By Jeff Brumley
George Pickle was sent off by Cooperative Baptist Fellowship chaplains and pastoral counselors Thursday with a stack of plaques, two hours of laughter and more important reminders that he will always be their friend and spiritual leader.
Also Thursday, CBF announced that Jim Pope, its associate for military chaplaincy, will take over for Pickle on an interim basis. It also appointed a 10-member search committee headed by CBF Arkansas Coordinator Ray Higgins.
There were also a lot of tears in the banquet room at the Koury Convention Center in Greensboro, N.C., where Pickle was honored during a luncheon marking his coming retirement after 12 years as CBF’s chaplain and pastoral counselor endorser.
Friends and CBF officials, all attending General Assembly 2013, pointed out Pickle’s penchant for building friendships with the ministers he sends out around the world. Ron Craddock, a retired Navy chaplain, choked up at the podium after sharing how Pickle risked his life to fly to an aircraft carrier in 2004 to see him. “You’ve been the world to us,” said Craddock, now a CBF-endorsed Veterans Administration chaplain and official in Augusta, Ga. “You are chaplain’s pastor.”
‘The complexity of chaplaincy’
Opening the luncheon, Suzii Paynter credited Pickle’s ability to forge lasting bonds with ministers with transforming the organization’s endorsement program. CBF had about 130 endorsed ministers when Pickle joined the staff, and has approximately 700 now. He also structured the Council on Endorsement and won a seat for its chair on CBF’s Coordinating Council.
Paynter, CBF’s executive coordinator, also credited chaplains for providing ministry to underserved, and often overlooked, segments of society — and usually without being noticed or understood.
Paynter has acknowledged that CBF in particular has under-appreciated its chaplains. But her respect for chaplaincy grew during her prior roles director of both the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission and Advocacy Care Center of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. “I learned a lot about the complexity of chaplaincy endorsement and how each chaplain is endorsed to a specific ministry at a specific time and a specific place,” she said.
It’s why she said CBF this year – in fact at a General Assembly ceremony Thursday night — will begin commissioning its new chaplains just as it does new missionaries. “For me, this is a witness that what you do serves the Kingdom of God in ways (other ministries) cannot touch,” Paynter told about 170 chaplains and pastoral counselors at the luncheon.
Pickle said Paynter’s announcement is a good one to retire on.
“I have been asking for that since my first days,” he said. “I thank God for that — and I cannot say that strongly enough.”
A ‘rabbi’ to all
Early in his career, Pickle served as a chaplain at Brotman Medical Center in Los Angeles and also spent two years in Vietnam as a civilian chaplain during the war. He went on to become an endorser with the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Missions Board.
But that career track unraveled when he was confronted with a requirement to sign the Baptist Faith and Message. He said he never once considered signing it – largely because he would no longer be able to endorse women called into chaplaincy.
“It totally rejected those that God had called,” he said.
One of the most special moments in his career occurred the day as a young man when he was leaving Brotman Medical Center and its largely Jewish staff. As he left, a doctor told him he had been “a rabbi to all of us.”
Pickle’s last day with CBF is June 30, and his plans are to continue working in grief counseling. But his chaplains said he will also continue to be their mentor and friend.
Cecelia Walker, director of pastoral care at Princeton Baptist Medical Center in Birmingham, said she is one of them. When Walker’s daughter died, Pickle showed up at the hospital to be her chaplain during the grieving process.
It also convinced her not to go through with a decision to quit chaplaincy after the tragedy. “It helped me to be able to go back to the emergency room,” Walker said.
Turning to Pickle, she said: “Thank you for being the presence of Christ in so many people’s lives.”