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Adams calls for transparency, ‘new chapter’ in BP interview

EDITOR’S NOTE: Leading up to the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting, Baptist Press is interviewing candidates who have agreed to accept a nomination to serve as SBC president. (Here are the interviews with R. Albert Mohler Jr., Mike Stone and Ed Litton.)

By George Schroeder and Jonathan Howe

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) – Randy Adams’ first real encounter with Southern Baptists came as a college freshman. Though saved as a child, he really began to grow in his Christian walk – and grew an initial understanding of the SBC, as well – when he became involved with the Baptist Student Union [BSU] at Montana College of Mineral Science and Technology.

When he says, “BSU played a huge role in my life,” he’s probably understating things a bit, because it was during that time that Adams really began to “understand what a Christian is, and what discipleship is, and what reading the Bible means, and the kind of Bible studies we do in our churches.”

When the campus director left, he served in the role as a college senior. During that year, God called him to a life in ministry that includes 19 years as a senior pastor (including churches in Rhome and Italy, Texas), staff roles in two state conventions and a heart for missions.

Adams, who has been executive director/treasurer of the Northwest Baptist Convention since 2013, has agreed to accept a nomination to serve as SBC president at the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting in June. He’d also agreed to accept a nomination a year ago, before the 2020 SBC Annual Meeting was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Russell Fuller, a former professor of Old Testament at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, plans to nominate Adams in June.

Indirectly, that college BSU experience and exposure to Southern Baptists changed his parents’ lives, too. Adams is a native of Whitefish, Mont., a town of several thousand nestled in the Rocky Mountains in the northwestern part of the state, not far from Glacier National Park – and the Canadian border. When he came to know Christ as a child in an Assembly of God church, there wasn’t a Southern Baptist church in town.

But while Adams was a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a fellow student went to Whitefish to explore planting a church. Adams’ parents helped in the effort, and became Southern Baptists. Several years later, they became IMB missionaries – and that, in turn, changed Adams’ pastoral ministry.

While visiting his parents overseas, he “saw lostness like I’d never seen it before,” and it led him to focus on missions, first in the churches he pastored and now in his role with the Northwest Baptist Convention.

Along with his duties as executive director, Adams serves as an elder at Go Church, a church plant in Ridgefield, Wash. Along with several other non-South state executives, he has been involved in a dispute with the North American Mission Board over strategic partnerships with their state conventions, and has been a vocal critic of what he describes as a lack of transparency and corruption in several Southern Baptist entities. While “Southern Baptists have a great story,” Adams says, he’d like to help write a new and needed chapter “in which we’re open and honest with each other.”

During a recent meeting of SBC state executives at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Adams sat down with Baptist Press.

Baptist Press: What, in your mind, is the biggest issue facing the SBC?

Adams: I think probably the foundational issue is trust, a lack of trust. And trust and goodwill really undergird cooperation, everything that we attempt to do together, partnership. And where there is little or no trust, you just can’t work together. A lot of people talk about unity. Trust is before unity. Unity requires trust. And I think trust is built through transparency and accountability, so that’s why I see trust as coming before those things that we all esteem to and desire for our convention.

Baptist Press: So if you were elected SBC president, how would you move toward achieving trust and unity?

Adams: That’s where I think transparency, accountability, participation, partnership. Transparency puts the cards on the table. People can see where the money is spent specifically – not in general but in more specific. Transparency in our performance, dealing with reality. You know, I think sometimes we don’t really look back to see: what are the consequences of our decisions, and where have those brought us to? And so, I think transparency in those areas. And then, holding each other accountable in regards to our performance and our financial dealings and whatnot.

Participation, I think, is key, because I do think we need to expand participation beyond a handful of people, and even beyond the people with the resources to travel to the SBC every year. And so one of the things I’ve advocated for is for getting to some type of remote system in the annual meeting. And that doesn’t necessarily mean – probably doesn’t mean – a guy sitting at home on his computer voting via his computer at home. It could be remote locations, you know, state convention [or] perhaps an association setting up a remote location where people can come, have a together experience in that place and vote. We did, in the Northwest [Baptist] Convention, we did vote via internet. We developed a system that I think was, it was secure. And because of the pandemic we were forced to do it, and we had to have a vote because we needed to determine something that required the convention to vote, our board couldn’t do it. So we did, and it worked very, very well.

