By Bob Allen
Retiring Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Executive Coordinator Daniel Vestal has been tapped to lead Mercer University’s new Eula Mae and John Baugh Center for Baptist Leadership. Vestal, 67, will assume his new role July 1, the day after he retires as head of the Atlanta-based CBF, where he has served since 1996.
The new center is endowed by a $2.5 million grant from the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation. Sysco food corporation founder John Baugh, a Baptist layman and generous donor of moderate Baptist causes, died in 2007 at age 91.
“I can think of no two names more synonymous with Baptist leadership than John Baugh and Daniel Vestal,” Mercer University President William Underwood said in announcing Vestal’s appointment Feb. 8. “John Baugh for many decades provided courageous and principled leadership as a Baptist layperson, and Daniel Vestal for more than 15 years has provided courageous and principled leadership for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.”
The Baugh Center will foster research and learning in Baptist history, theology, ethics and missions, partnering with Mercer’s James and Carolyn McAfee School of Theology, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the American Baptist Historical Society, as well as Mercer’s Center for Theology and Public Life and other organizations and programs. It will initiate a doctoral program in religion focused on Baptist studies.
The center will be interdepartmental in nature, engaging faculty from across the university and visiting scholars. Vestal will teach as a distinguished university professor.
“I am honored by this appointment as well as the generosity of the Baugh Foundation and anticipate being a part of such an historic institution as Mercer University,” Vestal said. “Eula Mae and John Baugh embodied integrity and Christian character.”
Prior to being named CBF coordinator, Vestal served five years as pastor of Tallowood Baptist Church in Houston. He also was pastor of Dunwoody Baptist Church in Atlanta; First Baptist Church of Midland, Texas; Southcliff Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas; and Meadow Lane Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.
After a failed run for president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1990, Vestal convened a gathering of moderates frustrated with a decade of denominational politics in the nation’s second-largest faith group. That led to formation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to uphold values like academic freedom in seminaries, women in ministry, local-church autonomy and the separation of church and state.
John Baugh was founder of Sysco Corporation in 1969, now North America’s leading foodservice marketer and distributor, with $30.3 billion in annual sales and 47,500 employees. His philanthropic organization has aided numerous moderate Baptist causes, including Associated Baptist Press.
Recent major gifts include $2 million for the Baugh-Marshall Chapel at Central Baptist Theological Seminary dedicated in 2011. A matching-gift challenge in 2007 helped the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty raise nearly $1.2 million in a couple of weeks, reviving a flagging $5 million capital campaign. Baugh Foundation funds helped make possible the new Celebrating Grace hymnal unveiled in March 2010.
The foundation also sponsored an April 2010 retreat for leaders of more than 20 CBF-affiliated organizations to imagine a future for the network of moderate Baptist churches and individuals on the occasion of its 20th anniversary. An outcome was a CBF 2012 Task Force led by Alabama pastor David Hull, which gathered input in more than 100 listening sessions in a two-year study and is expected to bring a final report at the CBF General Assembly scheduled June 20-23 in Fort Worth, Texas.
Underwood voiced deep gratitude to the Baugh’s daughter, Babs Baugh, and granddaughters Jackie and Julie, who serve as the family foundation’s directors, for the Mercer gift.