With the news of Bob Dale’s passing late last week, a torrent of stories, testimonials and heart-felt grief has been flowing on social media and in conversations across the nation. The number of people who have stories to tell about Bob’s impact upon them as a professor, denominational leader, coach, consultant or friend is staggering.
Bob’s interactions with people across 60 years of ministry left us all feeling like we had been blessed by someone who became a lifelong friend. Those who have learned from his three dozen books, his too-numerous-to-count articles and untold presentations, retreats and conversations represent nearly every denomination, tradition and geographical corner of our nation.
For all of his fame and extensive network of friends, Bob remained a humble, gracious and grateful human being. He made time for people from all stations and ages with a patient and genuine interest that made us all feel heard and appreciated. Whether you were a denominational heavyweight or a rookie student, Bob listened to you and enjoyed you. What a gift.
Every time I talked with Bob in recent months, he minimized his growing physical concerns and always wanted to talk about new acquaintances, projects, ideas or helpful insights for some thorny congregational issue I was dealing with. I can’t think of anyone I’ve ever known who had a more insatiable appetite for learning and new ideas. As much as anyone in my life, Bob connected his past with today and pushed both forward into the future with relentless passion and energy.
He told stories about Missouri until we thought we had grown up there. He knew people in every city and denomination and could talk with authority about what was happening in church and culture with accuracy and insight. He constantly thought about what is ahead for us. Last fall he urged me to join him and attend a webinar on the future that a corporate friend had told him about. Bob knew his past, he understood today and he was fascinated by tomorrow.
Bob’s influence will continue because he invested so heavily in others. As a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and then Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond, he shared his insights into leadership with thousands of seminarians who emerged from those classes with a solid education but also a long-term relationship with a professor who genuinely cared about them. Those insights grew into a library of books he authored that multiplied his influence exponentially. All that writing garnered him invitations to speak and share his knowledge in multitudes of settings. As a result, his lineage in Baptist life and beyond is profound.
“Bob’s influence will continue because he invested so heavily in others.”
In many vocations, there are individuals who spawn other leaders out of their unique approach to their field and out of a personal commitment to invest heavily in the next generation of leaders. Bob leaves a clear “lineage tree” of leaders who looked to him for wisdom and guidance.
In my own life, I have been impacted by such men and women across the decades. I have been the undeserved recipient of grace-filled gifts from names like Buddy Shurden, Molly Marshall, Reggie McDonough, George Bullard, Julian Pentecost, Linda Bridges, Larry McSwain, Don Mattingly, Lloyd Cornell, Daniel Vestal, Bill Leonard, Ira Peak and a host of others. At the head of that list is Bob Dale.
I knew of Bob when I was growing up in Nashville. My dad was pastor of a growing church in the city and was pretty savvy about denominational employees who could and couldn’t contribute to the complex task of leading a burgeoning congregation. I remember Bob and my dad talking regularly and my dad’s admiration for the young man at the Sunday School Board who seemed to know what he was talking about.
About 35 years ago, when I became a pastor for the first time, I quickly learned how much I didn’t know. It was humbling and disturbing all at once. There was a day when dad sent me Bob’s new book To Dream Again and told me to put down whatever I was reading and read this book. I was floundering, so I did as I was told. I was amazed. It was as if Bob had been reading my mail. I soaked up that book like a sponge and began to think differently about nearly everything I was doing.
“It was as if Bob had been reading my mail. I soaked up that book like a sponge and began to think differently about nearly everything I was doing.”
Fortunately, I was serving in Virginia and Bob had just come to our state as part of the leadership group for the Baptist General Association of Virginia. He began to teach, mentor and lead in his gentle, humble, yet brilliant way, and we began a friendship that grew and grew through the years. What I found was that I was joining hundreds of others on the ministerial journey as Bob Dale fans and grateful recipients of his wisdom.
Those women and men are a huge part of Bob’s legacy. Over the last several days, I have read hundreds of individual tributes from leaders of all ages, stripes and types who claim Bob as part of their ministerial lineage. All of them say something similar: “Bob was brilliant, insightful, caring, humble, and believed in me.”
When we formed The Center for Healthy Churches, one of my first calls was to Bob to ask if he would join our team. I was beyond grateful that he immediately said yes and was willing to help us in our formation of the group.
One of our first efforts together was a book Bob had in mind about how leaders are formed. We were about to launch a Healthy Church book series and he agreed to make the book a collaborative effort with me. What emerged was Weaving Together: How Leaders Grow Down, Grow Up and Grow Together. My small contribution was to react to his insights and ideas and generally stay out of Bob’s way as he spun his tales and reflected on a lifetime of growing leaders.
“More than 300 dissertations had utilized the ideas in the book.”
We urged him to update and revise To Dream Again, in the hopes that a new generation of leaders would benefit from the timeless wisdom in that book. He did so, and three years ago To Dream Again, Again! emerged. Bob told me the original book had been the best-selling book by Broadman in the 1980s but had been pulled when the denominational wars broke out. More than 300 dissertations had utilized the ideas in the book. I continue to believe it is one of the finest books on how to understand the life of congregations and their needs that we have at our disposal. I am beyond grateful for his willingness to make it newly available to us all.
Bob’s devotion to his craft was only exceeded by one thing: his devotion to his family across the generations. One of his private projects in recent years was to write the story of his life by decades. He wanted to record the amazing stories and insights from a lifetime of living fully so that his family would be able to know all the seen and unseen influences on him and them. Perhaps one day a biography will emerge that will share even more light for the fellow pilgrims Bob inspired.
What a remarkable gift. What a remarkable man. Thanks be to God for the gift of his love and learning to so many of us.
Bill Wilson serves as director of The Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, N.C., and is a member of the Baptist News Global board of directors. Bob Dale was part of the team from Virginia who led in the formation of Baptist News Global in 2013 through a merger of Associated Baptist Press and the Religious Herald.