Baptist Press: Tell us about your background. Where are you from?

Adams: I’m from Montana. I grew up in Whitefish, Mont. Was saved as a child, but attended an Assembly of God church as a child. There was no Southern Baptist church in my hometown. I was a petroleum engineering major in college and got a degree in petroleum engineering in Butte, Mont., at Montana College of Mineral Sciences, as it was called at the time [now Montana Technological University]. The only Christian group on campus was the BSU. There was a Catholic group and then the BSU. So really it was the BSU that God used, certainly to bring me into Southern Baptist life, but also just to help me understand what a Christian is, and what discipleship is, and what reading the Bible means, and the kind of Bible studies we do in our churches. So BSU played a huge role in my life, and I was the director my senior year. Our director left; they asked me if I would direct it that year. God did a great work that year. It was really through that experience that I received a call to ministry. And I joined the local Southern Baptist church in Butte at that time. That was in 1980.

Baptist Press: When you say “director,” you don’t mean student leader, but you were running the ministry?

Adams: Correct. It was interesting. My pastor helped me some. And I had been in it for a few years, so I kind of knew how things worked. But it’s also where I learned about the Cooperative Program. I got paid $50 a month to do that job, and I had $50 a month in program [funds]. And it was there that I learned, why in the world are others not on this campus? Why aren’t the Assemblies [of God], and the Methodists and independents – why aren’t they there? And I learned it’s because Southern Baptists have a heart to reach the world and the unreached parts of our nation. And so, even though Montana was not a Southern Baptist stronghold, of course, Southern Baptists had collegiate ministry. Not just at Montana Tech, where I was, but at University of Montana, at Montana State University, had collegiate groups. And so that was kind of the beginning for me of understanding what we could accomplish together.

Baptist Press: And that’s where you first felt called to ministry?

Adams: Correct. And then my pastor – I knew I needed more training, and he directed me to Southwestern [Baptist Theological] Seminary. So I came here [to Fort Worth] in ’83. Interestingly enough, a student here went back to my hometown of Whitefish, I think in the summer of ’84. My parents agreed to help him. It clicked for them, the purpose of church and what Southern Baptists were. And so, that church didn’t happen at that time, but they joined the nearest Southern Baptist church, which was in Kalispell, Mont. My dad became a deacon in time, and a Sunday school leader and all of this, and then in 1992 they felt a call to missions.

And so, my dad ran a sawmill. I’m the first preacher in the family. All of my family for a hundred years or thereabouts were sawmill and loggers. And my parents had a missionary in their home in 1992. And my dad said, ‘You know, in retirement we were thinking about doing missions.’ And the guy said, ‘Well, why wait? Go. Your kids are grown and gone. Do it now.’ So dad was 52 and left the sawmill – and my mom worked for a dentist – and moved to [Central Asia]. And that started about 12 years of amazing work.

It changed my ministry, because I then traveled to [visit them], saw lostness like I’d never seen it before. Was taken with the way the strategy coordinator developed the vision and the strategy to reach unreached people. We adopted [a Central Asian people group] … at that time about 50 known believers, no church. And our church adopted them, and that really became a great thing. And then we got really, really involved in all kinds of missions, mission partnerships and whatnot. And like I said, it changed my ministry, changed our church dramatically. … My dad directed the work [there] for several years. Just phenomenal what God did through him, because he’s not a preacher, he’s not a college grad. Just a sharp guy, extremely committed to the Lord, with a work ethic second to none. And for about 12-13 years, just had an amazing ministry.

Baptist Press: The missionary in their home, was he IMB?

Adams: It was an IMB missionary. The IMB, as a pastor, beginning at the age of about 32 or 33, I began doing a lot with the IMB. I’ve probably spoken at eight or nine IMB retreats, the big [affinity group meetings] and all that. Our church would provide volunteers. And now our convention at Northwest, this is something that most don’t know, but we were the first convention to provide the volunteers for one of the big [affinity group meetings]. We took 163 people from 32 churches. As a convention we did that. That was about three or four years ago. We’ve done it twice for their big annual meetings, brought the volunteers. I was one of the preachers. But that really changed our church, [and] it’s dramatically affected the Northwest Baptist Convention as well, that kind of direct involvement on the mission field.

