service.
“I am sad about the demise of an obviously imperfect but still a powerful force for the kingdom of God on the earth.”
In December, I went back to Oklahoma to become once again the pastor of a wonderful church. In the intervening time Jimmy Draper treated me with respect. To this day, I do not believe he was typical of the kind of people who were engineering the “conservative resurgence.” I think he is likely horrified with what has happened to the Southern Baptist Convention 30 years later.
However, what has happened was entirely predictable. When a prevailing attitude and corresponding action is, “you are not like us and thus you do not belong,” there is no logical stopping place in the future. So, I am sad about the demise of an obviously imperfect but still a powerful force for the kingdom of God on the earth. I am sad about the grief and loss that so many must be experiencing these days leading up to the SBC meeting this week. I am sad about so many lives being disrupted.
I will say, though, there is life after death. There is life after the Southern Baptist Convention. Life for me since 1991 has been good and filled with new and exciting opportunities of ministry. Still, I am sad about what could have been.
Gary Cook serves as pastor of Gaston Oaks Baptist Church and executive director of Gaston Christian Center in Dallas.