And that was the first time the Northwest ever had a mission partnership, an international partnership, is the East Asia partnership. We’re in our sixth year of that partnership. It shows what a state convention or an association of churches can do. No one church in the Northwest can pull that off, no two or three. It took 32 to send a team like that. And then it took someone like us to help provide the organization and the coordination for all of that.

Baptist Press: Speaking of the Northwest, what are some of the unique challenges that Southern Baptists have on the West coast, or other areas outside the South, that maybe those of us in the South don’t really understand?

Adams: Distance. You know, the distance between towns and churches. Give you a little background. The first pastor in Oregon, which was Oregon and Washington at that time, was Vincent Snelling. He was a Kentuckian. So Southerners – a lot of Missouri people on the Oregon Trail came and settled the Northwest, but the first preacher was from Kentucky. The first Baptist churches were started in the 1840s and 1850s. There were like 26 churches by the mid-1850s. They petitioned to be part of the Southern Baptist Convention by the 1890s and were turned down – comity agreements. Finally, 15 churches were admitted into the convention in 1948, so we began with 15 churches in 1948. So like I told our pastors, we owe a lot to Southern Baptists in the Northwest.

Southern Baptists brought the Gospel. Southern Baptists brought a mission approach to cooperation that wasn’t found in others. And we went from 15 churches to now about 500 congregations, counting our church plants and everybody, almost all of which were funded in part by Southern Baptists. A lot of our pastors in the early days and still even today come from Texas and Oklahoma and Arkansas and whatnot. Increasingly we’re getting more indigenous in terms of developing pastors, but we owe a lot to what Southern Baptists have done in the Northwest.

And some of the challenges. So, for example, this is something in the South you may not know, but we don’t have fulltime directors of missions [DOMs]. Our associations tend to be quite weak. We have one fulltime DOM in the whole Northwest, and that’s the Puget Sound-Seattle area. When the defunding, when the GCR [Great Commission Resurgence, adopted by messengers to the 2010 SBC Annual Meeting] happened – which I’ve called the worst decision in decades of Southern Baptist life, absolutely – it led to the worst decade in our history in terms of decline. This last decade is easily, I mean we’ve never seen what we’ve seen now, in 175 years, in terms of decline. It’s not completely the GCR, but it’s largely that because it changed the way we work.

In the Northwest and in much of the South it meant the elimination of joint funding for all these associational directors of missions. OK, these are guys serving, our median church is 50 people on Sunday in worship. So you’re talking large areas of small churches geographically distant from each other, and in most places they can’t afford a full-time director of missions or even a part-time guy in some places. So what’s happened is, we have lost – it used to be that even in Montana where I grew up and in the Northwest, Idaho, all of the West, virtually every church, not just the pastor but the lay leaders, they knew someone that represented the denomination. That was usually the associational leader. It could be a state convention person. But they knew someone. So when they had pastoral transitions they had someone to call. If they had an issue they had someone to call.

We’ve lost that in large measure, especially when you consider a lot of our churches are small, they have bivocational pastors. It’s really hard for them to go to annual meetings and do some of the training stuff that we do. So personnel-wise, we are greatly diminished from where we were 10 years ago, and that affects the field more than people know in the South, where you have stronger associations and whatnot.

Baptist Press: How have you adapted as a state convention?

Adams: Well, one of the things we’ve done is we’ve gone regional in our approach, in our staffing. So our staff does not all office out of Vancouver, Wash., which is where our office is. We have people in the Seattle area, we have people in eastern Washington, for example, and southern Oregon. So we’re more geographically dispersed with our staffing.

But like currently, I have one guy living in and working in all of eastern Washington, which is really the eastern two-thirds of Washington and northeastern Oregon. So one guy in that whole great territory. Over a hundred churches, hundreds of miles apart. So that’s part of the issue that people don’t necessarily think about or understand in a [geographically] smaller state in the South with a couple thousand churches in the state, for example.

That’s why we wish that when Southern Baptists want to do work in the West or the North, anywhere outside the South, they would ask us – ‘What do you need? How can we help?’ – instead of dictate to us. That’s what this issue, a lot of this issue with North American Mission Board is about: them telling us what they’re going to do, not asking us what we need. And not necessarily working with us, [but] setting up their own system in our conventions, autonomous and separate from our conventions.

It’s not just the Northwest. It’s California, it’s everybody. And it’s not just California, it’s New England. It’s all throughout the non-South. We have a system being set up by NAMB that is not accountable to and doesn’t necessarily even work with our state conventions. And to us it is nonsensical to think that people can understand what’s required in our conventions when they don’t live there. It’s just like you said, you don’t know in Tennessee what Spokane, Wash., needs. Or Minneapolis, Minn., or Boston, Mass., or wherever it might be.

That’s a large part of why I think we have been in decline, is because that kind of close cooperation with a lot of boots on the ground – see one thing also people don’t know, we have far fewer denominational boots on the ground. We have fewer evangelism people, including directors of missions, and we even have fewer church planting missionaries on the ground. We don’t have that staffing that we had 10 years ago. We’ve gone an entirely different direction. And what I say is, I think when you see the greatness of the changes and the fact that we started going [down] as a result, people ought to put two and two together.

And if they think that I’m wrong, I just used the Southern Baptist annuals. That’s where my articles come from with the articles and the charts and the graphs. It’s just the numbers we have. And it’s not simply applying today’s numbers versus the decade prior. You can go to the ‘90s, you can go to the ‘80s, you can go far back from there – especially in baptisms – and see we are in a difficult place. And I say the difficult place is the result of a breakdown in trust, a breakdown in cooperation and partnership. Now, the issue of transparency, to me, helps expose the truth of the situation. That’s why I think transparency, you know, we’re always going to have issues, but if we’re open and honest about the situation, and reveal the truth of the matter through transparency, we can address the problems. We can maybe start to agree on what the problem really is and maybe solve the problem. That’s where I’m coming from.

Baptist Press: What makes you uniquely positioned to serve as SBC president?

Adams: That’s a great question. It’s an important question because I think anyone who would think they could be or should be elected as SBC president ought to tell people what they intend to do, what they see the issues to be and how they hope to approach those issues. One, I was a pastor, in pastoral type ministry, for 22 years. I was a senior pastor for 19 years. I still believe I have a pastor’s heart. I’m no longer serving as a pastor of a local church, but I believe I have a pastor’s heart. In denominational life, which I’ve been in now for 15, almost 16 years, I’ve been an interim pastor of nine churches – which, in those situations, helping churches work through issues in preparation to call a new pastor. So I’ve seen things work from the local church as an interim, and then from the state convention level. What I learned at Oklahoma [serving with Oklahoma Baptists] was very, very important, because I was the guy who was our liaison both to NAMB and the IMB.

I was the team leader of the church outreach team. It’s now an associate executive director is the title, because I mean I had like 75 staff. I had all the collegiate ministry, which is huge in Oklahoma. I had all the evangelism people; we had about six at that time. I had all the church planters. I had the WMU and the women’s ministry. I had disaster relief and the missions, all the international missions stuff. So, all the good stuff. All the fun stuff. But I learned how the denomination functions.

I also was a liaison in some measure to our associations, which I think I learned something that was really important. As a pastor, the local association I was always involved, the DOM was my friend and was often helpful in my ministry. At the state level, I learned the strategic importance of the association, because we did some big things. We did ‘ACROSS Oklahoma,’ which became ‘Across North America,’ was adopted by NAMB because it worked well in Oklahoma. We did ‘MY316’ evangelism, which I developed and we did in Oklahoma. We’ve done it in multiple conventions, probably six different conventions now.

But what I learned was, if we worked closely with the DOM and the local association, things went far, far better. We got much more engagement and involvement from the churches, because the DOM, they know him and they trust him. And if the DOM gave his seal of approval on what we were doing, and we worked with him we would get much more participation. We developed associational partnerships. And in Oklahoma during those years, the only associations that saw increases in baptisms, most of our church plants, Sunday school growth, where it happened – and it didn’t happen everywhere – it happened where we had these state and association partnerships. And so, I think strategically I learned a great deal about the importance of partnership between the state and the association.

The North American Mission Board, back in those days we were their customer. So NAMB, they are charged to help the churches. But NAMB cannot help 40-something thousand churches. They worked through the state convention. The state convention was the customer. The customer for the state convention was the local association and the local church. But we understood, we would not work with nearly as many churches if we weren’t working closely with the association. If we could make that happen, we would affect far more among the churches.

So I think one thing I bring is that understanding that I didn’t understand as a local pastor and I wouldn’t have understood without state convention experience. I learned how the denomination works, essentially, at the state level.

Baptist Press: What were the names of the churches you pastored at in Italy and Rhome?

Adams: It was Fairview Baptist Church in Rhome. And then Central Baptist in Italy. We started a church, by the way. That church in Fairview, there were 10 people when I got there. They were going to close the doors. They decided to give it one more shot, and God blessed and we saw people saved and baptized, and after two years we started another church in Newark, Texas, which is near Rhome.

So church planting, I was going to start it and plant it myself and do both churches at the same time, but I was doing my doctoral work as well. And my DOM said, ‘You’re crazy, you can’t do that.’ So we found a great pastor to be the founding pastor of that church plant.

He was one of the first guys I met as a friend [while in seminary]. He was my dad’s age. He was an older guy, but he was a student at Southwestern. And we went to church together at White Settlement [Texas]. Anyway, God put him on my heart and our associational leader, I didn’t know he knew him, but God put him on his heart as well. And so, both of us came to the same person, which at that time Southwestern had 5,000 students. It was a big pool. It was pretty much a God thing we saw, that both of us came to the same guy.

Baptist Press: With the tension between our diverse groups in the convention, especially with African Americans, how would you foster cooperation between diverse groups as president?

Adams: Well, in the Northwest, a third of our churches are ethnic churches, and most of those are non-English (-speaking). So we have about 150 churches that worship in a language other than English. A lot of Korean. Spanish, of course. Russian, Vietnamese. Those are our top language groups. So we work with all of those.

But I think one of the things we sometimes miss is sitting at the table together and really trying to understand the heart and the experience of the other person. So with some of what we’ve seen right now happening, we may not understand where the other person is coming from of a different culture. But even if we’re mostly right about the issue, or maybe fully right, if they’re not included and involved in developing the path forward, that doesn’t sit very well.

So I think the first step is getting together and talking to people together around the table. And I think that’s been our mistake at times, is there is an idea that the majority ethnic group in our country, Anglos, sort of can solve the problems of the other groups or determine the solutions to help in whatever fashion another group of people without sitting down with that other group, hearing from their heart, gaining some understanding of their experience and how they see the path forward looking. So I think that’s the beginning right there.

Baptist Press: If you were able to sit down with the average Southern Baptist in the pew, what would you want him to know about Randy Adams?

Adams: I love Jesus. I love my family. I feel a sense of responsibility to our convention because of what the convention has meant to me and to our Northwest Baptist Convention. I think Southern Baptists have a great story. It’s a great story with many bright spots and some dim and dark areas in our history, as well. It’s time to write a new chapter in the story and what I hope to be about is helping write that new chapter. And that new chapter would be one in which we’re open and honest with each other, transparency. It would be one in which we build back our missionary effectiveness.

Really it’s the mission. That’s what motivated me most to do this, is I feel a great burden for the fact that our mission effectiveness has declined. We’ve got almost 2,000 fewer international missionaries than we did a decade ago. We’ve got baptism rates in the level that we were in the Great Depression. So much has I think gotten off course in the last decade. But I think it’s not inevitable that we continue down a path of decline.

I think we can, if we do the right things, write a beautiful chapter in the next chapter of our history, and I want to be a part of that. I want to be a part of that because of what Jesus has done for me and what Southern Baptists mean to me and what they’ve done for me. I raised my kids in Southern Baptist churches. My kids are both involved in church plants. I’m involved in a church plant, a member of a church plant, an elder in a church plant.